Tue, Jun 14, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Musk’s SpaceX, once pooh-poohed, a wake-up call for Europeans

By Helene Fouquet  /  Bloomberg

The success of Elon Musk’s SpaceX industrial ventures has given Europe’s space industry a kick in the pants.

After three flawless landings of the first stage of Space Exploration Technologies Corp’s Falcon 9 rocket on a drone barge in the Atlantic ocean since April, the 44-year-old entrepreneur announced on Tuesday last week that he plans to start reusing rockets as soon as September. In contrast, Europe’s non-reusable competitor, Ariane 6, might be ready only in 2020, while a reusable version, a project for which was unveiled this month, might come even later.

“SpaceX is like a giant wake-up call,” said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of French space agency the Centre National d’etudes Spatiales (CNES), in an interview.

“Six to nine months ago many in Europe thought Elon Musk was just hot air, even among the big shots in the space industry, but he showed he was able to do it, to potentially reuse rockets one day. He’s clearly shaking things up,” Le Gall said.

More than just European pride is at stake. The space industry represents 38,000 jobs in Europe, most of them in France, according to Aerospace Defense Industries, an industry group.

With the sector at the cusp of a new era of space missions that will broaden the client base for satellites and open the way for exploration projects hitherto unreachable, Europe cannot afford to miss the boat.

A cost-effective Europe-made rocket would allow the continent to remain one of the biggest players in the US$6 billion global market for payload launchers and also be part of major long-term missions, such as a manned trips to Mars. Before Musk’s reusable success began changing the game, the launcher market was estimated to reach US$8.4 billion in 2023, according to Mountain View, California-based market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

MUSK PRESSURE

Under pressure from Musk, the South-Africa born Canadian-American, the industry worldwide, including in China and India, is rethinking its approach to drive down costs. Space-launcher companies, which put satellites, cargo and humans in space, are seeking to bring prices down 50 percent or more.

In April, SpaceX landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket back on a drone barge about 322km off the US Atlantic coast. It has since made two other successful landings, after sending payloads into the upper atmosphere. It is trying again today.

Long considered a brash upstart nipping at the heels of staid aerospace giants, SpaceX is coming of age 14 years after it was founded by Musk with the lofty — and many have said unrealistic — goal of revolutionizing spacecraft and colonizing Mars. SpaceX is now within striking distance of becoming dominant in the payload business. It says it plans to fly 18 missions this year, triple the number last year.

The California-based company said it plans to use a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster stage later this year and cut the flight price further from the current US$61 million it says it charges for commercial payloads.

WAY BEHIND

Arianespace, one of the world’s biggest commercial satellite launchers, which will use the Ariane 6, claims its prices will be close to those of SpaceX.

While the cost of reusable rockets, technical hurdles and market viability have yet to be tested, Le Gall said Musk is well advanced and that Europe must move faster.

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