Transcript: Jean Monnet Foundation for Europe interview with ESA DG (Translated from French)
Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA Director General, was interviewed on 3 April 2012 at ESA Headquarters in Paris by the Jean Monnet Foundation for Europe.
Today is Tuesday the 3rd of April 2012. We are at the Paris Headquarters of the European Space Agency. Thank you, Jean-Jacques Dordain, for welcoming us here to your very own world of space! You are ESA’s Director General. I would first like to ask you this: you were born in 1946, which according to my calculations means that you were just 11 years old when the first Sputnik satellite was launched into orbit. Why did you opt for a career in space?
That is actually one of the few questions I have never asked myself! Because, for me, it was always simply the natural thing to do. I never imagined not working for space. You mention Sputnik. I started my first year at secondary school (under the French system) on 1 October 1957. And to celebrate my starting school, the Soviets launched Sputnik on 4 October! Later on, I was awarded my engineering degree on 20 July 1969. And to celebrate my graduating, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon that very day!
So throughout my school years, and indeed my entire adolescence, I was inspired by the phenomenal acceleration of space activity that was taking place at that time. For it took under four years to go from Sputnik, a small ball-shaped machine going ‘beep beep’, to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. It took under ten years to go from Gagarin’s pioneering achievement to Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon – in an incredible acceleration of the space race. When I was at school, at boarding school actually, I spent the nights with two or three friends, hiding from the monitors, secretly listening to the radio to hear about the first-ever Gemini rendezvous manoeuvres in space and the preparations for Apollo. This was an extraordinary and a historic period. But I never asked myself that question. I got my engineering degree. By the end of the summer, I had joined the world of space. And here I am still! Indeed, I hope to remain in this space-related environment for ever, even after leaving ESA.
What specifically was there about space that attracted you?
I think it has a lot to do with discovering new frontiers. Space is all about pushing back new frontiers. For no matter how young or old one may be, extending our frontiers is fascinating. With space, we push back physical frontiers. We explore a world we scarcely know. We extend the limits of our knowledge. We push back technological frontiers. We also push back human frontiers, the barriers between people, because space activity involves international cooperation. Just before, I mentioned the tremendous burst of acceleration of those first ten years of the space age from Sputnik to Gagarin – the competition and the exceptional acceleration of efforts. But that lasted just ten years. Once Armstrong had set foot on the Moon, the competition was over. We knew who the winner was. It was the Stars and Stripes of the United States flag that had been planted on the Moon. Since then, we have entered a new era of cooperation. With Apollo/Soyuz, while the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain continued to divide East from West down here on Earth, a ‘wall’ in space was being brought down as the two superpowers – the US and the-then USSR – started cooperating. Then came Space Station Freedom. Followed by the International Space Station. Today, as I speak to you, there are six crew members of four different nationalities onboard the ISS, living and working together. And for those six to work effectively in space, some 6000 people, spread over three continents, are working together here on the ground. And they have to work together; there is no other option.
So space is a great engine for pushing back frontiers and eliminating terrestrial borders. The future of Planet Earth is linked to space. Earth belongs to space, not the other way around. So we need to work together to ensure that our planet remains a habitable spaceship.
Yes, we have had Apollo and Soyuz, and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rather than a symbol, I would suggest that space can be considered as a torch-bearer, a pointer to our future political destiny here on Earth. What do you think?
There are indeed many common denominators between Europe and space, three in particular. First, Europe and space were both born out of war. Space, because it was military technology, i.e. missile technology, that enabled us to reach outer space. And then there was the competition born of and perpetuated by the Cold War, even if today space is also a bringer of peace. Europe too emerged following the Second World War, when governments realised that instead of fighting, as they had done for centuries, it was much better to build peace. Europe and space: both emerging from the shadows of war, both bringers of peace.
The second common denominator is that Europe and space are both difficult. Space is difficult because we are going into the unknown. We have to find solutions to problems that no one else has had to solve before. And Europe too is difficult. Getting states, governments and populations to cooperate is not so easy. But there is no alternative to Europe and no alternative to space. We have no option other than to understand each other and work together.
