SUSIE the new concept of the ESA, runs after SpaceX

Posted on October 6, 2022


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

SUSIE would be the last 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 m3 and could place an 11.5 tonne payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It would take the place of Ariane 6 fairing with 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 stage”) and a diameter of 9 meters. SUSIE would be launched by the equivalent of a small Falcon since the payload of a Falcon 9 in LEO is 22.8 tons 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 the Ariane 6.

Before continuing reading this article, it is essential to note that SUSIE does not integrate the second stage of the launcher as does the Starship. However, it needs a second stage to achieve its objective, a second stage which today will accompany it no further than injection towards 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 it attitude controls and braking in the atmosphere, complementing that of the carrying body, to return to land on Earth (vertically). It would therefore be unable to return alone after having landed on the Moon or on Mars.

Admittedly, the SUSIE/Starship comparison is not entirely accurate since the Starship launcher, the 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 its development since its first static firings have succeeded (we are however awaiting the ignition of its 29 or 31 engines together, which is not easy) and that we are already talking (no doubt with a little optimism) of a launch into orbit in October of this year. Furthermore, the Falcon 9 is working perfectly since 180 flights have been carried out since 2012 (31 in 2021 and 43 in 2022) and only two have failed, which has caused Ariane 5’s market share to collapse since the flight without recovery and reuse of these European launchers has become 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 compared to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule which only returns to the ground under a parachute and which does not have such a large useful (pressurized) volume (9.3 m3 for the Crew Dragon). But the Crew Dragon exists and only the SuperHeavy is missing for the competition of the Starship to crush SUSIE, especially of course for manned flights in deep space which moreover SUSIE does not aim for because its purpose is to carry out missions in near space, i.e. LEO and probably geostationary orbit. SUSIE is rather a successor of Hermès, the European shuttle which almost flew at the end of the 1980s. For later, we can consider adding a complement, type ESM (European Service Module) that Europe designed and produced for the Orion capsule of NASA’s Artemis program and which would also allow it to go to the Moon, without forgetting of course a second propulsion stage accompanying it to the end in this type of mission (or a ” Space Train” which would remain in orbit and which would be likely to be resupplied with propellants in parking orbit as mentioned during the presentation at the IAC).

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

We cannot blame the 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 having steered his institution towards an evolution drastic or, as we say, in “a project of rupture”: more useful volume and above all the recovery followed by the reuse 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 defending this project since the Toulouse space summit in February 2022, a project which had been under study for about a year. by ArianeGroup. But it must also be said that the ESA is forced to do so because the space vehicles of Arianespace 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 economy of scale.

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

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

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