Europe-based The Exploration Company is gearing up to compete with in-space delivery providers SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, with the startup announcing this week that it had signed a preliminary cargo delivery agreement with private space station aspirant Axiom Space.
Axiom agreed to purchase a full mission from The Exploration Company no sooner than the fourth quarter of 2027, provided that the startup meets certain milestones by 2025, The Exploration Company CEO Hélène Huby explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview.
“This is our main business, servicing space stations,” she said. “Most of our missions that are in the business plan are two-thirds space station, because there is clearly a cargo need.”
The Exploration Company, which is based in Bordeaux, France and Munich, Germany, is moving quickly to meet those milestones. The startup is developing a modular and reusable orbital vehicle called “Nyx,” designed to deliver cargo (and possibly humans) to and from space stations.
The company is aiming to conduct an initial demonstration mission using a prototype called Bikini in January 2024. That mission was originally scheduled to fly with Arianespace’s Ariane 6 in the fall of this year, but due to delays with that launch vehicle, The Exploration Company decided to move to the Indian Space Research Organization's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.
Being launch vehicle agnostic now and into the future is one of The Exploration Company’s key differentiators, Huby explained.
“It's very good to be able to use some national assets when you do business with states," Huby says. "I think that's a big advantage that we have. I can fly with American launchers if this is NASA cargo we carry, if we bring Japanese cargo, we can use a Japanese launcher and if we bring Indian cargo we can use an Indian launcher. This is something very unique that will help us scale and also helps the space stations, because they can use us to show to India, Japan and other clients that we really care about the national industry and leveraging national industry.”
From 2024, The Exploration Company will fly another, slightly larger demonstration prototype called “Mission Possible” in the fourth quarter of 2024. While Bikini will burn up in the atmosphere, the two-year-old startup will attempt an ocean splashdown with the Mission Possible prototype. That mission is now sold out, Huby added. The Exploration Company has not yet chosen a launch provider for its first orbital mission scheduled for 2026.
The Exploration Company has moved very quickly since its founding in late 2021. The company closed a record European space tech Series A, closing €40.5 million ($44 million) in February of this year.
In many ways, however, the startup has faced a number of headwinds, not least of which is Europe’s slowness in supporting initiatives that would ensure European access to and transportation in space. Both SpaceX and Northrop, with their Dragon and Cygnus capsules respectively, benefited enormously from massive contracts from NASA to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station.
SpaceX has earned billions for its cargo resupply services, but the European Space Agency has only just started the initial solicitation phase for such services from Europe-based companies, Huby said. The Exploration Company is actively bidding on that contract, with Huby adding that their chances to be selected for phase one of a commercial orbital transportation services agreement “are about 98%.”
When considering Europe’s relative sluggishness, however, Huby said the attitude of some of the older politicians and citizens may be one cause.
“You look for security and comfort, that’s what you do when you’re 65, 75. You have some dreams but you don’t find to realize your dreams. I feel in Europe this kind of search for comfort and security. […] When we created Airbus, when we created the European Union, these were very bold ideas and these were huge successes. The only way we succeed in Europe is when we think bold -- so we just have to think bold and out of our comfort and security zone.”