And the third common factor is that unfortunately both are invisible, intangible. You cannot touch space. It is not easy to enable our fellow citizens to ‘grasp’ space, to make contact with it. Most citizens make use of space applications in their daily lives without even realising it. Paris taxi drivers are a case in point. Almost none of them nowadays know the streets of the city by heart. They all use GPS. Every time I take a taxi, I ask the driver if he knows how his receiver works. In 80% of cases, they say they don’t. They have no idea that the signal comes from space. And in fact they don’t even care – as long as it works. The same applies to Europe. It is very difficult to apprehend Europe, to see it. So yes, Europe and space have a number of points in common.
I must emphasise that Europe has adopted a model for space which is different to the US and the Russian models. European space activity started in 1964, about ten years behind the US and the USSR. But Europe made a completely different choice, opting from the very outset to focus on extending the sum total of human knowledge. Science was the starting-point for European space activities. And cooperation has been the main engine driving those activities. In contrast, for the US and the USSR, it was mainly strategic and military factors which drove their space activities, and the competition was very fierce. So from the outset, space for the US and the USSR meant strategy, military and competition; for Europe, it meant science and cooperation. Very different models indeed.
These are completely different choices, whose consequences are still apparent today. The choice Europe made was a worthwhile one, because I believe and dare to say that it has become a model worth following.
Has Europe been speaking with one voice on space matters? I take Galileo as one example of a project that has been hit by quite long delay. Was this essentially due to a lack of unity and sound governance within Europe?
We spend too much time talking about governance, in my view. Europe is complicated. Trying to make it simpler is a waste of time. I think we should not try and make it simpler, because it is fundamentally complex. We need to take advantage of the diversity and richness of Europe. Indeed, that diversity and complexity can yield huge dividends for Europe.
Here at ESA, I work with colleagues from twenty different Member States. I have learned a lot from them. This is probably one of the main reasons why I have stayed here. I was born into a very Franco-French system. My education and upbringing were French, like many of my colleagues. This does not mean that the French speak with the same voice. You ask me if in Europe we speak with one voice. But do the French, the Swiss or the Belgians? I wonder! Anyway, we need to harness and exploit the complexity of Europe, take advantage of its rich diversity. Having twenty different nationalities here at ESA is extraordinary. I am still learning every day! Instead of trying to remove all trace of what makes us different, let’s make good use of it. Let’s not waste too much time on governance.
There are many players active in the world of space. This is inevitable, because we are dealing with problems having multiple and completely different facets: problems related to science, services, citizens, industrial competitiveness, international relations, and so on. We often equate space governance with that in the public sphere, that of governments. But the most important player in the space sector is neither ESA, nor the Commission: it is the space industry. And among all these players are also the operators of telecommunication satellites, for instance. There are even private investors now in the space field. It is this multiplicity of players which make this sector so dynamic and rich. So let’s speak less about governance and more about projects, objectives and achievements. The achievements of Europe in space are enormous. What we do in space is unique. Missions like Herschel/Plank which investigate the origin of the universe. Or Envisat which for ten years has given us unique data on our planet, the environment and climate change. Our magnificent family of three launchers. Our cooperation on the International Space Station. The future missions to Mars. All this is concrete. All this is Europe acting in unison!
Is the current institutional status of ESA satisfactory in your view? Or is ESA going to evolve towards becoming an agency of the European Union? Can we imagine this happening in future?
Well, this is not my Agency. ESA belongs to its Member States. So it is up to them to decide what their Agency is to become. But at the same time, nor do I want to wash my hands of this issue entirely. I believe that the relations between ESA and the EU are very important. ESA’s business is the world of space. The EU’s is to see to its citizens. But linking up the world of space with that of Europe’s citizens is to my mind essential. So as to ensure that all we do in space not only fulfils the dreams of scientists and engineers, but also addresses citizens’ expectations of space-based systems to deliver agriculture, transport and environmental policies, etc.. So the relationship between the two institutions is essential, because it links ESA’s space policies to the EU’s sectorial policies. Now, should the Agency change institutionally in order to make sure that this relationship becomes ever closer?
