PARIS — The cheering in the stands had already begun when the Ariane 5 rocket veered off course and was intentionally exploded above the jungles of French Guiana some 40 seconds after its maiden launch.
Explosions, even on test launches, make a difference in the fiercely competitive world of satellite launchers. The defective O-ring that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 opened the door to the European consortium Arianespace to become the world's No. 1 commercial satellite launcher.
Arianespace now claims about half of a $3 billion world space-launch market, but faces tough competition from American defense giants Lockheed-Martin and McDonnell Douglas, as well as Russian and Chinese rivals.
The Ariane 5 was to have been the "crowning achievement" of the European space effort - the rocket that could not fail, or rather, must not fail, for Europe to maintain its lead.
The result of an $8 billion development effort by 12 European nations, the Ariane 5 is designed to carry two 3-ton communications satellites into high orbit. Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas are at least two years away from comparable launchers, the Atlas 2AS and the Delta 3, but they promise launch costs about 20 percent below those of the Ariane 5.
Ariane 5 was counting on its head start and its reliability - both of which were compromised by this week's aborted launch - for its competitive edge.
It isn't unusual for satellite launchers to blow up on their first few tries. Lockheed's Atlas rocket failed on seven of its first 10 launches. McDonnell's Delta rocket failed on its first launch, as did Lockheed's Titan 3. More recently, the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. lost the first two of its new Pegasus XL rockets, before succeeding on the third test flight in March.
"You can't judge a rocket that is going to fly 100 flights over 20 years on the basis of one experimental flight," says Stephane Chenard, space analyst with EuroConsult, a Paris consulting firm.
"There isn't one launcher in the world that didn't have a failure in its first 10 flights," he adds. In the 1960s, tests of now-popular American rockets "were colossal failures."
But the Ariane 5 was to have been better than the average rocket, tested and retested with techniques far in advance of the methods available for earlier model rockets.
For months prior to the June 4 launch, Arianespace spokesmen touted the reliability of the new launcher. With a radical new design - fewer engines, twin boosters, and a main stage that could be fired and tested on the ground - the Ariane 5 was designed to deliver a reliability factor of 98.5 percent, or 1 failure for every 70 launches. That compares with about 1 in 20 for Ariane 4, one of today's most reliable launchers.
Every part was tested dozens of times, project engineers said. The main propulsion engine was test-fired for 90,000 seconds, even though it burns only 570 seconds during a mission.
"This rocket didn't have the right to fail. It was unthinkable given its philosophy, its conception and its realization." opined the French daily "Le Figaro" the morning after the explosion.
The next test flight had been planned for September, but may now be delayed for at least six months, according to Franois Fillon, the French space and telecommunications minister. An investigation is scheduled to report on the causes of the aborted launch by July 15.
France was the lead nation pushing for a European space effort to compete with the Americans, and is committed to covering 45.2 percent of the costs of the Arianespace consortium. French officials reaffirmed their commitment to a European space effort after this week's flight, but that resolve will be tested when the full costs of correcting problems in the Ariane 5 are known.
Last month, the French government abandoned joint development with European partners of a military transport aircraft, citing budget constraints.