Science

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

In space, François Chopard became widely known. But for this he had to go through several side roads. Centrale Supelec, first position at Airbus… after starting his career directly, the engineer quickly deviated from his original trajectory, moving into the consulting professions. A choice that would 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 going back to the moon, drones, flying cars… Then he decides to launch Starburst, which will be one of the world’s largest accelerators for space startups and aeronautics. Last May, François Chopard, 51, also announced the launch of Expansion, a new fund dedicated to funding young European shooters in the sector. A career that has earned him the title of Ambassador for France 2030. His mission: to help direct the 1.5 billion euros allocated to space to the most innovative companies. Meet.

FRANCOIS CHOPART

CHARLOTTE KREBS FOR EXPRESS

L’Express: How did Elon Musk revolutionize the space industry and restart the Star Wars mold?

François Chopard: Elon Musk has radically changed the codes of the space industry. First, with their missiles. These machines run on liquid fuel and are reusable, while Ariane 5 and even Ariane 6 run on solid fuel, and Europe has not yet mastered reusable technologies. Musk also operates on a completely different business model. And this, perhaps, is a real revolution. His mantra? We are going to do better than the old established players, 10 times cheaper and with private capital. Thanks to this, the space industry has become the same investment class as biotechnology or fintech. This approach, in particular, has inspired hundreds of startups to get started.

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Can Elon Musk be trusted when he promises to get humans to Mars in the next few decades?

I feel like he’s the only one who believes in it! In truth, he is behind the schedule he set for himself. In addition, his Starship rocket is very good for transporting goods, that is, for transporting equipment, but will not be reliable enough for transporting people. The lower part – the booster – with thirty motors equipped with pumps to increase pressure and power, is a fragile element. Moreover, Elon Musk is starting to have a brain drain problem. Most of the Raptor engine design team just left. Starship will not be a rocket that will take a man to Mars.

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

Both! Initially, Musk benefited a lot from NASA, thanks to subsidies, technology transfer, in particular on the first Merlin Falcon engines. The American agency proceeded from the fact that its program is very expensive and that alternatives, including private ones, must be found to reduce costs. In 2008-2009, Musk did a lot of lobbying work to convince politicians that funding companies like his could have a positive impact on taxpayers. Today, Musk and NASA are in a co-dependent relationship. Musk can no longer do without NASA, and NASA can no longer do without Musk. It is Space X that gets astronauts to the International Space Station, and it is Space X’s engines that can keep it at the right height if the Russians don’t want to do it anymore.

Boca Chica Village, at the end of the beach, starship launch pad.

Boca Chica Village, at the end of the beach, starship launch pad.

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Is 2022 a turning point, if not decisive, for Elon Musk?

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

Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, along the Mexican border, where the starship was built and launched. Super Heavy booster and three Starship models.

Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, along the Mexican border, where the starship was built and launched. Super Heavy booster and three Starship models.

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Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos dream of being the new adventurers: is there enough room for two multibillionaires?

To be honest, there is no real competition between the two men today: Bezos is very, very far behind. Its New Glenn launcher has yet to fly, while Space X’s Falcon 9 is the most widely used launcher in the world. Which is also pretty amazing if you know that the Amazon founder created Blue Origin in 2000, two years before Musk laid the foundations for Space X. Same observation from the constellations. Starlink has already launched more than 2,000 satellites into low orbit, and Kuiper, the Amazon constellation, has yet to launch anything (Bezos hopes to launch 3,236 satellites, half of them by 2026, approx. ed.). Space has long been a dancer of sorts for Jeff Bezos, spending it lavishly but not fully engaging in it. As a result, today it cannot attract the best engineers. The team behind Kuiper is comprised of Space X employees. Bezos’ vision of deporting factories from Earth into space is more realistic than Musk’s Martian fantasy.

Will space become the new territory of a geopolitical war between the US and China?

This is already the case! The military assumes that in the event of a conflict, each of the warring parties will begin by destroying the enemy’s communications, surveillance and navigation satellites in order to make him deaf and blind. The Americans, and more recently the Chinese and Indians, have already tested missiles capable of destroying satellites in low orbit, that is, 500 km from the Earth. We are still a long way from the 36,000 kilometers that host geostationary satellites, but it will come. In any case, this is the dogma of the American army. That is why the US Space Force was created in 2019.

Thus, this sixth division of the United States Army launched a small launch vehicle program to be able to launch a constellation of satellites into orbit in as little as 48 hours. The Americans are also known to be working on strike satellites capable of displacing an enemy satellite or damaging it enough to disable it. We can imagine that the Chinese are working on the same technologies, but nothing is leaking out.

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

She seems quite tight. We hear a lot of things, like wanting to launch a European constellation or lobbying agencies like the National Center for Space Research in France to make the Ariane 6 a vehicle capable of carrying astronauts and thus break our addiction. in the United States. But the truth is that at the moment there is no Europe anywhere! You have to 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: France 2030’s space component is 1.5 billion euros, which is huge… but less than Space X collects each year. An explanation for this gap? The United States already considers itself at war with China, and the European Union does not consider itself at war with anyone. And I’m not very optimistic about the future, as we’re seeing a form of nationalization of space policy in the Old Continent, with Germany, Italy, and Spain single-handedly using 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 commends the fact of participating in this program, bringing bricks that she is very strong at, such as the star finder (which allows you to position yourself in space by watching the stars around you, ed.), but these are small bricks. . We buy a reclining chair for the moon like we bought a reclining chair for the International Space Station, just to say, “We’re there!” But the Americans decide everything.

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

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