The dream of the German SpaceX

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Germany dreams of its own SpaceX – of a young, dynamic space company that will stir up the industry and bring momentum to the encrusted European rocket market. And since Friday this dream has had a name: Isar Aerospace.

The start-up from Ottobrunn near Munich is the winner of the first German competition for microlauncher, as small rockets with a payload of a few hundred to 1000 kilograms are called. The prize money is eleven million euros – packaged in two orders for launches in 2022 or 2023. And that although Isar Aerospace has not yet screwed a single airworthy rocket together.

No experience building missiles – until now

It doesn’t matter, at least says the Federal Ministry of Economics, which announced the competition and has now announced the winner. Rather, the price is a bet on the future. It should be an incentive, a seal of approval, an advertisement. Its aim is to make a start-up big and well known, in the hope that it can gain a foothold in the highly competitive rocket market in a few years. But the German competition is even more. It is a targeted political pinprick against the established structures in Europe’s space travel: against a system from which everyone lives well, but which has so far only produced immensely expensive and little innovative rockets.

According to its developers, the rocket can transport up to 1,000 kilograms into orbit. For orientation: this is almost nothing compared to Europe’s established heavy-duty rocket Ariane 5, which can lift almost 22 tons into space. But the microlauncher are targeting a different market: They primarily want to transport satellites, which in the future will orbit the earth in hundreds or thousands in the form of so-called constellations and themselves weigh only a few hundred kilograms. How exactly Isar Aerospace wants to achieve this, for example with which fuel, has so far been silent on the start-up.

Part of the Isar Aerospace Spectrum rocket

But that didn’t matter in the competition either, at least to a large extent: With only 25 percent, the technical skills and the status of the development were included in the evaluation. This is shown by the competition criteria of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which organized the microlauncher initiative on behalf of the ministry. Another quarter was spent on finance and growth forecasts. On the other hand, the competitors were able to get half of the achievable evaluation points with their operational readiness: How many initial contracts have already been concluded? How many different customers are there in line? What will the starting price be?

The spirit of SpaceX

The model for all of this is the US space agency NASA, which has chosen a similar model for the transport of cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station: a competition, start-up funding, a lot of trust. Today, the former start-ups SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, now bought by the space company Northrop Grumman, regularly fly goods and people into space, with NASA only paying for the transport.

The German microlauncher competition is also an attack on Europe’s previous awarding practice for space contracts. The federal government may choose the winner, but the prize money ultimately comes from the European Space Agency ESA. This is how Germany enforced it at ESA at the end of 2019. The Germans hope that this will bring new momentum to the extremely encrusted European contract awarding process: more NASA, more competition and commerce, less classic ESA.

Not everyone likes that, especially not the French, the driving force behind Europe’s Ariane rockets. So far, they have always been awarded according to the same principle: Politicians came up with the desired specifications, the same corporations got the orders, jobs and industrial funding were the focus. The industry made a few concessions with the latest version, the Ariane 6, which is currently under construction. It is true that it also invested out of its own pocket and accepted a fixed price. Still, she kept coming up with excuses to ask for additional money from ESA. The development of the Ariane 6 is now expected to cost at least four billion euros, and a first flight cannot be considered until mid-2022 at the earliest.

Two unsuccessful applicants

By then – at least according to the most optimistic plans – Isar Aerospace could already have launched its first rocket. The two inferior competitors, the Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse from Neuenstadt am Kocher in Württemberg, also want to take off next year. Then there will also be new money, in the second round of the competition: “The whole thing won’t be a flash in the pan,” promises Walther Pelzer. “We give the losing applicants the chance to make improvements and apply for a further eleven million euros.”

The money is not the focus anyway. Now that the hydrogen bubble has just burst on the stock exchanges and venture capitalists are looking for new markets, promising space start-ups can hardly save themselves from investors at the moment. Isar Aerospace claims that it has already raised 100 million euros. The microlauncher price therefore has different qualities. He promises attention, words of praise from the Minister of Economic Affairs, but above all two reliable start-up orders, which in turn can be used to lure investors. At least in theory.

Whether all of this will work out – both with the German SpaceX and with the ESA turning inside out – seems questionable. The competition among microlaunchers is fierce, and many US start-ups are much further ahead. And the old forces in Europe’s space travel are strong. For the time being, the Germans are demonstratively confident. Optimism prevails – and belief in the great role model: “SpaceX,” says DLR Manager Pelzer, “started with exactly the product that we are now promoting in competition: a microlauncher.”

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