In April 2021, shortly before resigning from Airbus Defense and Space to create her own space company, Hélène Huby decided to take a few vacations. She devotes two days to settling urgent questions about collaboration with the American program Orion for which the young woman, normalien and énarque, is responsible. But above all, she is eager to take advantage of this final respite to lock herself in a hotel in Hamburg and scrutinize the method used by Elon Musk to build Space X, the company which has upset a space sector controlled for sixty years by a military-industrial complex at the end of its course.
For three days, Hélène Huby does not leave her room, feeding a series of Excel tables with all the data available on the firm created by Elon Musk in 2002. “It’s good to focus like that on a short period, says- she from the Munich offices of The Exploration Company (TEC) In retracing the history of Space X, I sought to understand how long it had taken them to develop the different phases of the project, their costs, the content first contracts, etc. All of this was not necessarily super precise, but it gives an idea. You can make an Excel spreadsheet tell a lot of stories, but you can’t be completely wrong. If a project hasn’t no chance of taking off, it will be seen. Same thing if the potential exists.”
The Exploration Company’s plan is to build a range of spacecraft to be launched by any commercial rocket. Nyx, TEC’s vehicle, is an eight-tonne capsule – ten for the version that will be sent to the Moon -, four meters in diameter, eight in height, comparable to the Space X Dragon. The machine will have to carry space laboratories , automated or manned, intended for research or the manufacture of advanced materials. More incidentally, it will be able to satisfy the emerging market of space tourism (a few orbits to see the sun rise every 90 minutes and vomit in weightlessness)… But above all, the company wants to develop a fleet of supply cargo ships for the half -dozen private orbital stations which will be built by the end of the decade by American consortia, as well as for the 150 lunar missions necessary for the permanent base planned for 2030.
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Preserve barter between Europe and the United States
The idea is to have a versatile vehicle, capable of transporting astronauts and equipment to these facilities. A highly profitable market that the European Space Agency (ESA) has completely abandoned, at the risk of creating a huge imbalance between Europe and the United States. Because the current system is based on a subtle balance: Europe, for example, sends a Thomas Pesquet for a mission valued at 150,000 dollars per hour of flight in exchange for supplying NASA with modules for the next lunar flights. “We are therefore in an exchange system which allows Europe to continue to develop its space technologies”, explains the founder of The Exploration Company.
Tomorrow, the era of arrangements between people of good company – the sovereign space agencies – will give way to the brutality of the private sector. Consequently, when the ESA or European industrialists want to carry out experiments in space, they will have to pay a high price for them (120,000 dollars per kilo for a laboratory) within private space stations. “Whereas if Europe can say to a Jeff Bezos: ‘In exchange for space in your Orbital Reef station, Europe is organizing a series of supply flights’, we find a balanced barter system…” Hélène Huby fears more than anything a Europe losing its footing in relation to the American private space industry, with the consequences of massive financial transfers to the swarm of private operators, without any counterpart in terms of know-how and maintenance of the tool. European industrialist. The Exploration Company intends to participate actively in the preservation of a balance of exchanges.
A scale model of the Nyx capsule will fly in 2024. Its primary purpose will be to test all the essential systems: orbital engines, guidance and navigation, re-entry into the atmosphere and landing systems, before the big jump with the final vehicle in 2026 for a six-month flight, and the first automated vehicle to the Moon in 2028 and a manned flight planned for 2030.
Execute fast and well, ten or fifty times cheaper
The first orbital flight of a prototype after three years of existence is an extraordinary achievement, even by New Space standards. This has taken up the frenetic DNA of the software industry, where the speed of execution makes it possible to reduce capital consumption and above all to learn very quickly. The Exploration Company is therefore developing its space vehicle as an iPhone application, specifies Hélène Huby: an MVP (Minimum Viable Product)feedback and iterations at a sustained pace, always as close as possible to the final product, with inevitable errors and technical dead ends, sometimes painful confrontations with budgetary realities and customer requirements.
Another foundation from the Musk doctrine: vertical integration. At Space X, 80% of Falcon 9 parts are homemade. Faced, for example, with the manufacturing delays of certain metal parts, Musk bought his own foundry, reducing the delays from several months to a week; to operate the hypersonic fins of the future Starship (the grid ends two tons), Space X engineers decided that Tesla motors would do just fine. The examples are countless.
In Europe, the Mozart of vertical integration is Benoît Deper, founder of Aerospace Lab, based in Louvain, Belgium. The objective of this young engineer who worked for NASA and ESA is to build a “mega-factory” capable of eventually manufacturing 500 satellites per year. In other words, every euro counts. On all the components, the engineers will seek to divide the price by ten or fifty. Instead of choosing a microprocessor certified for spaceflight but costing 50,000 euros, Deper will take the same chips intended for the automotive industry sold for a few hundred euros, which he tested in the cyclotron at the University of Louvain to assess its resistance to cosmic radiation before finding the tricks to achieve optimal reliability.
Another example, instead of the ruinous “space flight certified” batteries for its satellites, Aerospace Lab has been testing different models of elements for electric cars for weeks. Conclusion: for questions of reliability, it will be necessary to put 10 to 15% more on board (which is no longer a problem given the collapse in prices per kilo launched), but automotive batteries are fifty times less expensive !
In the premises of Aerospace Lab, dozens of off-the-shelf components are being tested on tables covered with sensors connected to tiny Raspberry Pi computers that perform hundreds of tests a day, under the watchful eye of young teams. and autonomous who are accountable only for the final result. This kind of approach is unthinkable in a large group like Thales or Airbus. Why ? “It’s because there are no incentives for that, explains Benoît Deper. An engineer has no interest in finding solutions that make it possible to reduce the cost of a system by ten, because no one will appreciate it; however, if there is a problem, he and his whole team will be singled out. So these companies pay a high price for everything.”
For Hélène Huby or Benoit Deper, the notion of engineering is inseparable from that of ingenuity – with spectacular results: the Nyx capsule will cost a tenth of the price invoiced by a NASA supplier, while Aerospace Lab will produce satellites at 200,000 or 300,000 euros each, where Airbus or Thales charge 2 or 3 million.
Put everything back together
One of the hallmarks of New Space entrepreneurs is their perfect mastery of a wide variety of subjects. With the same agility, they handle macroeconomic orders of magnitude over ten years as well as the smallest technical details. An exchange with Hélène Huby or Benoit Deper is like a roller coaster where you go at full speed from a discussion on the strategies of the major space powers to the comparative merits of the types of fuels for rocket engines, passing through the possible choices in thermal protection for their vehicles.
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Like Elon Musk and before him Steve Jobs, both have a hyper granular vision of their project but also systemic and economic. They have an obsession with movement, with questioning habits. This translates into the most direct internal communication possible and a great latitude of decision left to highly motivated teams, encouraged to express their opinion, handpicked, and who have only one priority: to ensure that “it works”, better, faster and cheaper.
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