How is space exploration likely to impact terrestrial farming? Could space agriculture solve the global food crisis, or provide solutions to adapt to climate change?
Hélène Huby is the co-Founder and CEO of Munich-based The Exploration Company, a space logistics company which aims to democratise space exploration. It has created Nyx, a modular and reusable orbital vehicle that can eventually be refuelled in orbit, which will fly its first mission in 2024.
Before launching The Exploration Company, Hélène served for a number of years as VP Orion European Service Module at Airbus Defence and Space.
She spoke with Felicity Carter at ARENI Live – Stellenbosch Edition in July 2022.
Space exploration was once the preserve of governments, but it’s recently moved into the commercial world. How and why did this happen?
I’d like to share a little bit about how space and the space industry has changed in the past 10 to 15 years, because basically we’ve been moving from a government-driven industry into a commercial industry. Then I have the pleasure to introduce you to Nyx, which is the spacecraft we’re currently building between Germany and France. So a little bit about the evolution of space.
This is a photo of Saturn 5 with the Appollo mission on the top. The cost of this development is between 10 and 15 billion, and 2 billion per flight, with one astronaut around the Moon and two astronauts in the capsule, and it was only these three astronauts in the tiny capsule coming back. And if you think about the business model, well, there is none. You basically just lose 2 billion per flight. This was space exploration in the 70’s. Now, I’m going very fast in history.
I’m sorry for the photo, which is very emotional. This is the accident of Challenger. Basically, because of that accident and also because of the end of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, Nixon decided to reduce significantly the NASA budget for space. This is why since the beginning of the 2000s, space has been done step by step by completely different money. And this started with an alliance of these two people. Here is Michael Griffin, who was Administrator of NASA [from 2005 to 2009]. And, of course, everyone knows Elon Musk. And what happened is that instead of NASA defining how they wanted to build a spacecraft, they started producing service, just like highways in France. Highways in France is a state service but then they open up to competition to actually execute. This is what basically gave birth to what is called today “new space”.
Thanks to this new way of functioning, the cost of bringing something to space has been divided by approximately 10 in the past 10 years. So 10 to 15 years ago, it would cost you $25,000 if you would like to send one kilogram to space. Today, the cost per kilogram is about $2,500. So ten times less, and tomorrow thanks to larger cargos it will cost you $250. Access to space has become affordable because of this competition and things you send to space [ie satellites] has also become way more affordable.
10 to 15 years ago, it would cost you $25,000 if you would like to send one kilogram to space. Today, the cost per kilogram is about $2,500, and tomorrow thanks to larger cargos it will cost you $250. Access to space has become affordable.Hélène Huby, Co-founder and CEO, The Exploration Company
If you look at why space is useful today on earth, you see an exponential demand for space data imagery. At the beginning, it was for the military because they wanted to look at what the other countries were doing. But today this data are used for climate insurance, finance, logistics, agriculture. You can basically save 20% of the water you use, if you use data from space to optimize the way you use fertilizers and water, for example. A lot of usage is basically to optimize our activities on earth, but also for broadband connectivity for both us as human but soon also broadband for autonomous vehicles. And since access to space has become affordable, we have more and more VCs and companies going into that area and more and more entrepreneurs. To give an example on how investment in space has grown: it was a few double digits million investment at the beginning of the 2000s, and last year  it was $8 billion invested by VCs in the space tech industry.
Now let me illustrate what we are doing now. What we are doing as a very first step is just to fly around the earth and come back, because this is the easiest way to do things. As a second step, we’re going to dock at stations. Around the earth today you have two stations, the Chinese and the International Space Station, and in 2030, eight years from now, you are going to have eight stations. We’ll have two around the moon, one which is currently being built between Russia and China. These stations are already funded and in production, co-funded by NASA and private investors, with a mix of institutional business to serve the scientific needs of the space agency, to prepare our lives on the Moon and Mars and also for space technologies and space tourism.
These four private stations will, step by step, replace the International Space Station. The war in Ukraine has just accelerated this dynamism because the United Stated don’t want any more to depend or to cooperate with Russia. So that’s the landscape, how it’s going to look like, and we are going to serve these stations.