What is your personal point of view? Would you wish that to happen?
I think it will come, but there is time. We have other problems to solve first. What we have to do in the immediate term is to continue to make the best satellites and the best launchers in the world – which we already do. I am personally much more focused on that than on the institutional aspects, which go a bit beyond my remit and are not the prime concern. This institutional change, I think, will come eventually. It should come almost naturally, rather than our forcing it to happen. ESA is a magnificent organisation, a symbol of success – bearing in mind what we have done in the past, what we are doing currently and what we will be doing in the future. So let’s not do away with an Agency that works well. That ESA may in future move closer to the EU institutionally is not the prime concern … so long as we do not dismantle that which brings success to Europe.
As a Swiss national, I wish to raise this question: If ESA became an EU agency, would Switzerland still be entitled to remain part of ESA? Or would it face political problems given its non-EU status?
Switzerland must remain a part of things here. It would be a sorry state of affairs if it were not. I do not as yet know what institutional solution would be found. But I am sure one will be found, because we cannot do without Switzerland. It possesses industrial capabilities that do not exist anywhere else in Europe and I dare say in the world: the atomic clocks that are onboard the Galileo satellites are partly developed there; the fairings for our launchers are all made there. We need Swiss industry, and the Confederation also hosts a very important scientific community that cannot be disregarded. So I am sure an institutional solution will be found.
Let’s talk about the crisis within the EU. When Europe is in difficulty, does this weaken ESA? Does this impact ESA to its detriment?
Yes. ESA does not live on another planet. We are in Europe. All problems that exist today, particularly those between Member States, can have repercussions for ESA, whether on the budget side or on the political side. Also, when countries have ongoing political differences outside ESA, that can indeed be perceived in their dealings inside ESA. That said, the big difference is that ESA is a Europe of projects. And projects are federalisers. ESA is not the Europe of regulation. It is not about investment. It is not monetary Europe. It is a Europe of projects. We will go to Mars together. We build the best telecommunication satellites together. And all this has an extraordinary federalising power. So yes, the impact of the crisis within Europe is there, but we do inhabit a somewhat special world – a Europe of projects.
One of the projects awaited for a long time and now arriving is Galileo. What is the explanation for the delay and the successive postponing until we finally got things back on track?
I think this delay was essentially due to the choice of model. Initially, Europe chose a public-private partnership. And why not? We at ESA use this model and have to some extent been a precursor when it comes to large-scale PPPs for space projects. So I am not against this. Far from it, as our many telecommunications projects can testify. The Commission originally envisaged developing Galileo as a PPP. But this proved to be a model that would not work here. Simply because, Galileo, while not a competitor to GPS, is an equivalent system. There are two main differences between the two systems: first, GPS is military while Galileo is civil; second, the technologies today onboard Galileo are much better than those on GPS. But they are basically equivalent systems. So building up a PPP for Galileo in parallel with GPS – which offers part of it signal free of charge – proved to be a commercially unviable proposition. It took three years to realise that this model would not work. It had to be completely changed, to revert to a development model linked to public investment.
I must say that this change of approach took place very quickly. It took a long time to realise that the PPP model would not work. But it took very little time to come up with a replacement. Here, we must pay tribute to the Commission and in particular to the then-Vice-President Mr Barrot, who managed to change course in only one year. Anyway, all this did indeed put things back, time-wise. Considerably. But now, everything is back on track. We have on behalf of the Commission signed all the industrial contracts. We have launched the first two satellites. The following pair will be launched this September. Then we will launch further satellites in prompt succession up to 2014. I promised the Commission that by then there would be 18 in orbit. We have recently ordered eight more. In total, we have ordered 26, for a constellation that will number 32 in all. So Galileo is now back on track and has now essentially become the engineers’ business.
