The Ariane rocket came out of all the French cajoling, a launcher whose performance has matched French promises. As a result, Western Europe, especially France, now plays a significant role in space. Last year, Ariane took 40% of the world's business in launching communications satellites, and Ariane now has firm orders for 30 launchings and options for 12 more in contracts worth almost $800 million.
At the Rome meeting, the ministers also committed $2.6 billion for the development by 1995 of what the agency called the Ariane 5 launcher. The European Space Agency has used three versions of the Ariane, each larger than the one before, and is about ready to employ an even larger fourth version. But experts say that the Ariane 5 will not simply be a larger version of the earlier Arianes but a completely different type of rocket, with a new, powerful engine, ultimately capable of lifting a Hermes shuttle into orbit.
A spokesman for Arianespace, the company that makes the Ariane, estimates that the average price for a launch by the Ariane is $24 million compared to $18 million by the shuttle. But NASA officials concede that rising costs will soon force a shuttle price increase in the range of 60% to 80%.