Launching Europe

Western Europe's successful test flight of the Ariane rocket is an achievement to applaud and a symbol of a new era.The United States and the Soviet Union are no longer the only significant space powers.

The days of orbital pioneering are over. The competition for commercial and industrial advantage in space is underway. Japan and India are building small but promising capabilities of their own. Meanwhile, the 12- nation European Space Agency now seems close to having an operational booster that can seriously compete with the US shuttle for the business of launching the 200 to 250 commercial satellites that various nations are likely to orbit during the 1980s.

The Ariane rocket tested June 19 is a prototype of a series that is expected to produce modified, more powerful launch vehicles over the next few years. Difficulties that caused failure in its second test flight nearly 13 months ago seem to have been overcome. Success of a fourth test flight, sometime this fall , would put the vehicle on operational status, ready to begin its commercial career.If all continues to go well with Ariane, it would seem to have an excellent opportunity to capture the 25 percent of the commercial launch business which its backers anticipate.

Because this might have been business that would have gone to the Us space shuttle, Ariane is often billed as a threat to the shuttle. This is misleading. The two vehicles have quite different capabilities. Moreover, there is likely to be more than enough space business to keep both launch systems fully occupied.

The deeper import of Ariane lies in the fact that it offers the rest of the world an alternative to US or Soviet launch facilities. It also points the way toward more powerful launch capabilities that eventually could service manned spacecraft and space stations. Indeed, French space planners already are seriously considering the possibility of an orbiting robot space factory to be served by automated spacecraft launched from Kourou in French Guiana, the Ariane space base.

In the early days of the space age, the US and USSR often declared their achievements as being made "on behalf of all humankind." Now the rest of humanity is getting ready to grab a piece of the action.

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