So, this is indeed a civil project. You spoke about ESA’s origins and ethos, which are civil and scientific, distinguishing it from other space organisations. Could not Galileo nevertheless become a strategic asset, if relations were to become fraught and the US restricted access to GPS? Does not Galileo also spell independence for Europe?
Well, yes. Civil does not mean non-strategic. Indeed, Galileo has strategic value. The Americans have already ‘hidden’ regions by disabling the GPS signal in areas where they were intervening militarily. For instance, when NATO forces were active in the Balkans, the GPS signal was unavailable over that region, including northern Italy. They switched it off. That is their choice. It is their system, a military system. Galileo will allow us to control signal availability much more. But there is an understanding between Europe and the US on this. Europe has no intention of letting its partner down, should strategic considerations prompt it too to decide to ‘hide’ a region. Bilateral agreements on this do exist. But it is certainly better for us to be in a position to control our own signal than to have to depend on that of our partners, particularly when it is under military control. So, yes, Galileo is a civil system, but it has strategic significance as well.
Another project, GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security), has been hit by budget cuts. What do you think about these cuts, which have called into question this very exciting programme?
There are no budget cuts as yet. There is the Commission proposal to finance GMES exploitation outside the Multiannual Financial Framework. That is not yet a budget cut. But nor is it a guarantee that this programme shall be financed. We are now in a period of discussion and talks between the EU Member States, European Parliament and Commission on the next Financial Perspectives. My hope is that GMES exploitation will indeed be financed by the Commission. So there are currently no cuts; there is budgetary uncertainty. If I am confident that in the end we will find a solution, it is because GMES services are essential. And this is not some future undertaking. They already exist, today. Such services are not provided by dedicated GMES satellites, but rather draw on what were mainly science satellites.
Envisat, for instance, has provided data not just to the scientific world. It has also provided operational data to many organisations. In the event of natural disasters, for instance. Ten years ago, ESA, along with the French space agency CNES, set up the ‘International Charter – Space and Major Disasters’. Since then, 14 other agencies around the world have joined. Under the Charter, we make available to NGOs or government organisations in charge of civil protection, at their request, images needed in cases of natural disasters. So in cases like the tsunami in Japan, our images are used at operational level to see which bridges can still be used, which landing strips are still available, to help handle rescue and logistical operations. During the Arab Spring in North Africa, with all the ships that fled to the island of Lampedusa in Italy, the Italian coastguard was asking for daily access to ESA images. Regarding sea pollution disasters, the EU’s European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) asks us for data. So the GMES services already exist. I cannot imagine, simply for budget reasons, these services disappearing from one day to the next. Yes, discussions are ongoing. And budget discussions are always difficult, especially in a period of economic turbulence. But I am sure we will find a solution.
When you request such budgets, are you supported from the base by the end-users? Do you have the support of those who deal with natural disasters, the environment, ecological issues? Do the various user organisations join forces with you and publicly support such projects, with an eye to what the Commission or others might decide?
Yes, they do join forces with us, as you put it. But the problem is simply that the users are not the ones who pay for the data. During the budget discussions, we are supported by the users, but they do not take part in the process of budget decision-making. Today, the world of space and the data users do indeed put up a united front in an effort to obtain funding. But the budget discussions themselves take place in other forums. And it always comes down to a matter of competing priorities: should one should finance agriculture rather than GMES services? Or regional development to the East? Budget discussions – of which I have plenty here myself – address issues not just in absolute terms but also in relative terms. This involves heeding higher-level prioritising, on which I do not wish to comment, since it is not up to me to choose whether to help agriculture, for instance, or deliver services in the case of floods, forest fires or earthquakes. Of course, I believe that these services are essential. So budget discussions deal with relatives as well as absolutes.
Still on this question, as Director General you understandably prefer not to comment on set priorities. However, you do have a responsibility to drive the Agency forward, give it renewed impetus. What is your actual role in terms of proposals for decisions, once broad priorities have to be set?
Priorities between and within ESA programmes – that is my role. My task is to avoid jeopardising science in favour of services for citizens, or jeopardising satellites in favour of launchers. My task is to produce a strategic plan that allows us to do everything at the same time. There are four key areas.
