Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA Director General
Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA Director General

Space exploration is the Earth’s future

10 May 2011

Interview with Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA Director General, published in TNO TIME International Edition, April 2011.

2011 promises to be a revolutionary year for ESA and for European space travel: three different kinds of rockets will be launched from Kourou and ESA is scheduled to have three ESA Astronauts in space. Among them André Kuipers. ESA (European Space Agency) came into being in 1975, a child of ESRO (European Space Research Organisation), whose first successful satellite launch was in 1968, and ELDO (European Launcher Development Organisation). ESA now comprises a total of nineteen countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

You have just returned from Bucharest, where you co-signed the official documents with the External Affairs Minister, Teodor Baconschi, for Romania’s inclusion in ESA – making it now nineteen countries. Can we expect any more?

Yes indeed. If it were up to me, then certainly. In 1975, when ESA was founded, we were ten member countries, then we grew gradually in size and in the last four years we have added another six. So we are speeding up. That is hardly surprising: the EU is getting bigger and bigger. We already have partnerships with Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Turkey, Lithuania, Ukraine and Slovenia. At the end of January I was in Israel to sign a cooperation agreement.

The E in ESA is becoming less and less significant then?

We have a global future, and space exploration always was in the forefront when it comes to international cooperation. The first overtures between the East block and the West occurred thanks to space exploration. Space is a peacemaker. Moreover, and not coincidentally, Europe and space exploration both emerged out of the Second World War. They were both born in the same era, in the fifties, and are the bearers of peace. Despite their problems, their development has run parallel.

One of the problems is ESA’s financing – or, to be more precise, the development of the Galileo navigation system and GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security), which monitors the environment and the climate.

Our total budget for 2011 of almost €4 billion has been fixed by all member countries. Despite the economic crisis, this represents an increase rather than a reduction. Of course, if the European Commission can make more funding available, so much the better. But I don’t have a crystal ball and the EU, which makes up twenty percent of our budget contribution, has not yet even reached a consensus on its own budget for 2014, let alone for ESA. Both Galileo and GMES are a priority for ESA, and not only for Europe, also for China, Russia, the USA and the whole world. Galileo is compatible with GPS. We can and must use it, all of us together.

In a recent report the European Commissioner for industrial policy suggests that Galileo is going to cost an extra 2 billion more than the 3.5 billion budgeted, and according to a Wikileaks document even three times more, in other words €10 billion.

I prefer to leave money matters to the European Commission; it is their money after all. I think information from Wikileaks must be treated with a large pinch of salt. It is not easy to define what the precise costs are since it all depends on how much you put into it. Last year we invested €800 million in Galileo, including terrestrial control stations. If you ask me how much it costs to get the GPS satellites into space, then I would say much less than 10 billion but if you look at the total operations of the Galileo system in the coming twenty years, then it is a lot more. Ultimately, however, it is up to the governments how much they are willing to invest. I can give you plenty of good reasons why they should invest. I have so many good ideas, many more than the governments have money for. This is not at all surprising, though, because if I didn’t have so many ideas I would have to retire.

When you became head of ESA in 2003, one of your goals was to strengthen links with industry. How do you spark companies’ keenness to invest in space exploration?

Through partnerships. Nurturing a common interest is the only way for space exploration to earn money. We have recently set up several successful public-private partnerships, all in the telecommunications field. The first of these is Hylas-1, an incredibly fast broadband satellite launched on 26 November 2010. This project is a breakthrough in the way we work since it is Avanti, the British telecommunications satellite company, and not ESA that manages the satellite. ESA only provides the technology. We also have a second project, Alphasat, a broadband satellite to be launched at the end of 2012. I am very proud to say that we have more of these types of Space 2.0 collaboration projects coming up very soon, whereby we invest jointly and share the costs with commercial parties.

In December, while visiting ESTEC in Noordwijk, you spoke to our Minister Verhagen of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, who indicated that the government cabinet would cut the Dutch space budget. What did you say to him?

