Dinner will start at 7pm sharp, we can read it on the invitation card. On the menu, marinated prawns, grilled halibut with cilantro and chocolate and raspberry cheesecake. The wines are Californian, of course. It’s May 6, 2001. In an opulent village in the Portola Valley, high up between San Francisco and San Jose, all space fans gather for a dinner hosted by Bill Clancey, a local tech entrepreneur. For $500 each, they came to hear Robert Zubrin, the founder of the Mars Society, a sort of guru who promotes the conquest of Mars.
But the real star of the night is James Cameron, winner of several Oscars for titanic a few years earlier. An almost stranger in shirtsleeves gave her $5,000 to sit next to her. Elon Musk is 30 years old, millions of dollars in his bank account after selling his shares in PayPal and delusions of cosmos full of his head. A year later, almost on the same day, in May 2002, he created Space X.
2022, the year of all records for Space X
Two decades later, the South African-born billionaire has not colonized the Red Planet, but is hard at work there. His Martian and even multiplanetary ambition for humanity is at the heart of the empire he created. With breathtaking speed, Space X revolutionized one of the most technical and expensive industries, returning to the dusty challenger Ariane, the pride of Europe. The numbers speak for themselves: in 2021, Space X performed 31 flights with its Falcon 9 launcher, against just 15 for Arianespace. And the year 2022 should break all records, with 32 releases already made between January and June. No company in the world does this better. Falcon 9 now supplies the International Space Station (ISS), and its Starship mega-rocket will be the vehicle that will take 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. First technician, with a reusable rocket that halved the average cost of each launch. “This technology had been on researchers’ desks for at least fifteen years, but it had no real economic interest for us,” explains Philippe Baptiste, president of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES). .”
A technical but also an economic revolution
But it is in 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, investment funds and their billions of dollars. Taking advantage of public order very opportunely. Because Musk is also Uncle Sam’s son. A man puts his foot in the stirrup when a rocket has not yet flown. Michael Griffin, the physical engineer who advises him, was appointed administrator of NASA in 2005. The US agency was then adrift; he never recovered from the explosion of his space shuttle Challenger and decides to rely on the private sector to develop rockets that will fuel the ISS. Rather, it changes the rules and allows Space X not to refund public advances in the event of failure. A decisive boost that allows Musk to assume all financial risks. In twenty years, your company will have received nearly 20 billion dollars from the US state to finance both development and missions. Falcon missions that NASA buys at a hefty price, nearly $100 million each, which allows Musk to halve market prices for private launches. “An unsustainable dumping for Europeans”, confides, still stupefied, a commentator from Arianespace.
The other “Muskian” revolution was bringing venture capitalists into a world that until then had only known public money, making space an asset class like any other. The richest man on the planet, who boosted Tesla’s valuation to more than 700 billion dollars, “has an extraordinary ability to raise funds in his only vision of the future”, emphasizes Maxime Puteaux, consultant at Euroconsult. In early June, Space X also raised another $1.7 billion, valuing the unlisted launch company at $125 billion, up from $100 just a year ago. Investors who do not hesitate to put their hands on their wallets because they also understood that humanity was on the verge of a decisive stage in the conquest of space. This is no longer just a question of a symbolic race for the stars, where it is a question of demonstrating to the adversary its technological power, as was the case in the summer of 1969, when the first astronauts set foot on the Moon and planted the American flag on the nose and beard of the Soviet Union.
Permanently colonize the universe
Space today is virgin territory of economic conquest, rich in promises. High-speed internet all over the planet thanks to the multiplication of satellite constellations – starting with Musk’s Starlink -, mining rare earths on asteroids, putting into orbit server farms used for cloud computing or “sales” from industries to cleaning the Earth, an orbiting solar power plant… projects abound, most often carried out by start-ups to which Space X has opened the doors. And that’s just the beginning. Man now aspires to permanently establish himself 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 China.
“Beijing’s spectacular acceleration into space – the Chinese were the first to place a rover on the far 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 that 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 Rocket Fuck” Factor
“A unique articulation between the strategic and the commercial, which means that today we are at a key moment in the conquest of space, where everything will develop exponentially”, insists Jean-Marc Astorg, CNES’s director of strategy. A key moment that did not escape Emmanuel Macron: last February, on the occasion of a European space summit, the French president clearly asked that the Twenty-Seven also set out to attack the stars. “There will be the Americans, the Chinese, certainly the Indians: if we don’t go there alone, we will only have an increasingly narrow folding seat”, says an expert from the European space industry.
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A race for the stars that should accelerate even more if the “Big Fucking Rocket” (“fucking big rocket”), affectionate nickname given by Elon Musk to his ship, manages, as planned, to make its first orbital flight by the end of the year. This 400-foot-tall mastodon could in fact halve the price of a launch. Or a list price of 10 million dollars, while it cost 100 less than ten years ago, before Space X landed! A true challenging player which would make the space accessible to almost any budget and open the door to the craziest projects.
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