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“Our world is permanently subject to difficult challenges…there are multiple benefits for the people to have ‘positive visions’… Space projects are exceptional, in this respect…”

June 17, 2020

Pierre-Eric Lys is both a space and telecom scientist who successfully dabbled in space insurance for many years. He started as the Director of Space Risks at Allianz. Subsequently founded Paris based Spaceco, later moving it across to Dubai – where he founded another successful space insurance venture Elesco. It eventually became a world leader. An ace competitive sailor, Pierre is also a helicopter pilot. During the last five years he is involved in aeronautical research on solar power stratospheric UAVs and other humanitarian projects. Pierre is a keen observer of anything and everything to do with space. In this conversation he highlights the race, rivalry, and collaboration within the exclusive space club. He recalls the magic of live launches from the launch pads and how they sent his adrenaline gushing. In his view space projects fuel ‘positive visions’ thereby helping cope with the challenges we face today. The International Space Station, he believes, is the safest place to be in these times!

I can fly this, too!

Praveen Gupta: Does the successful SpaceX mission to the International Space Station (ISS) by the USA gets it ahead of Russia, in the manned launch capability?

Pierre Lys: To answer this question, you would have to look back into the entire history of manned spaceflights. It all started back in the days of cold war between USA and Soviet Union. Both parties have had their own path – with USA flying to the moon in the late 60’s and Russia flying long duration spaceflights using their Mir station in the late 80’s. As of today, the longest duration flight record is still held by cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who spent 438 consecutive days onboard Mir in 1994-1995. China later joined the club in 2011. The ISS was then put together as a joint effort between Russia and Western countries, at the end of the 90’s.

Talking about the manned rated launch vehicles – USA developed the Space Shuttle, which was operated between 1981 and 2011, now replaced by SpaceX Falcon 9. Russia has used the Soyuz rocket and its evolutions and has flown nearly 2000 times since 1966. Russia remains today the most experienced country in launching and flying humans into space. Their technology is getting old but has reached an unprecedented level of reliability. In terms of capabilities and technology, Falcon 9 is indeed way more advanced than the Soyuz. However, I believe we would need to see a few more successes before it becomes the reference in the field of human rated launch vehicles.

Russia remains today the most experienced country in launching and flying humans into space. Their technology is getting old but has reached an unprecedented level of reliability.

PG: Is the entrepreneurial zeal of Elon Musk the differentiator over an established bureaucracy of Boeing?

PL: It is certain that Elon Musk had a vision and has remained committed to it, even in difficult times of early failures of Falcon 1 rockets. Both the technical and the manufacturing efficiencies of SpaceX give them a very substantial advantage over any competition. Boeing needs to re-focus on making good aircrafts and good space vehicles in the hard environment of Covid crisis and strong aerospace competition. It is even more challenging for them to switch all their staff to a “nothing is impossible” mode – like SpaceX staff seems to have adopted since day one.

Boeing needs to re-focus on making good aircrafts and good space vehiclesIt is even more challenging for them to switch all their staff to a “nothing is impossible” mode – like SpaceX staff.

PG: Did you watch the SpaceX launch from its own ‘trampoline’? Did you feel any different from any past onsite launches? Which of them has been the most memorable?

PL: Indeed, I watched the entire live cover for both the first attempt and the actual launch on May 30th. I would not miss any step of the amazing launch preparation sequence. I was lucky enough to be involved in many manned space program starting from Shuttle to Mir docking and ISS key life support systems. I attended many launches in many countries but launch of humans is always more emotional than satellite launches. I have seen Shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral and Soyuz inhabited launch from Baikonur cosmodrome. I cannot help from thinking about the exceptional number of equipment and qualified people who need to be ready and work exactly as planned at T-0 (launch second).

As an engineer, I am also always impressed by the performances necessary to bring astronauts to a much faster speed than a bullet. This Dragon 2 Demo flight was no different. However, attending a live launch on the launch pad is incredibly special and cannot be forgotten. When the sound of the rocket hits you, your body physically feels the power of the vehicle. And when you know someone is sitting on top of the vehicle, the adrenaline connects directly to your emotions. I was lucky to seat just next to Dennis Tito’s family on the launch pad of Baikonur in April 2001. Today, I still remember every moment of this event, not only because he was the first tourist to fly to space.

When the sound of the rocket hits you, your body physically feels the power of the vehicle. And when you know someone is sitting on top of the vehicle, the adrenaline connects directly to your emotions.

PG: Would space tourism generate enough traffic to make it commercially viable? Would it commence with visits to the international space station?

PL: Space tourism has always been extremely popular. Just ask your friends and relatives, you would be surprised by the number of people who would like to fly to space. The hurdle is usually not the risks but the financial part of it. Dennis Tito’s flight to the space station cost him USD 20 million in 2001. Twenty years later, the price has reduced by a factor 100. No doubt this trend will continue. I need to add the numerous number of near space experience offered today from accurate simulators to 0-gravity flights in airplanes.

