The dinner will start at 7 p.m. sharp, can we read on the invitation card. On the menu, marinated shrimp, grilled halibut with cilantro and chocolate-raspberry cheesecake. The wines are Californian, of course. It is May 6, 2001. In an opulent villa in Portola Valley, on the heights between San Francisco and San Jose, all the space fans flock to the dinner organized by Bill Clancey, a local tech entrepreneur. For 500 dollars each, they came to listen to Robert Zubrin, the founder of the Mars Society, a sort of guru who promotes the conquest of Mars.
But the real star of the evening is James Cameron, the multi-Oscar winner for titanic a few years earlier. A near-stranger in shirt sleeves slapped $5,000 to sit next to her. Elon Musk is 30 years old, millions of dollars in his bank account after the sale of his shares in PayPal and delusions of cosmos full of the head. A year later, almost to the day, in May 2002, he created Space X.
2022, the year of all records for Space X
Two decades later, the billionaire of South African origin has not colonized the Red Planet, but he is working hard there. His Martian and even multiplanetary ambition for humanity is at the heart of the empire he has created. With breathtaking speed, Space X has revolutionized one of the most technical and expensive industries, returning to the rank of dusty challenger Ariane, the pride of Europe. The figures speak for themselves: in 2021, Space X carried out 31 flights with its Falcon 9 launcher, compared to only 15 for Arianespace. And the year 2022 should break all records, with 32 launches already made between January and June. Not a company in the world does it better. The Falcon 9 now supplies the International Space Station (ISS), and its Starship mega-rocket will be the vehicle that will bring man back to the Moon before making him discover Mars… At least that’s what Musk promises.
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Musk and Space X, it’s a double revolution. Technical first, with a reusable rocket that has halved the average cost of each launch. “This technology had been on the desks of researchers for at least fifteen years, but it had no real economic interest for us, explains Philippe Baptiste, the president of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES). launches to amortize the cost of development.”
A technical but also economic revolution
But it is on the economic model that the big bang Musk is the most radical. Space, before him, was a matter of states, government agencies and a handful of public companies. Musk brought in the private sector, the investment funds, and their billions of dollars. While taking very opportune advantage of the public order. Because Musk is also a child of Uncle Sam. A man will put his foot in the stirrup when he has not yet flown a rocket. Michael Griffin, a physicist engineer who advises him, was appointed administrator of NASA in 2005. The American agency was then adrift; it has never recovered from the explosion of its Challenger shuttle and decides to rely on the private sector to develop rockets that will supply the ISS. Better, it changes the rules and allows Space X not to reimburse public advances in the event of failure. A decisive boost that allows Musk to take all the financial risks. In twenty years, his company will have received nearly 20 billion dollars from the American State to finance both development and missions. Falcon missions that NASA buys at a high price, nearly 100 million dollars each, which allows Musk to halve the prices on the market for private launches. “An unsustainable dumping for the Europeans”, confides, still flabbergasted, a laying of Arianespace.
The other “Muskian” revolution was to bring venture capitalists into a world that until then had known only public money, making space an asset class like any other. The richest man on the planet, who propelled the valuation of Tesla to more than 700 billion dollars, “has an extraordinary ability to raise funds on his sole vision of the future”, underlines Maxime Puteaux, consultant for Euroconsult . At the beginning of June, Space X also raised another 1.7 billion dollars, valuing the launcher company which is not listed on the stock exchange at 125 billion dollars, against 100 just a year ago. Investors who do not hesitate to get their hands on the wallet because they have also understood that humanity was on the verge of a decisive step in the conquest of space. The latter is no longer simply a matter of a symbolic race for the stars, where it is a question of demonstrating one’s technological power to the adversary, as was the case in the summer of 1969 when the first astronauts walked on the Moon and planted the American flag in the nose and beard of the Soviet Union.
Permanently colonize the universe
Space today is virgin territory for economic conquest, rich in promise. High-speed Internet everywhere on the planet thanks to the multiplication of satellite constellations – starting with Musk’s Starlink -, mining of rare earths on asteroids, putting into orbit server farms used for the computing cloud or industries ” sales” to clean up the Earth, an orbital solar power plant… projects abound, most often carried out by start-ups to which Space X has opened the door. And that’s just the beginning. Man now aspires to establish himself permanently in the universe, to colonize it in the first sense of the term, making space a new terrain of geostrategic confrontation between the two great rival powers that are the United States and the China.
“Beijing’s spectacular acceleration in space – the Chinese were the first to place a rover on the dark side of the Moon, in 2019 – prompted Trump to launch the Artemis program, which should see the United States return to the Moon. Moon around 2025”, explains Maxime Puteaux. An acceleration which also participated in the creation of the United States Space Force, the sixth branch of the United States army, which must prepare the first world power for a possible confrontation with China in the stars.
The “big fucking rocket” factor
“A unique conjunction between the strategic and the commercial which means that we are today at a key moment in the conquest of space, where everything will develop exponentially”, insists Jean-Marc Astorg, the director of the CNES strategy. A key moment that did not escape Emmanuel Macron: last February, on the occasion of a European space summit, the French president clearly pleaded for the Twenty-Seven to also set off to attack the stars. “There will be the Americans, the Chinese, most certainly the Indians: if we don’t go there by ourselves, we will only have an increasingly narrow folding seat”, loose a pundit of the space industry European.
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A race for the stars which should further accelerate if the “big fucking rocket” (“fucking big rocket”), the affectionate nickname given by Elon Musk to his Starship, manages as planned to make its first orbital flight by the end of the year. This mastodon of more than 120 meters in height could indeed divide by five the price of a launch. Or a list price of 10 million dollars, whereas it cost 100 less than ten years ago, before Space X landed! A real game changer which would make the space accessible to almost all budgets and open the door to the craziest projects.
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