I stressed to him the importance of space exploration and reminded him of the great scientific strides we have made in our understanding of the Universe and the Earth. In 2010 we achieved some real breakthroughs with the two space telescopes Herschel and Planck. I spoke about monitoring the environment and climate change, about how to better protect your citizens against pollution and flooding, about how to manage natural disasters better, about maritime surveillance with satellite systems. Then I stressed the importance of ESTEC in Noordwijk. ESTEC is by far the largest technical space centre in Europe, with 3000 employees, each one with an extremely high level of expertise. ESTEC is a fantastic asset for The Netherlands thanks to the many suppliers there and the mutual technology transfer that occurs. It’s the same with TNO. Our relationship with TNO is invaluable. Space exploration is a difficult, high-tech field, where major risks are taken. In order to manage these risks, we need the best expertise available. But, then again, I cannot really say anything about how the money is spent in your country, I don’t pay Dutch taxes, I can’t vote there. So I always respect the choices that the government makes.

Talking of ESTEC: rumours suggest that it is moving to the space centre in Darmstadt, is this correct...?

No absolutely not, but there is always competition between countries, which is a good thing. Competition stimulates excellence, that’s why I like it, precisely because competition does not exclude cooperation. On the contrary, a blend of these two is the best way to reach the top.

You are also a known supporter of a joint transport system for astronauts to and from the ISS, the International Space Station.

Absolutely. Space transportation can be more flexible and efficient when you work together. I call upon all countries involved in space exploration to join forces. NASA’s Space Shuttle programme will come to an end in 2011, leaving us then only the Russian Soyuz rockets. It is not wise to be dependent on these alone. Moreover, in the ISS different nationalities are working very closely together, making the ISS a laboratory of mankind. A space station is, in fact, a world in miniature, and vice versa. When the first astronauts returned to Earth from the Moon forty years ago, they were able to make people aware that the Earth is a planet. What they saw there, far away, was just a marble floating in the Universe. This convinced us that the future of the Earth is not only a world issue, but also a much larger, global one.

Is it then also important to put people on Mars?

It is obvious that we are going to Mars, no doubt about it, but I am not sure when this will happen. I know that it can only be achieved through a concerted effort by all the countries involved in space, not least because of the technology and investment required. However, we still have a lot of research to carry out in space before we go to Mars. It won’t happen straightaway but we must go there. It is the only way to really get to know Mars, and this can only benefit our knowledge of our own planet.

2011 promises to be a busy year with launches: in February the cargo vessel to the ISS, the ‘Kepler’ ATV-2 on Ariane 5, in September the first flight of the new lightweight ESA rocket Vega, and then the Soyuz rockets from the new launch platform in French Guiana.

Three types of launches in one year is indeed exceptional. We are also aiming to put three people from ESA into space in 2011. Paolo Nespoli is in the ISS at the moment and later on, in April, Roberto Vittori will go there in a Space Shuttle as the last non-American astronaut. Then in December André Kuipers will begin his six-month stay in the ISS. 2011 is indeed a turning point, and at the end of the year ESA will no longer be the ESA we know today.

We Dutch naturally feel a special fondness for André Kuipers…

So do I! André is a great guy with exceptional charisma. When we are in public somewhere no one pays any attention to me anymore. He is the best ambassador that we could have wished for. André was the first astronaut to call me on my mobile from space, in his last space flight in 2004. That was possible even then from the ISS. The funny thing is that one time I was unable to take his call so he left a message on my voicemail. That was fifteen days before he was supposed to return to Earth. I was then in Moscow, together with a whole group of people, including his wife. She was not due to talk to him again before the landing, so I said to her, “If you want to hear André’s voice, then listen to my voicemail.” She loved it. In addition to all this, André is always friendly. It is really fantastic to have such a nice person around you.

You were once also an astronaut candidate from France, but you never went into space, is that right?

That’s a long time ago, but I would like to go into space. I’m actually still looking for a couple of million or, better, someone who will take me with them for free. I’m as fit as a fiddle and ready to go. My busy job keeps me fit. In France we have a saying: travelling keeps you young.

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