Copy / Paste
In the West it is often muttered that the Chinese excel at copying/pasting our technology. In actuality, this line of reasoning is just an example of the pot blaming the kettle and people being ignorant about history.
Now we, Europeans, have at least one blatant case where we are courageously following their shining example. This time around we can only point fingers at ourselves and, maybe, blush a little.
- The target: SpaceX / Jeff Bezos
- The copier: Arianespace
- The prize: Reusable rocket technology and 10x cheaper access to Space.
Just some years ago, when the rockets of SpaceX were still toppling over, many European engineers -of the conservative kind- thought reusability was a childish idea that only laymen who don’t know the minutia of rocket hardware nor real-life performance parameters come up with. The voices that dismissed reusability for convoluted technological reasons (and a lack of engineering imagination) have now finally been silenced by reality and their employers (the customers, including institutional government customers, that walked away). Europe must indeed not stay behind.
In fact, if we can go by a short CGI concept presentation, the new Themis rocket design by Arianespace, a necessary technology demonstrator, looks very similar indeed to the SpaceX Falcon 9 Hopper.
For a video by Arianespace see : https://www.ariane.group/en/photo-video/arianegroup-and-cnes-launch-arianeworks-acceleration-platform/
It is a copy. Not a 100% copy (methane instead of kerosene engines), but both form and mode of operation are very… very similar.
So, since we can’t blame the Chinese, who are we going to shame now?
Well, spare yourself the effort. Not even Arianespace is hiding the inspiration for their design. And when it comes to anything being a success, we all claim to either have invented it, or being related to the inventor. Suddenly he is a distant relative. (He’s my half-brother, … , I grew up with him in class and we played sports together, …, I whispered the idea into his ear at a bar…, He has the genes of our people, …, and if nothing else: “look at what we -mankind- can do”).
Depending on the answer to the question in which country you grew up, and the degree of detail, rocketry (and even manned rocket-flight) was invented by, the Chinese, the Russians, the NAZI’s (Werner Von Braun), the French, the Italians, the Americans (Goddard), and even the Romanians (Conrad Haas), Persians and ancient Babylonians (part ill-known, part alternative history).
Rocketry, aviation, and industry in general, when played well, is a game of copying. After all, the only way to have the edge over your state enemies or commercial competitors is by learning from their mistakes and successes. If it weren’t for legal barriers like Intellectual Property Rights or trade secrecy, it is in our nature to copy our peers. And if your competitor has found a way to deliver a better product than yours which is ten times cheaper, you better do everything you can … to ’emulate’.
It is often not a good idea to reinvent the wheel completely (fully aware that the wheel has had to be reinvented thousands of times as better technologies and new applications came along) but to combine various trending and old ideas in order to immediately improve upon the competitor’s design.
Not surprisingly, since methane rocket engines have become all the fab for various reasons, this European design uses them from its first iteration.
So how should we feel about our shameless act of copying?
We should feel good about it. In fact, as Europeans, we should be proud that Arianespace and Europe is not missing the train of reusability. But we can do more.
In an age of transition where NASA learned to master the forces of competition instead of state direction (Just compare the Constellation/SLS-programme to BFR / New Glenn and ISS-resupply with Cygnus /Dragon / Dreamchaser / CST-100), we should also hope that Europe forgoes its expensive, customer insulting, monopolistic non-compete tradition (aka ‘juste retour’) to one of a robust differentiated landscape of commercial European launch providers.
Looking at the private investment activity, European experiments with a NASA COTS-inspired programme and the launch landscape of space 2.0 in more in-depth, we are indeed seeing a list of positive signs.
We also notice the resurgence of the old European disease. In other words, you will hear from many of these institutions they like and understand the benefits of commercial competition on an open market and the vibrant creative chaos that is necessary for it, as long as there is only one product, one manufacturer, one price, many teams…under one roof, one decision center, national legislation that guides you to share work with this one center, one funding mechanism, one point of entry into this market, many programmes but one outcome, one compromise, no ‘wasting of resources’, one brilliant company -that shall remain unnamed- will defiantly resist the ‘stiff international commercial competition’ (and therefore we must all finance their wisdom), one idea about how the market ‘must’ evolve (we do like our expert oracles), what innovation will and will not look like and when it will happen (usually two decades into the future), and we -our national government, not yours really- decides who builds what in which country (or otherwise we’ll block … that other thingy you’d like to do), because sensible coordination -without too much fuss- is the European idea of cost-reducing competition, agreed? Oh, and don’t create open market competition legislation that actually allows transparent entry-barrier-free open market competition, especially in our industry, that would be too radical now, would it not? But… this no longer is correct.
Luckily, and contrasting the paragraph above, European commercial entities and start-ups now do have the tools to avoid falling into the old ways. You don’t have to deal with them old dragons. The funding mechanisms, private financial market interest, private investments, and legal possibilities already exist. And we do see small European space start-ups succeeding outside of the spider’s web. So if you want to compete with your good idea, you can. But that is a story for another day.
The main idea that you, if you are a European entrepreneurial spirit, should take away from this article, is that you too should copy the reusability concepts of SpaceX and Blue Origin…. or even try to do something more daring. We don’t know your brilliant idea, you haven’t told us yet. Maybe you are the great next innovator. Go for it. The legal and financial tools exist.
Here at ONESTAGETOSPACE, we are investing time in effort in the rocket technologies that improve upon the basic scheme of reusability as demonstrated by SpaceX and in a short while by Blue Origin and later on Arianespace. Our mission is not to ’emulate’ but to design a configuration that can beat even the evolved SpaceX designs in the metrics of reusability, cost per mission and versatility. We like to think we are designing the Douglas DC-3 of rocketry.