Orbit becomes a business model – also in Germany

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All in white the factory halls are painted. “Space X” is in silver letters under the roof edge. Not big and boastful, but elegant and futuristic. If you drive by car at the halls in Los Angeles near the airport, you might easily miss the lettering.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the Falcon rocket, which juts out into the blue evening sky next to the entrance building. A triumph of engineering and business management: the latest Falcon variants fly into space as reliably and inexpensively as no other carrier before, and then largely return to earth undamaged.

Access to the heavily guarded halls on Rocket Road is difficult to get. Space X shields itself. During the visit of the Handelsblatt no pictures were taken, no details from the current production are described. Only so much: It is 8 pm, and the hall is buzzing. Everywhere is hammering, welding and knocking. Work is always going on, at full speed, around the clock and seven days a week.

The factory buildings are the realm of Elon Musk. The physicist has with his company Tesla not only revolutionized mobility on the street and with paypal Paying on the Internet, but with Space X also the way into space. Musk founded the company in 2002, initially as a small project to support the US space agency Nasa. But it has become one of today's most successful start-ups, valued at more than $ 33 billion today.

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Musk has set the right trend. The world speaks of key technologies such as Artificial Intelligence or the quantum computer, Far too little attention is given in this discourse to the space economy. In the space of space travel, a billion-dollar market has developed in recent years. It's about a lot of money and huge growth. America and China are taking on a new race for supremacy in space.

New applications like small satellites are providing a boom. The investment bank UBS currently estimates annual revenue in the space economy at $ 400 billion, a figure that is set to double by 2030. Only a quarter of the turnover is accounted for by state space projects and three quarters by private sector.

Besides Musk, there are two other illustrious entrepreneurs who have recognized and used this trend: AmazonFounder Jeff Bezos founded the space company Blue Origin. British multi-entrepreneur Richard Branson recently launched its space business Virgin Galactic.

blast-off

Access to SpaceX is heavily guarded. The company shields itself.

(Photo: action press)

What drives all three is, in addition to the eternal fascination of space, above all the prospect of steadily falling marginal costs. The costs of space technology will soon be 100 times less through inventions and entrepreneurship than is currently the case, Bezos is convinced, and will open up a “completely new world”. “Creativity, dynamism, you will see the same things in space that I have experienced on the internet for the past 20 years.”

The key difference: Bezos and Branson put on tourist flights into space. A future market that has yet to fulfill the hopes placed in it. Even Musk is never at a loss for a high-flying vision. But at the same time he is deeply involved in the current bread and butter business of space travel: to place satellites in space at the lowest possible cost, providing us with entertainment and information, driving cars autonomously, About and let Lyft provide their services or let Deutsche Bahn know where trees are blocking their tracks.

Germany has no Musk and no Bezos. But for the Federal Republic of the space Bonanza offers many opportunities. The German engineering and Tüftlerexpertise is made for the space market. Reliability and innovation are vital in space, the merger of software and IT with mechanical mastery an urgent prerequisite – all known strengths of German companies, Industry 4.0 in its purest form.

Musk is the impeller of Space X, but the engineers and experts are guided by a German, Hans Koenigsmann. “If you do not dare, you do not win,” says Koenigsmann, Chief Engineer at Space X, in an interview with Handelsblatt.

European-German companies like airbus or OHB in Bremen already implemented many billions of euros in space travel. Airbus, for example, supplies the service module for the manned Nasa space capsule Orion. Numerous start-ups, especially around Bremen and Munich, are working on small but important projects for the space industry. “Half the Orion spaceship is being built in Bremen. We are thus giving the Americans the way to the moon, “says Thomas Jarzombek proudly, the Federal Government's space coordinator.

Jarzombek is fighting for the expansion of space programs in the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology of Peter Altmaier. 855 million euros for the programs of the European Space Agency (ESA), the federal budget for 2020 – Jarzombek would have wanted a billion. The national German program also includes 297 million euros.

Bavaria's Prime Minister Markus Söder also announced that he would spend 700 million euros on a Bavarian aerospace program over the next few years. However, only 30 million euros have been approved for projects this year. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer joked in the Handelsblatt interview: “Bayern can fly ahead.”

The ridicule falls slightly on the subject. After all, over many decades space travel was considered an expensive prestige toy by powerful men, a symbol of the waste of taxpayers' money. Let's solve the problems on earth first, before we fly into space: This skeptical attitude is especially pronounced in Germany. It is amplified by the fact that rocket launches cause huge amounts of the climate gas C02.

IPO in New York

Richard Branson rings the bell for his space tourism company Virgin Galactic.

