Keep Calm And Learn Orbital Mechanics
From October to December every year, we have our orbital mechanics classes in Master in SUPAERO (the international class). It is a 20-hour module where we study the basics of space mechanics, from the laws of Kepler to the orbital elements, from the satellite ground tracks to the Gauss and Lagrange equations. We like to call it « Keep Calm and Learn Orbital Mechanics ». At the very front row of the 2019 class were three gentlemen with big smiles and ears wide open out of curiosity. The first one was a fellow named Charlie, from Indonesia, the second one was a fellow named Marco from Angola, and the third one was a fellow named Hari from India. Those three were always together and formed an interesting crew with various experiences in life. Charlie was already a young founding member of an artificial intelligence startup in Indonesia, and he was doing consulting work for Toyota at night while following the courses in SUPAERO during the day. His big dream was to launch a rocket company one day. Marco was an elegant, well-trained pilot in the Angolan army, as well as a talented cartoonist who designed small books about space for education of children in his home country. He showed us pictures of him in the newspaper shaking hands with the Angolan President, in a scientific event of national interest. Our guess is that he is going to become an important character later in his career. A future Army General, maybe a future Minister for Science or Space and who knows, maybe the President one day. Time only will tell if we have the privilege to have a President in our alumni students. If this happens to be the case, we will gladly honor any invitation at the Presidential Palace to give a lecture on everything about ellipses, parabolas, and the drift of the right ascension of the ascending node (should anyone be interested in the topic). And to complete the exotic trio, Hari was a young man from India, with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a consummate love for the space domain. He was author of a science-fiction book, available on Amazon, and also a social media star with several thousand followers. How interesting is that? So after the 20-hour module was over, we took the three of them to a nice restaurant to discuss space, life and other things.
Charlie, Hari and Marco in a business meeting (the Stellar way)
Southern gastronomy and the cycle of civilization
So we picked a restaurant in the countryside, where we had some typical French food from the Sud-Ouest (think « Cassoulet à la Graisse d’Oie » and other delicacies with a bottle of red wine from Gaillac). Hari was very interested about entrepreneurship, asked many questions and offered many suggestions. He actively showed his faith in the future and in success if someone really wants it. With such a wide panel of experiences, the discussion naturally gravitated towards the different cultures in Europe, Africa, India and South-East Asia, and the perspectives of civilization in all of them (past, present and future). Charlie discovered that Europe, after all, didn’t have so much to envy to his own country, and observed with some kind of disenchantment that the old continent looked somehow declining. He found out that Indonesia, after all, had a lot of competing attributes, if not better ones. Well, civilizations are cyclical. They start poor, work hard, achieve success, thrive, reach their peak, then think that abundance is forever, get complacent, consume everything, disrespect their most talented elements, waste all the money, inflate themselves into oblivion, lose their will to work, their skills, compete against themselves for the remaining resources, destroy each other like an autoimmune disease, slowly decline and then burn to ashes with a bang. Sorry for the dramatic picture, but doesn’t it look familiar? Only when reaching a multigenerational low do they get their minds sober enough and start the cycle upwards again. Don’t we know that from history already? To illustrate the cycle, Marco, the army pilot from Angola, said it best: « Tough times build tough people, though people build easy times, easy times build easy people, and easy people build though times ». Full circle. I had spent 20 hours in class to talk about sinus and cosinus, and there he came with a beautiful illustration. We can appreciate this nice bit of wisdom from a 20-or-so year-old. Another interesting factor he mentioned is the environment. With equal efforts, a seed will grow poorly if the soil is not fertile. If you have entrepreneurial aspirations, the political system and the mentality of the country may play a considerable role in the outcome of your efforts. Take this into account in your planning. The anonymous Richard Bransons or Steve Jobses who were born in the Soviet Union in the 50’s could never come up with the Macintosh or Virgin Records/Cola/Airlines in the 80’s. Bureaucracy made it highly improbable, and state control would have taken away all the potential rewards. At that time, the best option for an intelligent, strategic, hard-working person was probably not to be innovative, but rather to get close to the power elites, lobby, and find a way to gobble up all the state industries. Incentives do have an influence on outcomes.
