Space: how Elon Musk inspires new entrepreneurs in Europe

In April 2021, shortly before leaving Airbus Defense and Space to start her own space company, Helen Yuby decided to take some time off. She devotes two days to solving pressing issues of cooperation with the American Orion program, which is in charge of a young woman, normalien and énarque. But above all, she wants to use this last breather to lock herself in a hotel in Hamburg and scrutinize the method Elon Musk used to create Space X, the company that destroyed the space sector controlled for sixty years by the military. -industrial complex at the end of its path.

For three days, Helen Yuby stays in her room, filling out a series of Excel spreadsheets with all available data about the firm created by Elon Musk in 2002. Munich offices of The Exploration Company (TEC) In tracing the history of Space X, I sought to understand how long it took them to develop the various stages of the project, their cost, the content of the first contracts, etc. All this was not necessarily super accurate, but it gives performance. You can make an Excel spreadsheet tell a lot of stories, but you can’t be completely wrong. If the project has no chance of success, it will be seen. The same thing if the potential exists.”

The research company’s plan is to build a range of spacecraft that can be launched using any commercial rocket. Nyx, the TEC vehicle, is an eight-ton capsule (ten for the version that will be sent to the Moon), four meters in diameter and eight meters tall, comparable to the Space X Dragon. The machine will have to carry space laboratories, automated or manned, designed for research or the production of advanced materials. Moreover, it will be able to satisfy the emerging space tourism market (a few orbits to see the sunrise every 90 minutes and vomit in zero gravity)… But, above all, the company wants to develop a fleet of supply cargo ships. for the half-dozen private orbital stations to be built by the end of the decade by US consortia; and for the 150 lunar missions needed for a permanent base planned for 2030.

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Maintain barter between Europe and the US

The idea is to have a versatile vehicle capable of delivering astronauts and equipment to these sites. A highly lucrative market that the European Space Agency (ESA) has completely abandoned, at the risk of creating a huge imbalance between Europe and the US. Because the current system is based on a delicate balance: Europe, for example, sends Thomas Pesce on a mission worth $150,000 per flight hour in exchange for NASA supplying modules for the next lunar missions. “Therefore, we are in an exchange system that allows Europe to continue to develop its space technologies,” explains the founder of The Exploration Company.

Tomorrow, the era of arrangements between people in good company—sovereign space agencies—will give way to the brutality of the private sector. Consequently, when ESA or European industrialists want to conduct experiments in space, they will have to pay a high price for them ($120,000 per kilogram per laboratory) in private space stations. “While Europe can say to Jeff Bezos: “In exchange for a place at your station on the Orbital Reef, Europe will organize a series of resupply flights,” we find a balanced barter system…” Helen Yuby fears Europe more than anything. losing its footing in relation to the American private space industry, with the consequences of massive financial transfers to a swarm of private operators, unparalleled in terms of know-how and instrument maintenance. European industrialist. The exploration company intends to actively participate in maintaining the currency balance.

A scale model of the Nyx capsule will fly in 2024. Her main goal will be to test all major systems: orbital engines, guidance and navigation systems, reentry and landing systems, before making a big jump with the last vehicle. 2026 for a semi-annual flight, and the first automatic device to the Moon in 2028 and a manned flight scheduled for 2030.

Perform quickly and efficiently, ten to fifty times cheaper

The prototype’s first orbital flight after three years of existence is an outstanding achievement, even by New Space standards. This picked up on the berserk DNA of the software industry, where speed of execution allows for lower capital consumption and, above all, very fast learning. So the research company develops its spaceship as an iPhone app, Helen Huby elaborates: MVP (Minimum Viable Product), feedback and iteration at a constant pace, always as close to the final product as possible, with inevitable bugs and technical dead ends. sometimes painful collisions with budgetary realities and customer requirements.

Another pillar of Musk’s doctrine: vertical integration. At Space X, 80% of Falcon 9 parts are homemade. Faced with production delays for some metal parts, for example, Musk bought his own foundry, reducing delays from months to weeks; To drive the hypersonic fins of the future starship (two-ton thin grilles), Space X engineers decided that Tesla motors would do the job perfectly. There are countless examples.

In Europe, the Mozart of vertical integration is Benoit Depert, founder of the Aerospace Lab based in Louvain, Belgium. The goal of this young engineer, who has worked for NASA and ESA, is to build a “mega-factory” capable of eventually producing 500 satellites a year. In other words, every euro counts. For all components, engineers will tend to divide the price by ten or fifty. Instead of a microprocessor certified for spaceflight but costing 50,000 euros, Depert will take the same chip intended for the automotive industry, sold for several hundred euros, which he will test at the Louvain University cyclotron to evaluate its resistance to cosmic radiation before finding techniques to achieve optimal reliability.

Another example: instead of ruinous “spaceflight-certified” batteries for its satellites, Aerospace Lab has been testing different cell models for electric vehicles for several weeks now. Conclusion: in terms of reliability, it will be necessary to put on board 10-15% more (which is no longer a problem given the collapse in prices per kilo), but car batteries are fifty times cheaper!

Thus, in the Aerospace Lab’s facilities, dozens of commercial components are tested on tables covered in sensors connected to tiny Raspberry Pi computers that run hundreds of tests a day, supervised by young teams and are autonomous, who are only responsible for the final result. This approach is unthinkable in a large group like Thales or Airbus. Why ? “This is because there are no incentives for this,” Benoit Depert explains. , he and his entire team will be highlighted. So these companies are paying a high price for everything.”

For Hélène Huby or Benoît Depert, the concept of engineering is inseparable from the concept of ingenuity – with impressive results: a Nyx capsule will cost a tenth of the price of a NASA supplier, and the Aerospace Lab will produce satellites for 200,000 or 300,000 euros each. where Airbus or Thales take 2 or 3 million.

Take it all back

One of the hallmarks of New Space entrepreneurs is their impeccable command of a wide range of subjects. With equal dexterity they process ten years’ worth of macroeconomic orders as well as the smallest technical details. Chatting with Helen Huby or Benoît Depert is like a roller coaster where you go from discussing the strategies of the major space powers to the relative merits of rocket fuel types, going at full speed through the thermal performance options. protecting your cars.

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Like Elon Musk, and before him Steve Jobs, both have an ultra-detailed vision of their project, but also systemic and economic. They have an obsession with movement, a habit of asking questions. This results in as much direct internal communication as possible and wide decision-making freedom left to highly motivated teams, encouraged to speak up, handpicked and given only one priority: to ensure that “it works” better, faster and cheaper.


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