Conquest of Space: “Elon Musk is way, way ahead of Jeff Bezos”

In space, François Chopard ended up being widely heard. But for that he had to take some back roads. Centrale Supelec, first position at Airbus… after a direct start to his career, the engineer quickly deviated from his initial trajectory, heading towards the consulting professions. A choice that will take him to the United States in 2007, as a partner in the firm Oliver Wyman. There he discovers a world where there is talk of returning to the moon, drones, flying cars… He then decides to launch Starburst, which will become one of the biggest accelerators of space and aeronautics start-ups in the world. Last May, François Chopard, 51, also announced the launch of Expansion, a new fund aimed at funding young European shooters in the sector. A career that earned him the title of ambassador for the France 2030 plan. His mission: to help channel the 1.5 billion euros dedicated to space to the most innovative companies. Meet.

Francois Chopard

Francois Chopard

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L’Express: How did Elon Musk revolutionize the space industry and relaunch a form of star wars?

Francois Chopard:Elon Musk has radically changed the codes of the space industry. First, with your rockets. These machines run on liquid fuel and are reusable, while the Ariane 5 and even the Ariane 6 use solid fuel, and Europe has not yet mastered reusable technology. Musk also operates on an entirely different business model. And this is perhaps the real revolution. Your mantra? We will do better than the old established players, for 10 times less and with private capital. Thanks to this, the space industry has become an investment class like any other, just like biotechnologies or fintechs. This approach, in particular, has inspired hundreds of start-ups to get started.

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In promising to take humans to Mars in the coming decades, is Elon Musk credible?

I feel like he’s the only one to believe that! In fact, he’s behind schedule he’s set for himself. Also, your Starship rocket is very good for cargo, i.e. transporting equipment, but it won’t be reliable enough to transport humans. The lower part – the booster – with its thirty engines equipped with pumps to increase pressure and power, is a fragile element. Also, Elon Musk is starting to have a brain drain problem. Much of the Raptor engine team just left. The starship will not be the rocket that takes man to Mars.

Between Musk and NASA, who is the other’s servant?

Both, by the way! Initially, Musk benefited greatly from NASA, thanks to grants, technology transfers, particularly in the Falcons’ first Merlin engines. The American agency started from the realization that its program was too expensive and that it was necessary to find alternatives, private among others, to reduce costs. In 2008-2009, a lot of lobbying work was done by Musk to convince politicians that funding companies like his could have a positive impact on the taxpayer. Today, Musk and NASA are in a codependent relationship. Musk can no longer do without NASA and NASA can no longer do without Musk. It’s Space X that takes astronauts to the International Space Station, and it’s Space X’s thrusters that can keep it at the right altitude if the Russians don’t want to do it anymore.

Boca Chica Village, at the end of the beach, the launch pad for the Starship

Boca Chica Village, at the end of the beach, the launch pad for the Starship

BM

2022, a crucial – if not decisive – year for Elon Musk?

Of course, there’s the matter of the starship’s first orbital flight, which has been delayed several times. But I’m not technically worried, Musk will achieve his goals. The Federal Aviation Administration finally gave him the go-ahead to launch the Starship from Starbase, located in Boca Chica, Texas. The risk is ultimately more financial as markets show signs of a fever. But the question doesn’t arise in the short term: Space X raised $1.5 billion last May, valuing the company at $125 billion, up from 100 just a year ago.

Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas along the Mexican border, Starship's construction and launch site.  The Super Heavy booster and three starship models.

Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas along the Mexican border, Starship’s construction and launch site. The Super Heavy booster and three starship models.

BM

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos dream of being new adventurers: is the space big enough to accommodate the two multibillionaires?

Honestly, today there is no real competition between the two men: Bezos is far, far behind. Its launcher, the New Glenn, has yet to fly, while Space X’s Falcon 9 is the most used launcher in the world. Which is also quite surprising when you know that the founder of Amazon created Blue Origin in 2000, two years before Musk laid the foundations for Space X. The observation is the same on the constellation side. Starlink has already put more than 2,000 satellites into low orbit, while Kuiper, the Amazon constellation, has yet to launch anything (Bezos expects to launch 3,236 satellites, half of them by 2026, editor’s note). Space has long been something of a dancer for Jeff Bezos, he has spent lavishly but not fully involved. The result is that today it fails to attract the best engineers. The team that develops Kuiper is made up of indentured workers from Space X. Bezos’ vision, which envisions deporting factories from Earth to space, is, however, more realistic than Musk’s Martian fantasy.

Will space become the new terrain of the geopolitical war between the United States and China?

It is already the case! The military assumes that in the event of a conflict, each of the belligerents will begin by destroying the enemy’s communication, observation, and navigation satellites to make them deaf and blind. The Americans, and more recently the Chinese and Indians, have already tested missiles capable of destroying satellites positioned in low orbit, that is, 500 kilometers from Earth. We are still far from the 36,000 kilometers where the geostationary satellites are placed, but that will come. In any case, it is the dogma of the American army. And that’s why the United States Space Force was created in 2019.


This sixth branch of the United States army thus launched a program that promotes the emergence of small launchers in order to be able to put a fleet of satellites into orbit in just 48 hours. The Americans are also known to be working on strike satellites, capable of displacing an enemy satellite or damaging it enough to render it inoperative. We can imagine that the Chinese are working on the same technologies, but nothing filters.

In the shadow of these two titans, is there still room for the European Union?

She looks pretty tight. We have heard many things, such as the desire to launch a European constellation or the lobbying of agencies such as the National Center for Space Studies in France to make Ariane 6 a vehicle capable of transporting astronauts and thus leaving our dependence on the United States. . But the truth is that, for now, Europe is nowhere to be found! Keep in mind that NASA’s budget is 3-4 times that of the European Space Agency, and that NASA’s budget is 2 times that of the US Space Force. .

Another telling example: the space component of France 2030 is 1.5 billion euros, which is huge… but less than what Space X raises each year. The United States already considers itself at war with China, while the European Union does not consider itself at war with anyone. And I am not very optimistic about the future, as we are witnessing a form of nationalization of space policies in the Old Continent, with Germany, Italy and Spain going it alone in micro launchers.

France, however, has joined the Artemis program, which plans to return to the Moon in two or three years: isn’t that good news?

France praises the fact that it participates in this program, that it brings bricks in which it is very strong, such as the star finder (which allows you to position yourself in space watching the stars around you, editor’s note), but they are small bricks . We bought a car seat for the Moon like we bought a car seat for the International Space Station, just to say, “We’re here!” But it’s the Americans who decide everything.

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It is also necessary to carefully read the Artemis agreements, which France signed in June, and which act on a kind of extraterritoriality of American law in space, which will in fact favor their companies. The reality is that the Americans and the Chinese, and to a lesser extent the Russians, are dividing the universe.


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