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SUSIE the new concept for ESA, runs after SpaceX

Published on October 6, 2022


At the IAC 2022, the International Astronautical Congress held from September 18 to 22, Porte de Versailles in Paris, ESA presented its concept for SUSIE (Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration), which should enable launch from Earth’s soil and return there after completing a manned mission in space. This is a revolution for ESA, but just an attempt to catch up with the real innovations initiated several years ago by SpaceX with their Falcon 9 and its Starship.

SUSIE would be the final stage carried by the Ariane 64, an improved version (with 4 boosters) of the Ariane 6 launcher, which should make its first flight in 2023 (after more than two years of delay!). It would be 12 meters long, 5 meters in diameter, a useful volume of 43 meters3 and could place a payload of 11.5 tons in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It would replace the Ariane 6 fairing of the same diameter. It is, in a way, a small starship, which has a useful volume of 1100 m3, a height of 50 meters (including 30 integrated “second stages”) and a diameter of 9 meters. SUSIE would be launched by the equivalent of a small Falcon, as the payload of a Falcon 9 in LEO is 22.8 tonnes compared to 20.6 for the Ariane 64. But SpaceX’s currently most powerful vector, the Falcon Heavy, can put 63.8 tons in LEO and it is very real compared to Ariane 6.

Before you continue reading this article, it is important to note that SUSIE does not integrate the second stage of the launcher as Starship does. However, it needs a second step to reach its goal, a second step that today will accompany it no further than injection against a target in Earth orbit or in deep space. Its onboard engines and tanks will be those of a third stage and will only allow its attitude control and braking in the atmosphere, which complements that of the carrier body, to return to landing on Earth (vertically). It would therefore not be able to return on its own after landing on the Moon or Mars.

Admittedly, the comparison between SUSIE and Starship is not entirely accurate, as the Starship launcher, SuperHeavy, is not yet operational. However, the Starship SN15 has flown and the SuperHeavy, which uses the principles of the Falcon 9, is at a fairly advanced stage of development, as its first static launch has been successful (however, we await the ignition of its 29 or 31 engines together, which is not easy) , and that we are already (no doubt with a bit of optimism) talking about a launch into orbit in October this year. Furthermore, the Falcon 9 is performing perfectly, since 180 flights have been completed since 2012 (31 in 2021 and 43 in 2022) and only two have failed, causing Ariane 5’s market share to collapse since the flight without recovery and reuse of these European launchers has been totally uncompetitive. There have been 113 Ariane 5 flights since 1996 (including 5 failures), including only three in 2021 and two in 2022!

In fact, SUSIE would be an improvement over SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which only returns to earth under a parachute and does not have as much useful (pressurized) volume (9.3 m3 for the Crew Dragon). But Crew Dragon exists, and only SuperHeavy is missing for Starship’s competition to crush SUSIE, especially of course for manned flights in deep space, which SUSIE is also not aimed at, because its purpose is to perform missions in near space, ie. LEO and probably geostationary orbit. Rather, SUSIE is a successor to Hermès, the European shuttle that almost flew in the late 1980s. For later, we can consider adding a supplement, type ESM (European Service Module), which Europe has designed and produced for the Orion capsule of NASA’s Artemis program, and which would also enable it to go to the Moon, without forgetting, of course, another propulsion stage accompanying it to the end in this type of mission (or a “space train” which would remain in orbit and which would probably be provided with propellants in parking orbits as mentioned during the presentation at IAC).

At the same time, the Europeans are working with Prometheus on a reusable engine, hopefully by 2025 (it should be almost 10 times cheaper than current engines…which says a lot about the competitiveness of these current engines!) that could power the propulsion. first and second stages, and a reusable launcher, IXV (Themis program), for a still vague horizon. The IXV stands for “Intermediate Experimental Vehicle” and it will be a demonstrator only.

We cannot blame ESA for wanting to get out of the rut into which it has gradually voluntarily sunk, and we can only congratulate its new Director General, the Austrian Joseph Aschbacher, for steering his institution towards a drastic development or, as we say , in “a fracture project”: more useful volume and, above all, recovery followed by recycling of the elements. We must also pay tribute to Daniel Neuenschwander, Director of Space Transport at ESA and former head of the Swiss Space Office, who has been championing this project since the Toulouse Space Summit in February 2022, a project that had been under investigation for about a year by the ArianeGroup. But it must also be said that ESA is forced to do so because Arianespace’s spacecraft are absolutely not competitive and only benefit from orders forced by political considerations, the situation being aggravated by the fact that the low number of launches does not allow any economies of scale.

We have the impression that ESA is desperately running for a recovery of its situation, but we have no assurance that it will succeed. It is not only a question of money (2022 budget of 7.15 billion euros against 24.4 for NASAs in the same year). It is also a matter of engineering capability. We cannot repair in a year, or even in a decade, the consequences of the stubbornness to consider the recyclable for 15 years as an uneducated cowboy’s (or, more clearly termed, Elon Musk) incompetence. SpaceX won’t wait for us to catch up. This is without mentioning China, Russia, and soon India, countries that are, to varying degrees, not as advanced as SpaceX, but which are nevertheless extremely determined to be very real competitors to the leaders, as they are not at all subject to the same cost constraints as “Westerners”.

That said, member states still have to accept the SUSIE project (which probably amounts to maybe four billion euros). We will see what will happen at the ESA inter-ministerial conference in November and then at the next space summit in February 2023, in Toulouse. The simplicity and flexibility of the decision-making system is not what characterizes ESA, therefore a large part of its problems.

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