(Photo: AFP)

At the same time, we have long been dependent on space travel on Earth. The ESA estimates that 10 percent of EU economic output now depends solely on functioning navigation satellites. Gradually, there is also a realization in Germany that space travel is a future market that often already works without state money – and in which German companies have good opportunities.

Kramp-Karrenbauer therefore takes it seriously when she proposes to use the new EU Agency for Armaments and Space to pool national competences across Europe. The business in space can not be conquered in the sprint, it is more like a marathon. Projects do not run for years, but often for decades. They are high risk and complex.

A few weeks ago, the head of the Federal Association of German Industry (BDI), Dieter Kempf, ventured out of cover at a space congress of his association. The BDI chief demanded in front of 400 guests from the space scene and the Berlin policy to build a German spaceport. “Space travel is a key to future technologies for industrialized Germany,” says Kempf.

It's not about huge rocket ramps, like those in French Guiana, from which the Ariane launches, but about starting slots for new “mini launcher”: small rockets, the minisatellites to bring into orbit. Enormous advantages offer that, so Kempf. Today, small satellite manufacturers often have to wait months to book seats on Indian rockets.

The state government of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has already had six months to check whether the airport Rostock Laage could be considered. The Bundeswehr airfield Nordholz in Lower Saxony is also being investigated. And Minister of Economic Affairs Altmaier agreed with Kempf after the congress to want to examine the idea.

With its 297 million euros, Germany is only 8th for the national space program. “The Federal Republic should increase the program to at least the level of the French budget of more than 700 million euros”, demands Kempf.

In a few days, the Council of Ministers of ESA will meet. There, the European countries advise how much money they will grant to the Nasa counterpart in Europe. However, the question arises whether in Europe should no longer be based on private sector. The European Ariane rocket is considered reliable, but also expensive and therefore less competitive.

A look into the US shows surprising: The budget cuts of NASA in the economic crises of 2002 and 2008 forced the space agency to cooperate with the private sector – and thus sparked the US spaceflight boom, which leads Elon Musk today.

Unconscious in Moscow

The idea for Space X was born in spring 2001 on a drive. Elon Musk had spent the weekend with friends on the beach in the Hamptons and drove back to New York with his student friend Adeo Ressi. The two talked about their wealth. What to do with it? Ressi had just sold his internet company Methodfive. The payment service Paypal, which was co-founded by Musk, was soon to go public.

Musk and Ressi came to speak to space. How little has happened since the moon landing in 1969. But how do people get excited about the topic again? The “obvious” thing would be a flight to Mars, Ressi recalled in an article to the conversation. The idea was born. First it was a mouse, then a plant that wanted to send the two 228 million kilometers to Mars. A symbol act.

Only the missile was missing. Initial talks with Arianespace in Paris brought little, the Europeans were too expensive. But in Paris Musk and Ressi heard that Russia wanted to get rid of its modified ICBMs. The two flew to Moscow, the meeting with the Russian space agency was unforgettable.

Elon Musk (left) with SpaceX chief engineer Hans Koenigsmann

“Nothing ventured nothing gained.”

(Photo: imago / ZUMA Press)

“There was a toast every two minutes,” Ressi recalled. On America, on space, on American space. One of Ressi's last memories was the sight of Musk lying unconscious on the tabletop. “Then I was gone, too.”

Instead of buying a rocket in Russia, Musk soon came up with the idea: to build it himself. Several times Musk was in Russia, on his last return flight he tapped the airplane in a laptop all the time. On landing, he showed his companions, two aerospace engineers, his spreadsheet. One of them was the later Nasa boss Mike Griffin, now State Secretary in the Pentagon.

The experts surprised Musk with a simple yet compelling account of how to build a rocket for significantly less money than ever before. Griffin asked him where he got the details from. From books, Musk replied.

The rest is history. The Falcon 9 revolutionized space travel. So the rocket is almost completely built by Space X itself. This was expensive and laborious in the beginning, but the engineers were able to realize the savings potential in every small part. They can also optimize the technical interaction of engine, control and steering devices and other elements in this way. And they can construct the rocket so that they can be reused, which was previously considered barely feasible.

The Falcon 9 pushed the cost of space travel in almost unprecedented manner. From 1970 to 2000, conventional missiles cost more than $ 18,000 to send a kilogram of cargo into space. The space shuttle cost more than $ 54,000. With the Falcon 9, one kilo of freight costs only about $ 2,600.

The prices will continue to fall. Long-established companies like Orbital ATK and Northrop Grumman or the United Launch Alliance of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing have woken up and push their costs with their innovations. More and more satellites can be launched into orbit cheaply – and the dense satellite network enables completely new business models even on Earth.

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