Europe's space agency assessing its own problems

Arianespace is eating humble pie. On May 31, an Ariane rocket carrying a $90 million Intelsat telecommunications satellite misfired -- the fourth failure in 18 launchings. This latest space catastrophe has left the West totally launcher-less for the time being and the European space industry in the doldrums. Since its previous mishap in September, the European consortium had been riding high. Its two successful launchings this year appeared even more triumphant compared with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's series of accidents. The Europeans fell just short of gloating publicly, and they magnanimously offered to squeeze in eight extra blastoffs over the next two years to accommodate disappointed NASA customers.

Over the past month they have signed contracts with British and Japanese companies, an unexpected windfall. But after the latest explosion, the European record is badly marred and the launching program skewed.

Two of the nine satellites scheduled for launching this year have already been canceled, and it will be several months, at best, before Ariane will take off again.

Worst of all, the failure occurred for the third time in the engine that ignites the third firing stage, raising serious doubt about the reliability of the liquid oxygen-hydrogen motor. Developing a new design could take years.

With a $l.4 billion backlog of orders (representing more than 30 satellites) for the next two years, and a precious edge over its American competitors at stake, Arianespace can ill afford such a setback. By then, the Americans would be back on track and the Japanese and Chinese, who are now busy developing their own space programs, could overtake the European advance.

Last September's misfiring resulted in only a two-month delay in the launch schedule. After the two successful Ariane launchings this year it appeared the motor problems had been resolved. Now officials are hoping launchings can be resumed by the end of the year, but they are not making firm predictions. ``Until the problem is solved,'' says Arianespace director Fr'ed'eric D'Allest, ``there will be no more launchings.''

Detractors are accusing Arianespace, like NASA, of sacrificing scientific method to market prerequisites. The European agency, eager to meet the new demands after the American shuttle was grounded, scheduled launchings at a lightning pace.

There were to be five more launchings later this year. But the company responsible for making the launching motors, the Soci'et'e Europ'eenne de Propulsion, is reported to be having difficulty in keeping up with the rhythym in its production. Former company chairman Roger Lesgards, who was fired the week before the accident, claims that he emphasized quality control rather than speed of production.

Arianespace officials are putting the best possible face on the situation. If the cause of the breakdown proves to be minor, the Europeans may even be able to make up for lost time by using the second Ariane launching pad that became operable in March.

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