Britain has confirmed it will hire the United States space shuttle to put into orbit its next generation of military satellites. The decision has upset government officials in France who have spent several months trying to persuade Britain's Ministry of Defense to choose Western Europe's Ariane rocket.
Britain is a member of the 11-nation European Space Agency, which developed Ariane, at a cost of (STR)500 million ($710 million). Although Britain contributed only some 3 percent of the development bill, it is a leading member of the agency and the first to break ranks by choosing the American shuttle as the launch vehicle for a national satellite.
France is upset because it has put up nearly three-quarters of the cash to develop Ariane. Most of the work in building it is in the hands of French industry.
The space shuttle and Ariane are the main contenders in the expanding business of taking satellites into orbit to perform tasks such as communications transmission.
The decision to favor the shuttle has led to a minor diplomatic row. France and Britain are already annoyed with each other over various issues concerning the European Community, among them the scale of the repayments Britain wants from the other members for the Community's costly agricultural program.
The government announced the shuttle decision in the House of Commons just before Christmas. The shuttle will take into orbit two military communications satellites, Skynet 4A and 4B, in 1985 and 1986. The bill for the two flights will be around (STR)60 million ($85 million).
The decision is a coup for the US, which said it could handle security requirements better than Arianespace, the French-dominated company that sells Ariane launches. The European rocket is launched from French Guiana where there could be security lapses.
The British Ministry of Defense argued for the shuttle, officials say, because it was more fully proven at the time the satellites were designed. Redesigning the satellites to fit Ariane would have put the flight program back by up to 15 months.
This was unacceptable for military operations. The British want the satellites in orbit as soon as possible to provide communications links between forces in Europe and North and South America, including the Falkland Islands.