When I look at what’s happening in space, a lot of the scientific research is about doing things in microgravity. I didn’t realize this, but a lot of biological and chemical processes are affected by gravity and they operate quite differently in microgravity. The wine industry is particularly interested in plants.
Your interest is in the mechanics of sending things into space, but can you talk a little bit about the kinds of experiments that are being done, particularly with regards to plant material?
At the beginning, there were a lot of experiments to understand how we could live in space and to prepare us humans, step by step, to become a space sharing civilization, because our body is not used to microgravity. Plants are not used to microgravity. So if you’re serious about saying, okay, one day we’re going to live on Mars, then you really need to understand your body and how you’re going to grow plants also in this kind of environment. That was the beginning of the research. And while doing research in the space station, they also discovered that this research can be used here on earth.
I think some of you know Nicolas Gaume. He’s the one coming from Bordeaux and he sent some plants and some wine to the Space Station. And when they came back, these plants were more resistant, more resilient. They would use less water for example, and they would resist better to higher temperatures. Because in microgravity environment, water circulates differently. The plant is also very very stressed because this is a totally unknown environment on earth, so the plant must adapt. And when it comes back it is more resistant.
When they came back, plants were more resistant, more resilient. They would use less water and they would resist better to higher temperatures. Because in microgravity environment, water circulates differently. The plant is also very stressed because this is a totally unknown environment on earth, so the plant must adapt.Hélène Huby, Co-founder and CEO, The Exploration Company
What’s the end goal? It seems very unsustainable to send seeds into space and bring them back or to understand what microgravity does and introduce plant breeding in a microgravity environment here on earth.
There are two objectives. One is really to prepare humans to live in space. When the Space Station started, people would stay there for one month, two months, and then they would really have to go back because it was unsustainable for their body. Science helped people to stay six months, eight months up there. So there is like scientific need to prepare us as a space-faring nation in the future. As per doing microgravity on earth, if you think about renting a scientific facility, it can be very expensive, when at the same time space is becoming more and more affordable, it actualy doesn’t cost you more to do things up there and it can even accelerate your research.
If you are a pharmaceutical company working on stem cells—which is currently one of the real bottleneck of the pharma industry—stem cells are way more resistant in microgravity. Or if you think about aging, we age eight time faster in microgravity. So if you send mice up there, then you will see what is happening faster than what you see here on earth.
When you are talking about vines becoming more resistant and using less water, how can you translate that into a benefit on earth?
The vines that were sent up there will be planted back in Bordeaux, and this will become a new variety of vine and it will remain resistant.
Who owns the Moon? Who owns space? Can everybody who is able put a station up there—and how do we manage space junk?
There is a treaty of 1967 which was signed to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in space. And that treaty still exists. [And that nobody can own space and that the Moon will be used for peaceful purposes.] That being said, because of the race to the Moon that we’re seeing right now—just remember that we are going to have two space stations around the Moon. Why? Because in the Moon there is a lot of water and also Helium-3, and Helium-3 is a key resource for nuclear propulsion. You have to drill, you have to extract it, you have to purify it, but then you can use it to propel rockets and spaceships, it’s the propulsion energy of the future.
The Moon—not now, but in 10, 15 or 20 years—is going to become a very big logistics hub. China and the United States are racing to have access to Helium-3 and water.
So nobody owns the Moon, but a one and half year ago, the USA published the Artemis agreement -signed by France a few weeks ago- basically saying that nobody owns the Moon, but if you find yourself on the Moon with your driller and that you happen to find water, you can use the water the way you want.
Who’s responsible for litter on the Moon?
Nobody, for the time being. You still have the remains of the first missions.
There are also many constellation projects. In the next five years we will have 40,000 to 51,000 new satellites orbiting the earth. This has increased the probability of debris hitting one another. There is a new ecosystem popping up with new businesses, like radars on earth, looking at space so that you can move your satellite and avoid debris, but also vehicles which can remove debris.
Some of the research is just absolutely mind blowing. But there are also very frivolous things. We’ve already seen somebody spending money to send a case of Pétrus to space. Cosmetic researchers are really interested in space. Is this going to be a free for all where whoever’s got enough money can go and do whatever they like?