Pondering business strategy, well into the night
Joining Stellar Space Studies
So the dinner went well, and then life kept going, we all stayed in contact, everyone went his way and finished the academic year with their internship. Hari worked for a Californian startup to send DNA to the Moon. In the fall of 2020, we had a business opportunity at Stellar, and we were looking for someone we could trust to join the company. In a small company, the most important thing you need is trust. You need someone who believes in your company, who wants to be a part of it. What you need to avoid at all costs is someone who comes to do hours of presence and withdraw a check every month. Hari had proved that he had the right state of mind and he was bold and colorful enough to join the adventure. As for his skills, he didn’t go through the math-intense, army-like, Classes Préparatoires « à la française », but he still had the Master from SUPAERO (not a small feat), and he had a strong desire to learn. The other candidates we met looked a little dull in comparison, with conventional thoughts about work, and no clue about entrepreneurship. Communication with those regular engineers straight out of school were nice and polite but felt like a dead-end. Their interest was more aroused by things such as lunches at the canteen, worry-free workdays, company benefits, while we were enthusiastically proposing them « blood, sweat and tears », and a quarter of the pay only after the client had accepted the delivery (that means several months delay). Rare is the modern West European student interested in this kind of offer. At twenty years old, they are intensely concerned about safety of employment and actively planning for it. So the choice was obvious. I offered the job to Hari. He was elated, and he joined immediately.
So the journey was extremely interesting. We did work both on gravity field (classic geodesy) and on the trajectory of particles in the atmosphere (for example carbon dioxide from forest fires or from human factories, or sand dust from the Sahara). We had a lot of work to do, many new things to learn. Hari made superhuman efforts to make up for his few gaps in mathematics and physics. We were very supportive and appreciative. More than anything else, we enjoyed his will to do good, to bear responsibility, to live up to the task, and to be a man of honor. These are the things you need in a small company. He was a good companion on our little ship. So congratulations and thank you. At the end, the client was extremely happy, said the work was impressive, and Hari got his quarter pay as a timely reward for the success. At Stellar, there IS a link between effort and reward. There is a link between service rendered, mission accomplished, and salary. While some people would take to the streets screaming for exploitation, actually, here, everyone likes it.
How Long Blues
There’s a blues song in the traditional repertoire called How Long Blues. The rest of story felt exactly like that song. After one small contract was over and successfully achieved, the customer had to make another one to continue the work. It just so happens that the client was a state-run institution, and as everything with state-run institutions, there is no hurry for anything. So instead of living up to their word of quick continuation, they slowly waited for over a year. Since we don’t have a direct pipeline of cash flowing to us while we wait, things started to become first unpleasant, and then unbearable. More than this, the whole partnership started to lose its appeal. Who would want to commit themselves with people who can’t keep their word and have the nerves to make us wait forever? Long story short, we had to make the decision to fire the gentleman. Sorry, what? Imagine this. The man did his utmost best and gets fired in the end. Fired for good results. Talk about a full-service experience in a startup. He could not possibly have extracted more experience out of it. You might think we are being sarcastic, but not at all. When you’re young, the most important thing you can do is to build experiences. It widens your perspective on things, it builds your character, and you always recover. So we recommend it to anyone: go to a small company, learn the spirit, do your best, take the risks, celebrate the appreciation of the client, get your bonus, and then get fired! Of course, we’re not recommending you to do it at 50, but at 20, don’t hesitate for a second. By the way you should also watch Jack Ma’s advice (the founder of Alibaba) in the Inspiration section of the blog. He says the exact same thing (here). We must say that it was also quite an experience for us, to fire someone. It was scary, it was uncomfortable, it was unfair, and it had to be done in the most gentle and respectful manner. A small company is full of unexpected challenges.
When the new contract was finally ready to be issued, several months after Hari’s departure, we could have hired someone new and answered positively, but we didn’t. After this tough lesson, we decided we should be very selective with the people we engage with. We are looking for customers who respect our good work (with proof through their actions), and who can manage things in due time. That’s not so hard after all, and certainly not as hard as what we are doing. We are thinking long-term, and we are seriously committed to what we are doing. Every move is a defining step that can either build or burden our future. The effort and work of a small company is intense and exhausting, so we want to engage with customers who honor and value it. We left a nice hefty sum on the table, but we are very happy with our decision. It was a transformative experience for both Hari and the company. After being fired, he had his several months of chômage (unemployment benefits), then applied to several other opportunities. We recommended him wherever we could, and made personal letters to CEO of companies of his choice to advocate for his qualities. He finally left France for Germany and now works in another space company. We have been in touch ever since. We share news regularly, and we reflect on our past common experience. We laugh about it now. The last time we talked (December 2023), he had just been awarded « employee of the month » in his new company. We’re not surprised! Well done. We wish to address our sincere thanks for writing a chapter in the Stellar story. Congratulations for your courage and efforts, and best wishes for the future! Keep in touch!