A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft on board rolls out at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, February 28 2019. Picture: NASA via REUTERS/JOEL KOWSKY
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft on board rolls out at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, February 28 2019. Picture: NASA via REUTERS/JOEL KOWSKY

Lampoldshausen — On Tuesday, European space officials rejected complaints by US rocket builder SpaceX that subsidies are hampering its access to the European market, arguing the much larger US market is virtually closed to Europe’s Ariane satellite launch vehicle.

Daniel Neuenschwander, head of space transportation for the European Space Agency (ESA), said efforts are underway to cut costs and stay competitive in a market increasingly dominated by US and Chinese players, but the playing field is not level.

“It’s a tough competition but we should make sure that it is done in a way that is fair,” Neuenschwander told Reuters at the opening of the new German Aerospace Centre rocket test site in Lampoldshausen, near Stuttgart. “I think that you better clean your own house before you start to complain about someone else’s.”

SpaceX told the US trade representative in a letter dated December 10 and first reported last week, that European subsidies to Arianespace, Europe’s primary space launch provider, created an “imbalanced competitive advantage that threatens fair trade”.

ArianeGroup, a joint venture of Airbus and Safran and majority owner of Arianespace, is developing the Ariane 6 rocket at a cost of nearly €4bn.

SpaceX urged the US government to seek remedies in upcoming US-EU free trade agreement talks — an appeal that US officials say they are taking very seriously, given the growing importance of the commercial space market.

The SpaceX letter, first reported by France’s Les Échos newspaper last week, flagged another potential conflict between Washington and Brussels, already at odds in the trade arena over car and steel exports.

The EU had no immediate comment but the German economy ministry said the EU viewed aid to ESA as fully allowed under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

Neuenschwander said European officials are focused on completing the Ariane 6 rocket, due to have its maiden flight in 2020 at 40% less cost than the current Ariane 5.

“Buy America” laws prevent Arianespace from competing for US government launches, cutting off a huge market at a time when commercial launches are down sharply. European officials also see hidden aid in SpaceX getting twice as much for US government launches than it seeks in European tenders.

European officials are pushing Berlin to favour Ariane 6 in a competition with SpaceX to launch a German spy satellite called Georg, said conservative German law maker Alexander Throm.

Thomas Jarzombek, the German government’s aerospace and space policy co-ordinator, told Throm in a letter in January “it really would not make sense to use public funds to develop a new rocket and then not use it for public purposes”. 

Reuters