EVRY-COURCOURONNES — "They are cheaper and you are basically dead already." These were the kind of comments that Stéphane Israël had to endure two years ago in reference to the ongoing space race between Europe's Ariane rocket and the American-made SpaceX, both designed to transport satellites into space.
Arianespace, the well-established France-based global market leader versus the new kid on the block from California, headed by multi-billionaire Elon Musk, the man behind electric car manufacturer Tesla.
SpaceX and its recycled rockets and spectacular success are turning heads on a global scale. Musk has already achieved a soft landing after a return from outer space, and he is envisioning rockets that can be refuelled like regular airplanes. This scenario costs only a fraction of the industry's usual single-use approach.
But Israël refuses to give up — quite the opposite, in fact. "It would be a huge mistake to only concentrate on SpaceX when contemplating the competition," he says.
He stresses that there are more competitors in the field besides SpaceX and that Arianespace is more sound than any of the others. "We are more reliable and will always remain more reliable," the 45-year-old says. "A new rocket is more secure than a used one. You don't always have to believe what the competition espouses."
A SpaceX launch — Photo: Official Facebook page
Israël points to last year, during which the Ariane rocket beat SpaceX. Europe won more commercial commissions to launch satellites into geostationary orbit than the California rookie, with a final annual score of 12-9.
This rocket race is the most tangible proof of the paradigm shift in space travel. A new movement in the U.S. called "New Space" has now also enthralled Europe, and Silicon Valley is already working on new business ideas and technological solutions.
Instead of the usual, large satellites, smaller versions with electric engines are now being used. Venture capitalists are financing ideas that would have merely been the stuff of science fiction films not so long ago. Luxembourg, for example, only recently announced that it would invest in so-called space mining, the extraction of raw materials from asteroids.
There are thousands of ongoing projects that concern themselves with supplying Internet access through orbiting satellites. But new players, such as Google and SpaceX, are now joining the well-established elite. The Airbus Group used to build at least two large satellites per year. But from now on it will concentrate on building hundreds of small ones instead.