Firstly, Science is one of our major activities. Again, it was the very starting-point for Europe in space. At ESA we have a Science Programme not just for the sciences of the universe but also for Earth sciences, the environment, and so on. We are the agency that launches more Earth observation satellites than anyone else. Second come Services for Citizens: developing new meteorological satellites, developing Galileo on behalf of the Commission, developing GMES services, promoting Integrated Applications. The potential for the utilisation of space data to provide services for citizens is practically limitless. Third, also very important, is the Competitiveness of European Industry. Space is an important economic sector. The space industry is not delocalised – a key factor at this point in time, when there is plenty of discussion in Europe about reindustrialisation. Space does not need to be reindustrialised, as its industry is firmly based within Europe’s borders. So for the competitiveness of European industry, we are making enormous efforts, particularly in telecommunications and also in launch services, which is one prerequisite for competitiveness. Lastly, Exploration and Human Spaceflight [discussed below]. We need to find the right balance between these four key areas. Because if one disappears, the entire edifice may become weakened. So this is the responsibility I have. When I said I did not want to comment on priorities, I meant I do not want to take a stand between, say, space and agriculture. I would not be objective. I would of course be an advocate for space. Space is my job, my lifelong passion. So I do not choose, because for me the priority is space. But clearly for governments there are other priorities. However, within the space domain, I have strong convictions regarding what we should be doing. Again, Europe has wonderful accomplishments of which it can be justifiably proud. We have scored many firsts, in many key fields.
A question on launchers and the future: could Ariane launch manned missions?
Technically, yes. One would naturally have to equip Ariane 5 with a crew-evacuation capability. But yes, technically, Ariane is a very reliable launcher of satellites and could also be used to launch crewed missions. The real question is: do we really need this? I doubt it. Future exploration will necessarily be done thanks to international cooperation. Which I hope will be as broad as possible. Today, the International Space Station programme has five partners: the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. I would like to see, for future exploration projects, other space powers joining – starting with China, India, South Korea and Brazil. Space exploration cannot be limited to one, two or three nations; it concerns the entire planet.
So are manned missions going to be a priority for ESA in the years to come? Is this important? You referred to the competition which stopped the day Armstrong set foot on the Moon. Today, we can dream of other exploration challenges, such as going to Mars. Is a crewed mission to Mars one of ESA’s priorities?
It is not a priority in scheduling terms, because we have other more immediate concerns – such as science, services for citizens, industrial competitiveness. So exploration does not take priority over other areas. But we do need to continue to explore outer space. I think exploration is also a wonderful driver for international cooperation, for technology and for science. So it is not a question of stopping exploration, but rather not making it the priority among priorities, because it is so very costly.
So is it necessary to send humans into space? Today we can return rock samples at less risk using robotics. Is a human presence important in your view?
Yes, but as you say, with respect to what criteria is it necessary? If it is economic criteria, then the answer is no. But if we consider human criteria, the answer becomes yes. You know, exploration is much older than space activity. We human beings have been explorers for millennia, and rightly so; otherwise, we would all be living in Africa still. Rightly, our species first explored the continents, the oceans. Now, we are rightly exploring that other world of outer space. But, for me, this age-old human yearning to explore belongs much more to the overall history of humanity than to the specific history of space activities. So I believe we should not think of it in terms of necessity, but rather in terms of the fundamental endeavour of humankind. That said, it is not the priority for us. ESA will not give budget priority to space exploration.
Today, exploration activities at ESA represent between 10 and 12% of our budget. That is in my view a reasonable proportion. And with that we can do large-scale exploration missions, as long as we do them on the basis of international cooperation. Exploration is the area where international cooperation is essential. We do not explore space for our own benefit. We explore it to prepare for our future on Planet Earth. Nowadays, crewed space exploration is done completely on the basis of international cooperation. Incredibly, the US and Russia – once the champions of competition on human spaceflight in the 1960s and 70s – now no longer have national programmes for this. Their only manned programme is in the framework of the ISS. This is an extraordinary revolution. And one which I think is irreversible.
