The dinner starts at 7 p.m. sharp, we can read on the invitation card. On the menu are marinated prawns, grilled halibut with coriander and chocolate-raspberry cheesecake. The wines are of course Californian. It’s May 6, 2001. At a lavish villa in Portola Valley, in the heights between San Francisco and San Jose, all the space fans gather for the dinner hosted by Bill Clancey, a local tech entrepreneur. For $500 each, they came to listen to Robert Zubrin, the founder of the Mars Society, a kind of guru who promotes the conquest of Mars.
But the real star of the evening is James Cameron, the multi-Oscar winner of titanic a few years earlier. A near-stranger man in shirt sleeves paid $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 the cosmos full of 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 the dust challenger Ariane, the pride of Europe. The numbers speak for themselves: in 2021, Space X completed 31 flights with its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, compared to just 15 for Arianespace. And the year 2022 should break all records with 32 launches already made between January and June. No 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 return man to the Moon before it makes him discover Mars… At least that’s what Musk promises .
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Musk and Space X, it’s a double revolution. Technology first, with a reusable rocket that has 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, the president of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES). Launches to amortize development costs.”
A technical but also economic revolution
But it is on the economic model that big bang Musk is the most radical. Before him, space was a matter of states, public authorities and a handful of public companies. Musk brought in the private sector, the investment funds and their billions of dollars. While taking advantage of public order very appropriately. 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, an engineer physicist who advises him, was appointed administrator of NASA in 2005. The US agency was then operational; it has never recovered from the explosion of its Challenger shuttle and decides to rely on the private sector to develop rockets to power the ISS. Better, 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 take all the financial risks. In twenty years, his company will have received nearly $20 billion from the US government to fund both development and missions. Falcon missions, which NASA is buying at a high price, nearly $100 million each, allowing Musk to cut prices in half in the private launch market. “An unsustainable dumping for the Europeans”, confides an expert from Arianespace, still amazed.
The second “Muskian” revolution was to bring 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 drove the valuation of Tesla to more than 700 billion dollars, “has an extraordinary ability to raise funds on his only vision of the future”, emphasizes Maxime Puteaux, consultant for 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 did not hesitate to get their hands on the wallet because they also understood that humanity was on the verge of a decisive phase in the conquest of space. The latter is no longer just a matter of a symbolic race for the stars, where it is a matter of demonstrating one’s technological power to the opponent, as was the case in the summer of 1969, when the first astronauts walked on the Moon and planted the American flag in their noses and the beard of the Soviet Union.
Permanently colonize the universe
Space today is virgin territory for economic conquest, rich with 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, deployment of server farms in orbit used for the computing cloud or the “sale” of industries to clean the Earth, an orbital solar power plant.. .projects abound, most often by start-ups that Space X has opened the door to. And that’s just the beginning. Man is now striving to establish himself permanently in the universe, to colonize it in the first sense of the word, making space a new terrain for geostrategic confrontation between the two great rival powers that are the United States and 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. The Moon around 2025”, explains Maxime Puteaux. An acceleration which also took part in the creation of the US space force, the sixth branch of the US army, which must prepare the first world power for a possible confrontation with China in the stars.
The “big fucking rocket” factor
“A unique connection between the strategic and the commercial, which means that today we are in 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, 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, which should accelerate further if “big fucking rocket” (“fucking big rocket”), the affectionate nickname Elon Musk has given his Starship, manages to make its first orbital flight before the end of the year, as planned. This behemoth of more than 120 meters in height could actually divide the cost of a launch by five. That’s 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 any budget and open the door to the craziest projects.
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