The success of new rockets in India and the U.S. is fortifying a French argument for developing a more affordable three-stage rocket, rather than a two-stage solid-fueled one.

The urgency of beginning work on the next-generation rocket hit home Jan. 5 with the flawless first flight of India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which lofted a small national communications satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on the country's eastern coast.

In development for the past two decades, the GSLV is equipped with an indigenous cryogenic upper-stage engine capable of sending small and medium-sized spacecraft to GTO. Its success likely signals the loss of a reliable customer for European launch services provider Arianespace, which has flown many of India's communications spacecraft as secondary payloads on the Ariane 5 ECA.

The Indian rocket's debut was sandwiched between the first two successful launches of a new version of the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9, proving the two-stage, liquid-fueled launcher has the power to lift small and mid-sized satellites to GTO. The Dec. 3 and Jan. 6 missions hailed SpaceX's entry into the commercial launch market, dominated by European and Russian rockets, that generates $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

“SpaceX is something we'll have to contend with,” Arianespace Chairman and CEO Stephane Israel said during an annual media breakfast here Jan. 7, recalling that his company has adapted to new entrants in the past, notably the arrival of Russian Proton launchers to the commercial market in the 1990s.

Israel congratulated SpaceX but questioned whether the U.S. startup can maintain the advertised low price of $56.5 million for a commercial Falcon 9 launch when the charge for U.S. government launches runs closer to $130 million.

In the meantime, Israel says Arianespace expects to report a modest loss for 2013 due to fewer launches than planned. The roughly 25% drop in revenue is offset by reduced expenditures resulting from less launch activity, he says, as well as €100 million ($136 million) in already negotiated 2013 support payments from the European Space Agency (ESA).

Israel touts the company's orderbook, which brought in €1.4 billion last year, increasing the total backlog to €4.3 billion. Of the 18 large satellites openly competed in 2013, Arianespace won contracts for 11, he says. Although the company did not bid on satellite launches in the mid-sized range, it won all four contracts for satellites weighing less than 4,000 kg (8,800 lb.), a class of spacecraft that is able to fit below larger satellites riding under the Ariane 5 ECA fairing.

Arianespace ordered enough Ariane 5 hardware from prime contractor Airbus Defense & Space in December for 18 Ariane 5 launches, bringing to 38 the total number of rockets in development. The company also ordered 10 Vega light launchers from contractor ELV in November and is negotiating for a batch of 5-10 Soyuz launchers with Russian space agency Roscosmos for missions beyond 2016.

This year, Arianespace expects to conduct up to 14 launches, including two Vega, four Soyuz and six Ariane 5 missions. Even if the company does not meet this target, it will no doubt exceed the 2012 record of 10 launches in a single year, Israel says.

The company also is using a portion of French public bond money to co-develop a more spacious Ariane 5 rocket fairing that can accommodate launches of new electric-propulsion satellites by the second half of 2015. The trend in all-electric spacecraft—designed to weigh up to 45% less than chemically propelled satellites—bodes well for Arianespace, Israel says. It expects to begin operating a midlife upgrade of the Ariane 5 ECA, known as Ariane 5 ME, in mid-2018.

“With more payload on the electric-propulsion satellite, it means there will be a class of medium-sized spacecraft that will develop,” he says, adding that the Ariane 5 ME's 11,000-kg lift capacity will allow Arianespace to target more satellites in the 4,000-5,000-kg range.

But ESA governments have yet to decide how to continue funding the Ariane 5 ME while at the same time beginning development of the next-generation Ariane 6, which Arianespace expects to enter service in 2021. Investments in the reignitable Vinci engine that will power the Ariane 5 ME's upper stage have reached €1.4 billion over the past 10 years. To finalize its development for entry into service by mid-2018, ESA governments, chiefly France and Germany, must approve an additional €1 billion at a ministerial-level meeting next December.

The German share of this amount is expected to be about €350 million, but financing depends on France's agreement on outstanding ESA program and policy issues, including the development cost and industrial makeup of the Ariane 6, continued participation in the International Space Station (ISS) and ESA's relationship with the European Union, says Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of French space agency CNES and former chairman/CEO of Arianespace. “On Ariane, there is still a lot of work to be done with Germany,” he says.