The Exploration Company is developing an all-new reusable orbital spacecraft – TechCrunch

European space scene is about 5 to 10 years behind that of America, explained Hélène Huby in a recent interview. She’s certainly qualified to make such an assessment: Huby spent much of her career with major European aerospace company Airbus, where one of her roles was as Vice President of European Service Module (ESM). . The ESM is the power and propulsion component of NASA’s Orion orbital vehicle, which the space agency wants to use to return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo era.

Huby left Airbus in August 2021. As she says, “I didn’t want to spend my life working on a vehicle that’s not reusable, that can’t be refueled.” So she decided to make one herself.

In a move that likely caused waves at the aerospace company, she and two others — Artur Koop, the ESM propulsion subsystem manager, and Jon Reijneveld, the deputy principal systems engineer — left Airbus. With Sébastien Reichstat and Pierre Vinet, they founded The Exploration Company, which develops a reusable and refuelable orbital vehicle. Its closest analogues are the Dragon capsule from SpaceX or the Starliner from Boeing. According to Huby, there is no close European competitor – and this is the opportunity for a European startup to maintain itself on the international stage.

“The [space] The exploration ecosystem is going to change dramatically over the next 10 to 15 years,” she said. “If you can do that, you have a huge advantage of being one of the first to market.”

A different model for Europe

The Exploration Company raised approximately €11.5 million ($11.6 million), including a €5.3 million ($5.3 million) seed round led by Promus Ventures, with participation from Vsquared and Cherry Ventures. Its workforce has grown to around 30 people.

The startup moves fast — it plans to fly a demonstrator on an Ariane 6 rocket in October — and speed is by design. While Huby stressed that she learned everything she knew at Airbus, she ran into what has now become almost a meme in the startup world: a desire to move fast and take risks. in a corporate environment that may not welcome either of those things. .

“It was rational, given the nature of my project,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been the right choice to stay at Airbus, because it just wasn’t the right setup for it to develop properly.”

While such a trend may be common in the United States, Huby added that The Exploration Company is unique in that nearly all executives have spent most of their careers with large corporations. “What you usually see in Europe are people [that] just graduated from starting a business,” she explained. “I think we’re the first where the majority of co-founders come from a company.”

Bikini, then Nyx

The Exploration Company will launch this year “Bikini”, a re-entry demonstrator of its orbital vehicle, followed in 2024 by the first functional prototype. The 2024 mission is about 80% pre-booked with customer payloads, Huby said. Reservations are both Letters of Intent or Memoranda of Understanding, so no customer has yet to pay a deposit and the agreements are non-binding. Huby said the company is in talks with select customers to transition some of those agreements into signed contracts, with installments, by October.

In 2026, the company intends to launch the maiden flight of its own orbital vehicle, named Nyx after the Greek goddess of the night. Like the Orion spacecraft, Nyx will consist of two components: the service module and the capsule. It will be capable of carrying up to 4,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit for a maximum mission of six months. The capsule will be reusable, and the service module may also be reusable depending on the mission. The idea, Huby said, is to eventually be able to refuel the service module using space-made propellant, with space-based resources (often referred to as “space resource utilization”).

The exploration company casts its net widely, so Nyx is designed to be independent of the caster. In October, the Bikini demonstrator will fly on an Ariane 6 rocket from French Guiana, while the first full-scale prototype will fly with SpaceX.

Huby pointed to Gateway, NASA’s plan to build a station in orbit around the moon, as a possible use case. Nyx could provide last-mile delivery to the lunar surface, refuel on the Moon, and return to Gateway. She also touched on the myriad plans for private space stations that have popped up, from Orbital Reef to Stargate, that will require spacecraft capable of transporting goods and people to and from Earth.

Notably, the company was one of ten startups selected to be part of Amazon Web Services 2022 AWS Space Accelerator, and referenced Orbital Reef as a partner. Orbital Reef is a private space station developed by Sierra Space and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

A render of Nyx. Source: The Exploration Company.

“I clearly see a need for more competition to fundamentally solidify the business model for these private stations,” Huby said. “I think the cool thing about what we’re doing is that, on the one hand, we’re providing Europe with independent access to what’s going to be a very big field of new business. On the other hand, we offer more competition to the United States, which makes the business plan of these public-private space stations more reliable, which is in NASA’s very strong interest.

In the longer term, The Exploration Company also wants to develop a human version of Nyx, much like how there is a cargo and crewed SpaceX Dragon capsule. The company plans to open a US subsidiary next year, aiming to leverage a relationship with NASA.

“We haven’t built that kind of cooperation with NASA yet, and I’ve already noticed that they will be open to that,” Huby said.

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