Jean-Marie Luton passed away on 16 April 2020 at the age of 77. He was ESA’s fourth Director General, serving from 1990 to 1997. A French aerospace engineer, he held several key positions during his remarkable career and will forever remain an important figure not just for ESA, but also for the wider European space community.
Jean-Marie Luton was born on 4 August 1942, in Chamalières, near Clermont-Ferrand, France. After graduating in engineering from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1961, he joined the aeronomy department of the French national research institute, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Here he worked in geophysics research and on an experiment for the NASA OGO-6 satellite.
He was appointed special research advisor at the French space agency CNES in 1971, founded a decade earlier, the same year he was seconded to the French Ministry of Industrial and Scientific Development. There he participated in the European negotiations that took place in the framework of the European Space Conference which led to the establishment of ESA in 1975, emerging from its predecessor organisations ESRO and ELDO.
In 1974 Jean-Marie Luton was appointed Head of the Research Programme Division at CNES. Soon after, he became Head of the Planning & Development Division, then Programme Director in 1978. He was named Assistant Director General in 1984, in charge of relations with governmental authorities, relations between CNES and its subsidiaries, and financial planning.
A French delegate to the ESA Council, he also served as the Chairman of ESA's Administrative and Finance Committee. He also represented CNES at the shareholders' board of Arianespace (the world’s first commercial space transportation company, founded 40 years ago, on 26 March 1980).
In May 1987, he joined the French firm Aerospatiale as Director of Space Programmes in the Strategic and Space Systems Division, and was named Director General of CNES in February 1989. In October 1990, he left CNES to take up duty as ESA Director General, succeeding Prof. Reimar Lüst.
During Jean-Marie Luton’s terms of office as Director General, ESA conducted several successful space science missions. The Ulysses mission, the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) were all carried out in the 1990s. During this period, Ariane 4 also successfully launched Meteosat-5 and -6 as well as ERS-1 and -2. The go-ahead to develop Envisat and, in cooperation with Eumetsat, to initiate MetOp and Meteosat Second Generation was given at the ESA Ministerial Council in Granada in 1992.
European astronauts, who would join the European Astronaut Corps in the late 1990s, participated in Spacelab and Shuttle missions, for example, to deploy the Eureca Science Platform or service the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as missions to the Mir space station to prepare for the International Space Station (ISS) assembly.
Among the setbacks Jean-Marie Luton had to overcome as ESA Director General, two stand out: the reorientation of major infrastructure programmes, namely Columbus and Hermes, decided at the ESA Ministerial Council in Munich in 1991; and the failure of Ariane 5’s maiden flight (501) in 1996.
The Agency had to undertake a major Transformation Programme, which led in particular to downsizing ESA’s workforce, mainly through the '55+ scheme' designed to limit the negative social consequences for staff.
More happily, the ESA Ministerial Council in Toulouse in 1995 gave renewed impetus to Europe’s space endeavours. Ministers agreed to the funding of Europe’s contribution to the ISS and subscribed to the declaration covering the development of the Columbus Orbital Facility and the Automated Transfer Vehicle to be launched by Ariane 5.
While Germany was completing its process of reunification and Europe moved towards increased integration with the Maastricht Treaty, ESA signed a first Cooperation Agreement with the Soviet Union. This paved the way for further collaboration with Russia after December 1991 and led to the establishment of an ESA Permanent Mission in Moscow in April 1995. Cooperation agreements were also signed with Romania, Poland, Portugal and the Czech Republic, while Finland became the 14th ESA Member State in 1995.
When Antonio Rodotà took over as ESA Director General in July 1997, Jean-Marie Luton was appointed chairman and CEO of Arianespace. In 2002 he became chairman of the board and chairman and CEO of Starsem. He retired in 2007.
ESA pays tribute to the memory of Jean-Marie Luton, whose legacy is greatly acknowledged by his successors and those who were fortunate to work with him.