I believe, however, that the International Space Station is not the easiest place for tourism. First, it was designed as a laboratory and it requires specific and complex training. Second, I do not believe that tourists would want to fly for more than a few hours, simply because the body reactions during long spaceflights are still difficult to accept just for pleasure. Third, going to and returning from the International Space Station requires a difficult in-orbit rendezvous. It is inefficient to fly there and return just for fun. I believe that short term flights to experience no gravity and to see the earth from above using a dedicated vehicle is certainly the future.

I believe that short term flights to experience no gravity and to see the earth from above using a dedicated vehicle is certainly the future.

PG: Are actuaries and underwriters ready to price such risks?

PL: Underwriting space risks is usually not an actuarial exercise, for the simple reason that the statistics are usually too low in numbers to draw any inference. Space underwriters are usually qualified space engineers who would consider the flight data, manufacturing record and testing of the equipment that are used – to price the risk. I remain proud to have provided insurance for the first commercial Falcon rocket.

Space underwriters are usually qualified space engineers who would consider the flight data, manufacturing record and testing of the equipment… to price the risk.

PG: Do hedge funds continue as risk carriers for launches?

PL: From my experience, space risks is like any other high volatility risks. The first benefit of only insuring launches is that you can actually ‘watch the claim live’ – right in front of your eyes. However, if you decide to insure satellites, it is the opposite, you cannot send an expert to assess the damages! You would have to rely on temperature, voltage, current data to assess the loss and determine the claim value. Hedge funds are looking for risks which are de-correlated from large natural disasters on earth as a good supplement to their portfolio.

The first benefit of only insuring launches is that you can actually ‘watch the claim live’ – right in front of your eyes. However, if you decide to insure satellites… you cannot send an expert to assess the damages!

PG: Jeff Bezos believes fastest way to Mars is via moon. Is he on the drawing board? What kind of time frame could he be nurturing?

PL: Bringing humans to Mars is a challenge in many ways. I would just start with an analogy which helps to visualise the distances: if the earth were a size of a football, the moon and mars would be the approximate size of an orange. The moon would be a few meters away from the earth ball, but mars would be a few kilometres away. This generates a large list of issues but just to share a few would help to answer your question. Communication with the earth would necessitate for the signal a few minutes to reach planet earth and then again, a few minutes for the mars inhabitants to receive an answer. Scenarios like “Houston we have a problem!” would then be somewhat different.

Bringing humans to Mars is a challenge in many waysScenarios like “Houston we have a problem!” would then be somewhat different.

The mars inhabitants would have to be autonomous in many ways. They would have to solve all kinds of problems (technical, medical, etc.) on their own. This brings me to my second point: you need to carry a lot of mass on the planet in order to embark all life support systems, and by the way you would also need to have the rocket and fuel to come back to earth at some point. This is a big challenge. Of course, we can imagine that fuel needed to return is produced on mars (therefore the search for water is so critical). However, the quantity of hardware is so significant that it cannot be a single rocket mission. One would first need to aggregate the cargo outside of earth gravity and then move this assembled cargo to mars.

The moon is certainly a good base for this because it is a lot easier to leave lunar gravity than to leave earth’s gravity. Interestingly, it took a decade to put the ISS together, but SpaceX has shown that it is possible to reduce the delays by a large factor. Once qualified for orbital missions, it is likely that Bezos’s Blue Origin program will show same pace. It is quite conceivable that building an infrastructure in the earth orbit or on the moon could be done in less than 5 years from now.

Ahead of the launch: Progress M-MRM2 (cargo vehicle) to ISS – Baikonur, 2009.

PG: Last but not the least, what makes you believe that we need projects like this, in these times?

PL: Our world is permanently subject to difficult challenges such as natural disasters, malnutrition, and more recently the Covid pandemic. Humanity has shown its resilience, however, there are multiple benefits for the people to have ‘positive visions’ as well as challenges to face. In today’s world, international cooperation is often reduced to international organisations like United Nations and World Health Organisation. Apart from large sports events like the Olympics or World Cups the outcome is never as visible as an actual project which everyone can see, understand and be part of. Space projects are exceptional, in this respect, in several ways. The International Space Station is a good example.

The Chandrayaan missions have been followed by millions of people around the world. Thousands of Indian engineers have been involved directly or indirectly in this project. I am amazed by the level of details known by your countrymen about the past and future Indian exploratory missions.

There is certainly an enhanced pride when significant projects have a national content. I would just refer to a speech from Dr APJ Abdul Kalam during the International Astronautical Congress 2007, in Hyderabad. His speech was a direct message to the young generations. Dr Kalam explained the importance for a country to have a sustainable growth path, and the vision to see India proud of its leadership. He explained to the young generations that every one of them will be an active contributor to these goals. During the following decade, the Chandrayaan missions have been followed by millions of people around the world. Thousands of Indian engineers have been involved directly or indirectly in this project. I am amazed by the level of details known by your countrymen about the past and future Indian exploratory missions.

PG: Many thanks for these ‘out of this world’ insights, Pierre!

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