The dream of a European SpaceX finally seems to take shape

Judged as a crazy bet mocked by players in the sector, SpaceX has succeeded in establishing itself in a few years as a serious player in the field, capable of carrying astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) or of sending constellations of satellites in space. Its emergence on the space scene shows how far it has evolved, made accessible at low cost by the miniaturization of parts and technological progress. These missions, over-publicized, have also highlighted the delay taken by France and Europe in this sector. Although the arrival of these new players has triggered an awakening in several European countries, the time is not right for full cooperation on these subjects. And that’s good.

Catch up

“The rise of SpaceX [et des autres acteurs comme Rocket Lab, Astra, Firefly, etc.] has, in fact, pushed France and Europe to accelerate launcher projects” believes Stanislas Maximin, CEO and co-founder of Venture Orbital Systems, who regrets that this was done byincrement [développement de Prometheus, puis de Callisto, puis de Themis] instead of radical change”.

Lhe United States started funding these kinds of projects in 2015, we are six years behind, launches François Chopard, co-founder and CEO of Starburst. But we are seeing an awareness of the potential of French SpaceTech. We have recently been talking about DeepTech and SpaceTech, with the ambition to stop betting everything on large groups » , he admits. Stanislas Maximin draws up a close observation, emphasizing “that a greater awareness took place a year ago, with significant support for private micro-launcher initiatives in Germany, then the desire for support announced in France recently”.

In less than a year, the government has announced significant funding for French SpaceTech. In mid-September 2021, an envelope of 1.5 billion euros from the France 2030 plan was devoted to the space sector, with a focus on reusable launchers and satellite constellations. A few weeks ago, during the European space summit, it was the Minister of Economy, Finance and Recovery, Bruno Le Maire, who put forward the desire to create a constellation of 250 satellites from here at two years old.

The number one challenge for François Chopard is the creation ‘a sufficiently robust and affordable launcher to offer a cost of access to space as low as that proposed by the Americans”. Before that, it is not worth capitalizing on other technologies, even if it is necessary to continue to develop them, in parallel.

Lack of funding, among other obstacles

Asked about the cause of the delay taken by France and Europe in space, François Chopard does not hesitate for a second to point out the lack of funding, stressing that the available funds mainly financed Ariane 6, already in difficulty”.

An observation shared by Stanislas Maximin. If public funding for innovation (Bpifrance) are easily available in France in the early stages of a project, as soon as it is necessary to raise several tens of millions of euros, investment funds and financing tools are dwindling. » And this is not the only limit. Lhe administrative structure is a brake. There’s no one-stop-shop for funding, no one-stop shop for technology expertise support either. It’s on a case-by-case basis. »

Funds are still scarce in the field, even if Charles Beigbeder announced the launch of Geodesic in January 2022, followed some time later by the European initiative, Cassini. Two structures in addition to those of the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes), Bpifrance and Karista, which created CosmiCapital in October 2021.

François Chopard nevertheless wants to be optimistic on this point. The France 2030 plan devotes 1.5 billion euros to space, which is both a lot and very little” , he admits. Before specifying:Two-thirds are devoted to emerging companies, in particular SpaceTech, which amounts to 150 million euros per year. » An interesting amount for the CEO of Starburst, which will finance R&D, equity investments but alsoif signing contracts. Knowing that the development of a launcher solution costs approximately 100 million euros over five years between start-up and first flight”.

The public order lever

In addition to the huge budgets of American space institutions, compared to those of France or Europe, the United States has another asset: public procurement. Public procurement and development support are very powerful tools for supporting the emergence of new technologies and new players. It is a tool for competitiveness, and it is also a tool that allows leverage effects with private investment” believes Stanislas Maximin.

Gold, “Europe has a slightly different view of public procurement from the Americans. In the United States, the major financial providers of space are NASA and the US Space Force, which have a budget of 60 billion dollars. , observes François Chopard. Here, private contributions to the sector constitute only a third of funding, which is not negligible butdon’t change the game”.

“The American state commands a lot of companies, even the smallest ones. NASA has really integrated this power of public order which accelerates certain champions” , confirms Clément Galic, CEO of Unseenlabs. Who thinks thatthe role of the State is also to give us the ability to step up public procurement. It must also simplify public procurement processes in order to make it accessible to small businesses. »

Europe is aware of this. ESA [Agence spatiale européenne, N.D.L.R.] has already begun to favor European solutions via ESA Bic”, explains François Chopard. There are also calls for projects open to emerging companies. A Swiss start-up dealing with debris management has won a 90 million euro contract. » And this is far from trivial. “We expect ESA to sign contracts with European space startups to justify their business model, so that they can raise funds. It’s a start and CNES must follow the same path.” , continues the CEO of Starburst. Cnes is already in this process.

