Paris — Sept. 14: an Ariane rocket, the pride of the European space program, takes off from Kourou, French Guyana, on its first commercial flight. Fourteen minutes later, it plunges into the ocean.
Nov. 15: NASA's spaceship Columbia completes its first commercial flight in flawless form. After putting two satellites into orbit, it gracefully glides down to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
What next for Ariane? Has the shuttle's success ended the European dream of snatching away from the United States one-third of the global satellite market between now and the 1990s?
No, European and American officials say.
A failure is to be expected when dealing with such high technology as Ariane, they explain. In any case, they add, NASA is not set to accommodate the entire satellite market, so many customers have had no choice but to sign up with the Europeans.
''The shuttle is terribly impressive, much more advanced technologically speaking than Ariane,'' admits Jean-Paul Paille of the European Space Agency (ESA). ''But we still think we have a good launcher that can put communications satellites into high level (geostationary) orbit at competitive prices.''
With more demand than supply over the next three years, Arianespace, responsible for marketing the European rocket, reports that no customers have backed away since the failed September launch.
''You can't just change from us to NASA like you can from Air France to Pan Am,'' explains Georges Berson of Arianespace. ''We're already almost fully booked through 1985, and not one of our customers (which include three American companies) has expressed hesitations.''
After that date, though, European officials and American observers warn that Ariane may lose some business if it doesn't soon prove its spaceworthiness. Robert Shutak, the Grumman Aerospace official responsible for marketing Ariane in the US, has reportedly given ESA directors here this message in emphatic terms.
''The shuttle's success makes it look a lot more appealing after 1985 when there won't be such a buyer's market,'' explained a US observer of space programs here.
But this American refused to count out Ariane, saying that NASA, too, experienced equipment failures in its early going. Moreover, he said Ariane was a well-run and technologically advanced program.
As it stands now, NASA and Arianespace officials say the shuttle only has a slight price advantage over Ariane for this critical period after 1985. The estimated cost of launching a single satellite on Ariane runs from about $27 million to $30 million; a similar satellite on the shuttle from $26 million to $ 28 million.
But price is not the only criterion in picking a launcher: financing, precision, and timing are just as crucial, explains Paul Heinerscheid of RTL, Luxembourg Radio-Television, who is presently weighing the merits of the shuttle and Ariane for a 1986 satellite launch.
At first, Mr. Heinerscheid said Ariane seemed to be offering better financing. But NASA has recently coordinated offers from private banks, which combined with its slight price advantage, put it slightly ahead once again.
Then there is the precision argument. Ariane claims it can put a satellite more precisely into orbit while using less fuel (thus extending the satellite's space life) than the low-flying shuttle. But Mr. Heinerscheid said recent shuttle improvements and the excellent results from the latest shuttle mission may offset these advantages.
Timing is also important. Will NASA or Arianespace launch your satellite when you want? A difference of a couple of months can mean millions in revenues, Mr. Heinerscheid said.
Finally, politics may play a role. European companies may feel loyalty to the European space program or may be pressured by their governments into professing this loyalty; and vice-versa, though probably less overtly, for American companies.
''No one has pressured me yet,'' Mr. Heinerscheid said. Considering the economic and technical details, he rates Ariane and the shuttle about even. He has one more year before he has to make his choice, and his decision will depend on how the shuttle and Ariane will perform during that period.
No one is counting the Europeans out yet. ''They have set themselves an ambitious, but not impossible target,'' the American observer commented.''
''We are confident that the Europeans can solve their technical difficulties, '' he added.
The European space agency is working overtime to prove him correct, planning to launch an extra rocket next year, making up for the postponed one this year.
Still, Ariane cannot afford another major mishap. The September disaster has forced the projected sixth European space shot to be set back from November to April. Another delay would push back a program to develop advanced models of Ariane which will be able to carry heavier satellites into space during the crucial last five years of this decade when Arianespace estimates 210 satellites will be launched.
These new rockets would offset one of the shuttle's key advantages, its ability to carry a much heavier payload than the present Ariane. Arianespace hopes that the advanced models can get it between 23 and 31 percent of the 1985- 1990 market, at about $30 million a shot.
The ESA is working overtime not to nosedive before it reaches its ambitious goal. To launch the extra rocket next year, the French-dominated agency is forgoing a planned August vacation shutdown of the French Guyana launch site.
To a people who love vacations - everything shuts down in August as everyone heads to the beach - there are few greater signs of sacrifice and seriousness.