Space conquest: “Elon Musk is very, very far ahead of Jeff Bezos”

In space, François Chopard ended up being widely heard. But for that he had to take a few side roads. Centrale Supelec, first position at Airbus… after a straight start to his career, the engineer quickly deviated from his initial trajectory by moving towards the consulting professions. A choice that will bring him to the United States in 2007, as a partner in the firm of 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 world’s largest accelerators for space start-ups. and aeronautics. Last May, François Chopard, 51, also announced the launch of Expansion, a new fund intended to finance young European shoots in the sector. A career that has earned him the appointment of ambassador for the France 2030 plan. His mission: to help route 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 radically changed the codes of the space industry. First, with its rockets. These machines run on liquid fuel and are reusable, whereas Ariane 5 and even Ariane 6 use solid fuel, and Europe has not yet mastered reusable technology. Musk also operates on a totally different business model. And this is perhaps the real revolution. His mantra? We are going to 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 biotechs or fintechs. This approach has in particular inspired hundreds of start-ups to get started.

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By promising to bring humans to Mars in the next few decades, is Elon Musk credible?

I feel like he’s the only one to believe it! In truth, he is behind the schedule he had set for himself. In addition, its Starship rocket is very good for cargo, that is to say transporting equipment, but it will not be reliable enough to transport humans. The lower part – the booster – with its thirty motors fitted with pumps to increase pressure and power, is a fragile element. Moreover, Elon Musk is starting to have a brain drain problem. Much of the Raptor engine team just left. Starship will not be the rocket that will take man to Mars.

Between Musk and NASA, who is the servant of the other?

Both, in fact! Initially, Musk benefited a lot from NASA, thanks to subsidies, technology transfers, in particular on the first Merlin engines of the Falcons. The American agency had started from the observation that its program was very expensive and that it was necessary to find alternatives, private among others, to reduce the 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 for 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 is Space X that takes astronauts to the International Space Station and it is Space X thrusters that could keep it at the right altitude if the Russians no longer want to do so.

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

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

BM

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

There is of course the question of the first orbital flight of the Starship, which has been postponed several times. But I’m not worried technically, 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, ultimately, is more financial as the markets show signs of feverishness. But the question does not arise in the short term: Space X raised 1.5 billion dollars last May, valuing the company at 125 billion dollars, against 100 just a year ago.

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

Starbase, in Boca Chica, Texas, along the Mexican border, the construction and launch site of the Starship. 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 multi-billionaires?

Honestly, today there is no real competition between the two men: Bezos is very, very far behind. Its launcher, the New Glenn, has not yet flown, while Space X’s Falcon 9 is the most widely 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 of Space X. The observation is the same on the side of the constellations. Starlink has already placed more than 2,000 satellites in low orbit, while Kuiper, Amazon’s constellation, has not launched anything yet (Bezos hopes to launch 3,236 satellites, half of them by 2026, editor’s note). Space has long been a kind of dancer for Jeff Bezos, he spent lavishly, but without getting fully involved. The result is that today he cannot attract the best engineers. The team developing Kuiper is made up of hired hands at Space X. Bezos’ vision, which imagines 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’s already the case ! The military assumes that in case of conflict each of the belligerents will begin by destroying the communication, observation and navigation satellites of the enemy to make him deaf and blind. The Americans, and more recently the Chinese and the Indians, have already tested missiles capable of destroying satellites positioned in low orbit, ie 500 kilometers from the Earth. We are still far from the 36,000 kilometers where the geostationary satellites are placed, but that will come. It is in any case 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 has thus launched a program promoting the emergence of small launchers, in order to be able to put a fleet of satellites back into orbit in just 48 hours. It is known that the Americans are also working on attack 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 through.

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

She seems quite cramped. We hear a lot of 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 getting out of our dependence on the United States. But the truth is that, for the moment, Europe is nowhere! You have to keep in mind that NASA’s budget is 3 to 4 times greater than that of the European Space Agency, and that NASA’s budget is 2 times less than that of the United States 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 explanation for such a gap? 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 for the future, since we are witnessing a form of nationalization of space policies on the Old Continent, with Germany, Italy and Spain going it alone on microlaunchers.

France has nevertheless 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 of participating in this program, of bringing bricks on which it is very strong, such as the star finder (which allows you to position yourself in space by observing the stars around you, editor’s note), but these are small bricks. We buy a jump seat to the Moon like we bought a jump seat for the International Space Station, just to say: “We’re there!” But it’s the Americans who decide everything.

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It is also necessary to read carefully 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 up the universe.


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