Space today is perceived as things for billionaires. If you want to go to the Space Station, you have to pay $50 million. They stay a few days or a few minutes up there. Many people say, yeah, they should not do that. Let’s look back to the beginning of the aviation. In 1914, there was the first private person doing tourism with aviation. All the media were saying, “Hey, this is crazy. This is stupid. Why would you take an airplane?” And then, step by step, the technology was mastered. And Ryan Air arrived.
Let’s look back to the beginning of the aviation. In 1914, there was the first private person doing tourism with aviation. All the media were saying, “Hey, this is crazy. This is stupid. Why would you take an airplane?” And then, step by step, the technology was mastered. And Ryan Air arrived.Hélène Huby, Co-founder and CEO, The Exploration Company
You’ve just given us the perfect argument against space exploration.
My point is that the market will be there and it is our responsibility to find solutions, which respect the environment. And we are working on that.
We are at a technology turning point, similar to the 16th century with the caravels. And because we discovered how to build solid ships that could cross oceans, we just did that. The same is happening now in space. Step-by-step, we are discovering a new way of travelling into space. Not the way of Saturn 5, but a way where vehicles can be re-used and re-fuelled using propellant make from space resources. So that is changing completely the way we will be travelling into space in the next 10 to 15 years.
What are the big problems that we can solve by sending planting materials in space?
I think the first way space can be useful is space imagery. You can use the water in more efficient ways. Same for the prediction of how disease is going to spread. That’s being used already. The microgravity stuff—we are in a learning phase. China, for example, sends some rice varieties to their space station so that the rice will use less water and adapt to rising temperatures.
Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz
Talking to Nicolas Gaume, he explained that they are comparing cuttings that went to space with a control group they have in France. Exposed to mildew [downy], 100% of the control group cuttings got it, when only 50% of the space cuttings were affected. So they did a massale selection of the 50% mildew-free cuttings, and exposed them again. They are discovering that just by sending plant material to space, they are expressing different genes when they are back on earth, so they are very much hoping to find ways to fight diseases here on earth.
Doing experiments in a space station is obviously very different from doing interplanetary experiment. Are there any measures in place that would prevent any biological contamination?
From what I know, there is no such law at the time being. Of course, when astronauts come back they have to go through a full de-contamination process so that they don’t bring back something unknown. But there is very little regulation, mostly because it is difficult to go up there, and so before thinking of a framework, we are still facing enduring challenges just to find a way to get there
Miguel Torres Maczassek
Is there anything happening up there that can help us face climate change here?
Yes. As we mentioned before, there are all the satellites that are providing all the data that we have on climate change. So the first step is really to understand and predict.
Let me use a concrete example. There is company in India. They do not have satellites, but they are using space imagery to build software, and part of this software is to help farmers to use less water. The company has a very strong engagement and has decided to have an open version of the software. You have five million farmers in India that are now using space imagery and have reduced 15% of the water use.
Then, if you think about space explorations and the technology you develop to go there—space is very hard, right? So if you want to live in the station for six months, you’ll have to develop a lot of recycling technologies. The membranes that we use now on earth to recycle water were first developed in the International Space Station. The International Space Station has also developed a surface treatment that would capture microbes, which is currently used by Boeing to fight against Covid-19 in airplanes.
If you want to survive at lunar surface, you have to sustain 14 days in complete darkness at -20C, and then you have 14 days at +50C to +100C. So you need to be able to store the “day energy” to power through the night. And discovering this storage energy capacity could have big ripple effects here on earth.
I can also think of the Rover on the Moon. It has to be very frugal because every kilogram uses energy. It also has to be autonomous because you don’t guide a Rover with a joystick here on Earth. So the algorithms that are being developed are very different from the AI-based algorithms that we use on Earth; this will have a huge impact here on Earth.
And the great thing about space is that you can test everything because you don’t need certification. So sometimes innovation is faster because it’s more difficult and because you have more freedom.
This conversation is part of ARENI’s publication 12 Conversations: Different Ways of Looking at Sustainability, published in September 2022, available to all.