There will be no more manned spaceflight at national level. This is why all ESA’s exploration activity involves international cooperation, including ExoMars. As you know, that mission was to have been done with the US. But because of budget constraints, they recently told us they could not continue. So we are now discussing with Russia how we might do this together. All through cooperation. When you ask about Ariane 5 and a possible manned version, the real question is this: what can Europe contribute, better than others, to the joint international effort? Certainly not crew transportation systems, for they already exist in Russia, China and soon will do again in the US. Do we need a fourth system at international level? Probably not. In contrast, Europe can contribute other specialist inputs that exist nowhere else: 50% of the pressurised modules for the ISS are made here; all the life support is made here; we are great specialists at all recycling of resources and robotics. Europe can contribute specialist skills that exist nowhere else, and I doubt whether crew transport systems is a trump card for us in an international setting.
Galileo satellites have been launched by Soyuz. Does that signal stronger cooperation with Russia? And the fragility you mentioned when, all of a sudden, the US budget for ExoMars vanished – was that a signal for Europe to demonstrate its independence vis-à-vis NASA?
Independence does not mean withdrawal, going it alone. Having independent resources does not exclude cooperating. Having independent means is in fact the best way to cooperate. If you have no such means, you cannot be part of the club of those who decide. To be able to share in the decision-making process, you must provide assets that others lack or which call for duplicate or redundant systems. So it is important to have independent means, but without isolating oneself. And especially in terms of exploration, we are no longer living in an age when each country wants to plant its flag on Mars or on the Moon. We want to go there together. We shall go there together. Cooperation is fantastic, because it means sharing. We not only share budgets, but also knowledge. We can do more and better by cooperating. But it is also a more fragile approach, because you depend on a partner over which you have no decision-making control. Which is why I see international cooperation as needing to be with as many partners as possible. Since working with a single partner can prove fragile, we try to work with several. The US will naturally remain our partner. Russia has also become very important, being our neighbour and having enormous space potential. It would be wrong not to cooperate with our neighbours, especially when they have such exploitable resources. I am also a supporter of cooperation with China. This is a sensitive subject. I am not completely naive. There are indeed problems to be solved, in particular linked to technology transfer. But China is a space power we cannot ignore. So what I am trying to do is to spread our joint international efforts over several partners, to decrease the fragility, or rather to increase the robustness, of such cooperation.
Finally, in order to optimise budgets and accelerate exploration, to what extent do you target cooperation as opposed to competition? Competition also has its merits. Where do you place the limit in terms of European security and independence? When do you say: Stop, this is strictly a matter for Europe only?
That is very difficult to say. Today’s world requires both cooperation and competition. In very commercial sectors such as the automobile industry, the same companies who are competing to sell their cars are at the same time cooperating to jointly develop the engines of the future and other system equipment. Modern life even in the commercial sector involves both cooperation and competition. And there is no reason for space to be any different. But it is actually up to government and industry to establish such borders. Because if we cooperate too much, we dilute ourselves too much, and become more and more dependent. In contrast, if we remain isolated, we have access to much less, and do less interesting things. So the problem is to find the right balance: between doing a maximum amount jointly with our partners and retaining our technological independence as far as possible. The day you become dependent, you are no longer in the decision loop and become a second-level partner. Europe does not deserve that, so it must find ways to remain at the front with the other decision-makers. And I think this is the essential point. How do we define this in terms of critical technologies and components? These are the questions we ask ourselves every day. What is clear is that we do have independence regarding access to space. But this does not mean we do not cooperate. In telecommunications we also have a form of independence, because this is clearly the definitive commercial market, where competition rules. In contrast, for exploration, we depend on our partners to be able to launch our crew. So I have given you examples of independence but where we cooperate nonetheless, and areas where we are clearly dependent like that of human spaceflight.
Jean-Jacques Dordain, on behalf of the Jean Monnet Foundation for Europe, many thanks indeed!
Last update: 4 July 2012