A launcher before 2025?

” The priorities [pour la France, N.D.L.R.] are to guarantee autonomous European access [via Ariane 6 notamment] and above all to bet on the future, by supporting the initiatives of micro-launchers, by betting on competition between players to bring out world champions. It is also necessary to massively finance the infrastructures linked (firing pad, ground infrastructure, test areas, etc.) , analyzes the co-founder of Venture Orbital Systems. An opinion shared by François Chopard. France must regain the leadership it is losing in micro-launchers and small satellites, otherwise Ariane 7 will be manufactured by German companies. »

France hasgreat intelligence with engineers who know how to make very complex rocket engines” when “Germany does not have the skills”. “We need to maintain them, it’s a real specificity”, insists François Chopard. An asset that is coupled with a structuring of the ecosystem. Cnes management is very committed to building relationships with young emerging companies. It’s very positive.” notes Unseenlabs which also notes that “Emerging companies work with each other, but also with major contractors. There is no friction between emerging companies and large groups, because emerging companies are suppliers and offer interactions with manufacturers. »

Several micro-launcher projects have already been initiated, including those of Maïa (Arianegroup) and Venture Orbital Systems. The Zephyr first flight configuration is anchored, the Navier Mk1 rocket engine is printed, and ready to be tested during the summer, subject to our test area partner being able to meet the announced deadlines (Vernon area). A large part of the structural and electronic components are developed and will be tested over the next 18 months. We are still aiming for the end of 2024 for the first orbital test. explains Stanislas Maximin.

He promises: Zephyr will be the cheapest private launcher to privatize in the world. Coupled with great responsiveness and flexibility, as well as a complete service solution from factory to orbit, our solution will allow our customers to save budget, while accelerating their access to orbit, and therefore their business. model. » Despite a lack of funding and a still weak public order, François Chopard believes in a French launcher more than 100 kilometers away by 2025.

Europe, between competition and cooperation

In mid-February 2022, Emmanuel Macron called for a sovereign Europe in space but, for the moment, the environment shows rather positive competition. This has rather fragmented Europe, the Italians left on their side with the Vega launcher, the Germans tried to get closer to ArianeGroup” , draws up as first observation François Chopard. Several players then emerged, including Isar Aerospace in Germany (and its Spectrum project), PLD in Spain (Miura 1 and 5) or Venture Orbital Systems (Zephyr).

VS‘is a good thing. We are no longer in the model of the 1970s, when we launched major programs like the Concorde, Ariane, the TGV. » According to François Chopard, we now have an expansion model with 15 projects developing in parallel, trying to raise funds each on their own, somehow. Each has its own technological specificities. » The richness of this abundance must be supported. “You have to invest in five or six startups for one to emerge and for them to combine with each other. »

What unites the European Union today is the war in Ukraine. LEU is becoming aware of its lack of autonomy and of the need to disconnect from Russia, which was a major space power, continues Francois Chopard. Europe must cooperate in order to support the development, financing and purchase of launch services on micro-launchers. However, we must always encourage healthy competition and fair play between the players. Pushing a particular project, which would be funded by all ESA contributing countries, would not be competitive, profitable, quick or cheap to develop. It is necessary to enter into a logic of competition “ also assumes Stanislas Maximin.

For François Chopard, the European scale must be considered in order to carry out major projects:IIt is necessary to ally with other countries for the manned flight, which becomes a subject in spite of itself. Using Ariane 6 will be expensive, sending astronauts into space will be expensive. To make Ariane 6 profitable, we could add a capsule to the fairing to connect the space station and make Ariane 6 profitable.”

On both a French and European scale, the renewed interest in the space sector should benefit SpaceTech, whether they work on micro-launchers, micro-satellites or offer services (mapping of global warming, management agricultural land, etc.). The sector is still in its infancy and just waiting to take off.

Continue reading with the other articles in our dossier:

    1. French SpaceTech, between data exploitation and infrastructures
    2. 11 structures to know when launching a startup in SpaceTech
    3. These women who are shaking up the world of SpaceTech

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