L’Express: Francois Chopard Looks Back at the Conquest of Space

Source: L’Express (French) Interview: Space conquest: “Elon Musk is very, very far ahead of Jeff Bezos” – 08/03/2022


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


Frenchman François Chopard has created the biggest space start-up accelerator in Silicon Valley. He illuminates the myth of the boss of SpaceX.


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 heading towards the consulting profession. A choice that would bring him to the United States in 2007, as a partner for 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 startups and aeronautics. In May, François Chopard, 51, also announced the launch of Expansion, a new fund intended to finance young European startups in the sector. His career 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 him.


How did Elon Musk revolutionize the space industry and revive 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 economic model. And that may be 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 with the desire to launch themselves.


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

I have the impression that I am the only one to not believe in it! In truth, he is behind the schedule he had set for himself. Moreover, his 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 a series of motors equipped with pumps to increase the pressure and the power, is an element of fragility. In addition, Elon Musk is starting to have a brain drain problem. Much of the Raptor engine team comes from per shot. Starship will not be the rocket that will man Mars.


Between Musk and NASA, who is serving the other? 

Both, in fact! At the start, Musk took great advantage of NASA, thanks to subsidies, technology transfers, in particular on the first Merlin engines for the Falcons. The American agency had started from the observation that its program was very expensive and that it was necessary to find alternatives, in particular private ones, 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 cannot do without Musk. It is SpaceX that takes astronauts to the International Space Station and it is SpaceX boosters that could keep it at the right altitude if the Russians no longer do so.


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 come through on 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: 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 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 SpaceX’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 SpaceX. 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, the Amazon constellation, has not launched anything yet [Editor’s note: Bezos hopes to launch 3,236 satellites, half of which are emerging by 2026]. Space has long been a kind of dancer for Jeff, he spent lavishly, but without getting fully involved. The result is that it does not happen today to attract the best engineers.The team developing Kuiper is made up of hired hands at SpaceX. 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 the event of a conflict each of the belligerents will begin by destroying the enemy’s communication, observation and navigation satellites to render 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, i.e. 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 is 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 return a fleet of satellites in just forty-eight hours. We know that the Americans are also working on attack satellites, capable of displacing an enemy satellite or of damaging it enough to render it inoperative. One 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? 

It 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 CNES, in France, to make Ariane 6 a vehicle capable of transporting astronauts and thus getting out of our dependence on States United. But the truth is that, for now, 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 enormous… but less than what SpaceX raises each year. The explanation for such a discrepancy? The United States already considers itself at war with China, while the EU 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 also joined the Artemis program, which plans to return to the Moon in two or three years: isn’t that good news?

France boasts of participating in this program, of bringing bricks on which it is very strong, such as the star finder [Editor’s note: which allows you to position yourself in space by observing the stars around you), but these are small bricks. We buy a jump seat to the Moon like we bought one for the International Space Station, just to say: “We are here!”. But it’s the Americans who decide everything. We must also read carefully the Artemis agreements, which France signed in June, and which act as 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.




*Interview translated from French to English. Access the full French interview here.