Space: How Elon Musk inspires new entrepreneurs in Europe

In April 2021, shortly before resigning from Airbus Defense and Space to create her own aerospace company, Helen Huby decided to take some time off. He spends two days in cooperation with the American program Orion to settle urgent questions for which the young woman, Normien and Enarch are responsible. But above all, he’s keen to take advantage of this final respite to lock himself in a Hamburg hotel and scrutinize the methods Elon Musk used to build SpaceX, the company that has disrupted a space sector dominated by the military for sixty years. Industrial complex at the end of the course.

For three days, Helen Huby did not leave her room to feed a series of Excel tables with all the data available on the firm created by Elon Musk in 2002. Retracing the history of The Exploration Company’s (TEC) Munich office Space X, I wanted to understand how long it took them to develop the various phases of the project, their costs, content first contracts, etc. Not necessarily very specific, but it gives an idea You can create an Excel spreadsheet to tell a lot of stories, but you can’t be completely wrong If there is no chance to launch a project, it will show The same thing if possible.”

The exploration company plans to build a range of spacecraft to be launched by any commercial rocket. Nyx, TEC’s vehicle, is an eight-ton capsule – for ten versions that will be sent to the Moon -, four meters in diameter, eight in height, comparable to the Space X Dragon. The machine is to be carried to a space laboratory, automated or manned, for the purpose of research or development of materials. More incidentally, it will be able to satisfy the emerging market of space tourism (watching the sun rise every 90 minutes in a few orbits and vomiting in weightlessness)… But above all, the company wants to build a fleet of cargo ships for the half-dozen private orbital stations that the American The consortia will build by the end of the decade, as well as the 150 lunar missions needed for permanent bases planned for the 2030s.

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Savings in exchange between Europe and the United States

The concept is a multipurpose vehicle, capable of transporting astronauts and equipment to these facilities. A very 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 Pesquet for a mission worth 150,000 dollars per hour of flight in exchange for providing modules to NASA for the next lunar flight. “We are therefore in an exchange system that allows Europe to continue developing its space technology”, explains the founder of The Exploration Company.

Tomorrow, the age of order among good company people – sovereign space agencies – will give way to the brutality of the private sector. As a result, when ESA or European industrialists want to conduct experiments in space, they have to pay high prices ($120,000 per kilo for a laboratory) in private space stations. “Even if Europe could say to a Jeff Bezos: ‘In exchange for space on your orbital reef station, Europe is hosting multiple supply flights’, we find a balanced exchange…” Helen Huby fears the American private space industry more than anything in Europe. has lost its position, with the result of large financial transfers to a flock of private operators, with no counterpart in terms of equipment know-how and maintenance. European industrialist. Exploration companies want to actively participate in balancing the exchange.

A scale model of the Nyx capsule will fly in 2024 Its primary objective will be to test all the necessary systems: orbital engines, guidance and navigation, atmospheric re-entry and landing systems, for a six-month flight before the big jump with the final vehicle in 2026, and the first autonomous vehicle to the Moon in 2028 and a manned rover in 2030. The flight was planned.

Run fast and well, ten or fifty times cheaper

The first orbital flight of a prototype after three years of existence is a remarkable achievement, even by new space standards. It has adopted the frenetic DNA of the software industry, where speed of execution enables the reduction of capital costs and, above all, the ability to learn very quickly. The exploration company is therefore developing its spacecraft as an iPhone application, notes Helen Huby: an MVP (Minimum Durable Goods)React and iterate at a sustainable pace, always as close as possible to the final product, with inevitable errors and technical dead ends, sometimes painfully clashing with budgetary realities and customer requirements.

Another premise from the Kasturi doctrine: vertical integration. At SpaceX, 80% of Falcon 9 parts are made in-house. For example, faced with production delays for some metal parts, Musk bought his own foundry, reducing the delay from months to a week; to operate the hypersonic fins of future starships ( The grid is finished two tons), SpaceX engineers decided that Tesla motors would work just fine. Examples are countless.

In Europe, the Mozart of vertical integration is Benoit Dipper, founder of the Aerospace Lab in Leuven, Belgium. The young engineer, who works for NASA and ESA, aims to build a “mega-factory” capable of eventually producing 500 satellites per year. In other words, every euro counts. On all components, engineers will want to divide the price by ten or fifty. Instead of choosing a microprocessor certified for spaceflight but costing 50,000 euros, Depper would take the same Chips Intended for the automotive industry that sold for a few hundred euros, he tested them in the cyclotron at the University of Louvain to assess resistance to cosmic radiation before finding techniques to achieve optimal reliability.

In another example, instead of destructive “space flight certified” batteries for its satellites, the aerospace lab has been testing various models of components for electric vehicles for weeks. Conclusion: For questions of reliability, 10 to 15% more should be put on board (which is no longer a problem due to the falling price per kilo), but automotive batteries are fifty times less expensive!

On the premises of the aerospace lab, dozens of commercial components are thus being tested on tables covered with sensors connected to tiny Raspberry Pi computers that perform hundreds of tests per day, under the watchful eye of the young team. And only those who are autonomous are accountable. final result. Such an approach is unthinkable at a large group like Thales or Airbus. Why? “Because there is no incentive for it,” explains Benoît Dipper. “An engineer has no interest in finding a solution that makes it possible to reduce the cost of a system by ten, because no one will appreciate it; but, if there is a problem, he and His entire team will be alienated. So these companies have to pay a high price for everything.”

For Hélène Huby or Benoit Deper, the idea of ​​engineering is inseparable from intelligence – with spectacular results: the Nyx capsule will cost a tenth of the price invoiced by NASA suppliers, while the Aerospace Lab will build satellites at 200,000,000 or 3000eros, while Airbus or Thales 2 or 3 million by charging.

Put everything back together

One of the hallmarks of new space entrepreneurs is their impeccable expertise in a variety of disciplines. With the same agility, they handled huge economic orders as well as the smallest technical details for ten years. An exchange with Hélène Huby or Benoit Deper is like a roller coaster where you go at full speed from discussions on space power techniques to the comparative merits of fuel types for rocket engines, going over possible choices in thermal protection for their vehicles.

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Like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs before him, both have a hyper granular vision of their projects but also systemic and economic. They have a habit of moving, asking questions. This allows for the most direct internal communication possible and leaves a huge latitude of decisions to highly motivated teams, encouraged to express their opinions, chosen and who have only one priority: “It works”, better, faster and Guaranteed cheap.


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