Final Ariane 5 Launch Amid the European Rocket Crisis

The final launch of Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket took place on 5th July, marking the end of its 27-year career. However, this farewell flight comes at a challenging time for European space efforts. Europe is currently facing intense global competition and finds itself without a means to independently launch heavy missions into space. Delays to the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket and Russia’s withdrawal of its rockets have contributed to this crisis.

The Ariane 5 rocket’s 117th and final flight occurred at Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The launch had been postponed twice due to technical issues and bad weather. However, the last launch went smoothly and was witnessed by hundreds of spectators, including former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.

The final payload on the Ariane 5 rocket consisted of a French military communications satellite and a German communications satellite. The French Minister of the Armed Forces, Sebastien Lecornu, tweeted that this satellite marks a significant milestone for the armed forces, as it offers better performance and greater resistance to jamming.

Although the Ariane 5 rocket had a difficult start, with its maiden flight exploding shortly after liftoff in 1996, it eventually became a reliable rocket. Its only other failure occurred in 2002. Herve Gilibert, an engineer who worked on the Ariane 5 at the time, described the 2002 explosion as a traumatic experience that left a lasting impression. However, the rocket went on to have a long string of successful launches.

Ariane 5 gained a reputation for reliability, leading NASA to trust it with launching the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope in late 2021. The rocket’s second-to-last launch in April sent the European Space Agency’s Juice spacecraft on its mission to investigate whether Jupiter’s icy moons can support alien life.


While waiting for the Ariane 6 rocket, which was initially scheduled for its first launch in 2020, Europe had been relying on Russia’s Soyuz rockets for heavy-load missions. However, Russia suspended space cooperation with Europe in response to sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. As a result, the number of launches from Kourou decreased from 15 in 2021 to six last year.

Europe also faced setbacks with the failure of the first commercial flight of the next-generation Vega C light launcher in December. Last week, another issue was detected in the Vega C’s engine, further delaying its return.

The launcher market has become increasingly dominated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, with its rockets launching once a week. In the absence of other options, the European Space Agency (ESA) was forced to turn to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for the successful launch of its Euclid space telescope. The ESA will also use a SpaceX rocket for the EarthCARE observation mission.

The future remains uncertain for the launch of the next round of satellites for the European Union’s Galileo global navigation system. At the Paris Air Show, ESA chief Josef Aschbacher acknowledged that these are difficult times and that efforts are underway to prepare Ariane 6 and Vega C for launch. Ariane 6 was recently unveiled on a launch pad in Kourou, and it is expected to require fewer staff and less maintenance, resulting in job cuts at the Kourou spaceport.