Posted on October 6, 2022
At the IAC 2022, the International Astronautical Congress held from the 18th to the 22nd of September, Porte de Versailles in Paris, ESA presented its concept of SUSIE (Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration) which should allow starting from the ground of the Earth and returning there later. to carry out a manned mission in space. This is a revolution for ESA, but simply an attempt to keep up with the real innovations started several years ago by SpaceX with its Falcon 9 and its starship.
SUSIE would be the last stage carried by the Ariane 64, an improved version (with 4 boosters) of the Ariane 6 launcher that should make its first flight in 2023 (after more than two years of delay!). It would be 12 meters long, 5 meters in diameter, and a useful volume of 43 m.3 and could place an 11.5-ton payload in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It would replace the Ariane 6 fairing with the same diameter. It is in a way a small starship that has a useful volume of 1100 m3, a height of 50 meters (including 30 integrated “second stage”) and a diameter of 9 meters. SUSIE would be launched for the equivalent of a small Falcon, as the payload of a Falcon 9 in LEO is 22.8 tons compared to 20.6 for the Ariane 64. But SpaceX’s currently most powerful vector, the Falcon Heavy, it can put 63.8 tons on LEO and is very real compared to Ariane 6.
Before continuing reading this article, it is essential to note that SUSIE does not integrate the second stage of the launcher like Starship. However, it needs a second stage to achieve its goal, a second stage that will today accompany it no more than the injection towards a target in Earth orbit or deep space. Its onboard engines and tanks will be those of a third stage and will only allow attitude and braking controls in the atmosphere, complementing that of the body, to return to land (vertically). It would therefore be unable to return alone after having landed on the Moon or Mars.
Admittedly, the SUSIE/Starship comparison isn’t entirely accurate, as Starship’s launcher, SuperHeavy, is not operational yet. However, the Starship SN15 has flown and the SuperHeavy, which uses Falcon 9 principles, is at a fairly advanced stage of its development since its first static shots were successful (however, we await the ignition of its 29 or 31 engines together, which is not easy) and that we are already talking (no doubt with a little optimism) of a launch into orbit in October of this year. Furthermore, Falcon 9 is working perfectly, as 180 flights have been carried out since 2012 (31 in 2021 and 43 in 2022) and only two failed, which caused Ariane 5’s market share to collapse since the flight without recovery and reuse of these European launchers has become entirely uncompetitive. There have been 113 Ariane 5 flights since 1996 (including 5 failures), including just three in 2021 and two in 2022!
In fact, SUSIE would be an improvement over SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that only returns to the ground under a parachute and that does not have such a large useful (pressurized) volume (9.3 m3 for Crew Dragon). But Crew Dragon exists and only SuperHeavy is missing for Starship’s competition to crush SUSIE, especially, of course, for manned deep space flights which, moreover, SUSIE does not aim at because its objective is to carry out missions in near space, or ie LEO and probably geostationary orbit. SUSIE is rather a successor to Hermès, the European space shuttle that almost flew in the late 1980s. For later, we can consider adding a complement, like ESM (European Service Module) that Europe designed and produced for the capsule. Orion from NASA’s Artemis program and which would also allow him to go to the Moon, without forgetting of course that a second stage of propulsion that accompanied him to the end in this type of mission (or a “Space Train” that would stay in orbit and that would probably be refueled with thrusters in parking orbit as mentioned during the presentation at the IAC).
At the same time, the Europeans are working with Prometheus on a reusable engine that we expect for 2025 (should be almost 10 times cheaper than current engines… which says a lot about the competitiveness of these current engines!) the first and second stages, and a reusable launcher, the IXV (Themis program), for a still vague horizon. IXV is the acronym for “Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle” and will be just a demonstrator.
We cannot blame the ESA for wanting to get out of the rut into which it has voluntarily gradually sunk, and we can only congratulate its new director-general, the Austrian Joseph Aschbacher, for having led his institution to a drastic evolution or, as we say, into “a rupture project”: the most useful volume and, above all, the recovery followed by the reuse of the elements. We must also pay tribute to Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transport at ESA and former head of the Swiss Space Office, who has championed this project since the Toulouse space summit in February 2022, a project that had been under study for about a year. by ArianeGroup. But it must also be said that ESA is obliged to do so because Arianespace’s space vehicles are not absolutely competitive and only benefit from orders forced by political considerations, a situation aggravated by the fact that the low number of launches does not allow any economy of scale. .
We have the impression that the ESA is desperately looking for a recovery from its situation, but we have no guarantee that it will succeed. It’s not just a question of money (2022 budget of 7.15 billion euros against NASA’s 24.4 billion for the same year). It’s also a question of engineering capability. We cannot repair in a year or even a decade the consequences of the stubbornness of considering the reusable for 15 years as the ineptitude of an uneducated cowboy (or, more clearly designated, Elon Musk). SpaceX won’t wait for us to catch up. Not to mention China, Russia and soon India, countries that, to varying degrees, are not as advanced as SpaceX, but which are nevertheless extremely determined to be very real competitors of the leaders, as they are not subject to the same cost restrictions as “Western”.
That said, member states have yet to accept the SUSIE project (which is likely to amount to maybe four billion euros). We will see what happens at the ESA inter-ministerial conference in November and then at the next space summit in February 2023 in Toulouse. The simplicity and flexibility of the decision system is not what characterizes the ESA, hence most of its problems.
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