In space, François Chopard is widely heard. But for that he had to take some side roads. Supelec at Centrale, first position at Airbus… After a direct start to his career, the engineer quickly deviated from his initial trajectory by moving into a consulting career. 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 supposed to be a return to the moon, drones, flying cars… Then he decides to launch Starburst, which will become the world’s largest space start-up accelerator 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 saw him appointed ambassador for the France 2030 plan. Its mission: to help the most innovative companies route 1.5 billion euros dedicated to space. conference.
L’Express: How did Elon Musk revolutionize the space industry and reintroduce 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 yet to master reusable technology. Kasturi also operates on a completely different business model. And this is perhaps the real revolution. His mantra? We are going to do better than the old established players with 10 times less and private capital. Thanks to this, the space industry has become like any other investment category like biotech or fintech. This approach has specifically inspired hundreds of start-ups.
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Is Elon Musk credible by promising to bring humans to Mars within the next few decades?
I think he believes it! In fact, he is behind the schedule he set for himself. Additionally, its starship rocket is very good for cargo, i.e. transport equipment, but it will not be reliable enough to transport people. The lower part – the booster – thirty motors attached to the pump to increase the pressure and power, a fragile element. Moreover, Elon Musk’s brain drain problem has started. Most of the Raptor engine team is gone. Starships will not be rockets that will take humans to Mars.
Kasturi and NASA who is the servant of the other?
Both, actually! Initially, Musk benefited greatly from NASA, thanks to subsidies, technology transfers, especially the Falcon’s first Merlin engines. The American company began by observing that its program was too expensive and needed to find private alternatives among others to reduce costs. In 2008-2009, Musk did a lot of lobbying to convince politicians that financing companies like his could have a positive impact on taxpayers. 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 SpaceX that takes astronauts to the International Space Station, and it’s the SpaceX thrusters that keep it at the right altitude if the Russians don’t want to do that anymore.
2022, an important – if not decisive – year for Elon Musk?
There is of course the question of the starship’s first orbital flight, which has been postponed several times. But I’m not technically worried, Musk will achieve his goal. The Federal Aviation Administration finally gave him permission to launch the Starship from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. The risk, ultimately, is more financial as markets show signs of fever. But the short term isn’t out of the question: SpaceX raised $1.5 billion last May, valuing the company at $125 billion, compared to $100 just a year ago.
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos dream of being the new explorers: Is space big enough to accommodate two multi-billionaires?
Frankly, there is no real competition between these two men today: Bezos is far behind. Its launcher, the New Glenn, has yet to fly, while SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is the world’s most widely used launcher. Which is pretty amazing when you know that Amazon’s founder created Blue Origin in 2000, two years before Musk founded SpaceX. The observation is similar on the side of the constellation. Starlink has already put more than 2,000 satellites into low orbit, while Kuiper, the Amazon constellation, has yet to launch anything (Bezos hopes to launch 3,236 satellites by 2026, editor’s note). Space has long been a kind of dancer for Jeff Bezos, who has spent lavishly, but without being totally involved. As a result, it cannot attract the best engineers today. Kuiper’s development team is made up of hired hands at SpaceX. Bezos’ vision, which envisions sending factories from Earth into space, is more realistic than Musk’s Mars vision.
Will space become the new terrain of geopolitical warfare between the US and China?
It is already the case! The military assumes that in the event of a conflict, each of the warfighters will destroy the enemy’s communications, surveillance and navigation satellites, deafening and blinding them. The Americans, and more recently the Chinese and Indians, have already tested missiles capable of destroying low-orbit satellites 500 kilometers from Earth. We are still 36,000 km away from where the geostationary satellites are deployed, but it will come. This is the doctrine of the American army in any case. And that’s why the United States Space Force was created in 2019.
This sixth branch of the United States military thus launched a program to promote the emergence of small launchers, capable of returning a fleet of satellites to orbit in just 48 hours. It is known that the Americans are also working on attack satellites, capable of causing enough damage to dislodge an enemy satellite or disable it. We can imagine the Chinese working on the same technology, but nothing filters through.
In the shadow of these two titans, is there still a place for the European Union?
He seems very upset. We hear a lot, like the desire to launch a European constellation or the lobbying of organizations like France’s National Center for Space Studies, to build a vehicle capable of transporting astronauts to Ariane 6 and thus get out of our dependency. But the truth is that the United States is nowhere in Europe at the moment! You have to remember that NASA’s budget is 3 to 4 times larger than that of the European Space Agency and NASA’s budget is 2 times smaller than 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 what Space X raises every year. Explain 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’m not too optimistic for the future, as we’re witnessing a form of nationalization of space policy on the Old Continent, with Germany, Italy and Spain continuing to do so on microlaunchers alone.
France nevertheless joined the Artemis program, which plans to return to the moon in two or three years: is this not good news?
France appreciates the fact that it’s participating in the program, bringing bricks on which it’s very powerful, such as the star finder (which lets you 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 to the International Space Station, just to say: “We’re there!” But the Americans make all the decisions.
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The Artemis agreements should also be read carefully, which France signed in June and which act on a kind of extrapolation of American law in space, which would actually favor their companies. The reality is that the Americans and the Chinese, and to a lesser extent the Russians, are dividing the universe.
Robin Rivaton’s Chronicle
Chronicle of Pierre Assouline