PARIS — Yannick d’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES, will be retiring in mid-March after a decade during which the role of France in Europe’s space affairs has undoubtedly shrunk.
This relative decline began in the late 1990s. Historians will debate whether it is a good or bad thing, or could have been prevented. What is left are the realities of French and European space policy on d’Escatha’s arrival, and how they differ from today’s landscape.
D’Escatha joined CNES in February 2003 after an illustrious career at the French government electric utility, EDF, and the French nuclear energy commission, CEA. His retirement in March is due to a French regulation mandating that heads of public agencies leave their posts at the age of 65. D’Escatha announced his imminent departure to CNES employees Jan. 8.
The CNES that d’Escatha found in early 2003 was an agency whose 2,500 employees were in near-open rebellion against the departing CNES chief, who in turn was openly critical of the French government for what he said was a lack of clear policy guidelines. He had resigned in protest.
Of more immediate concern to CNES was the near-catastrophic state of Europe’s Ariane launcher sector. The successful Ariane 4 vehicle was being retired after 15 years — its last launch occurred in February, the month d’Escatha arrived — in favor of the more-powerful Ariane 5. The new rocket had posted four major launch anomalies in its first 14 missions, including a December 2002 failure that shook the foundations of the Ariane system.
CNES, which until then was Ariane 5’s de facto system designer and overseer, was called on to make large, unforeseen investments in Ariane 5 to put the new vehicle on track. The head of the European Space Agency () had written a letter to CNES questioning whether the French agency had what it took to manage the program, and insisting that CNES be stripped of some of its program authority.
The Ariane 5 failure’s financial cost forced CNES to go into deep debt to ESA, and to cancel or postpone multiple programs that CNES had been planning inside ESA and on its own or with other partners.
Europe’s biggest national space agency took on the image of a ship taking on water with no clear idea of its direction.
Enter d’Escatha. A pure product of France’s technocracy, he set out a multiyear plan during which CNES would slowly repay ESA — a decade later, the debt has been sharply reduced, but not wiped out — while maintaining most of its commitments inside ESA to telecommunications, science and Earth observation programs, and to the international space station. He secured a five-year budget commitment from the French government, a feat that had not been accomplished before and to this day looks remarkable.
Certain key CNES efforts were maintained and flourished, notably the Myriade small-satellite platform, which prime contractor Astrium Satellites has used on a dozen or more projects including export sales; and the Jason series of ocean-altimetry satellites begun with NASA and now used by U.S. and European meteorological agencies.
As the years passed, d’Escatha earned a reputation as a CNES director who did not report for work each morning wondering what he could do to please France’s space contractors. In the 1990s, one CNES manager had said the agency’s job could be summarized as “shoveling money to industry.”
D’Escatha never seemed to share the view of government and industry in lockstep. On occasion, he offered to cut ESA programs in precisely those areas where French industry figured to be taking home the juiciest contracts.
Once the sponsor of Europe’s largest manned-space directorate, with multiple French astronauts taking part in U.S. and Russian missions, CNES now agreed to fold its 20-year heritage into ESA’s astronaut corps.
The agency that invented commercial Earth observation in the mid-1980s with the Spot series of satellites suddenly decided it would stop paying for Spot spacecraft. If Astrium Geo-Information Services wanted to continue commercializing the product line after Spot 5, it would do so without French government participation in the satellites’ development or launch.
The same CNES that had nearly entered into a bilateral partnership with the United States on a Mars sample-return mission in the 1990s, and had played a major role in the doomed Russian Mars 96 mission, was now lukewarm in its endorsement of ESA’s ExoMars mission. CNES seemed not to mind when ExoMars teetered on the brink of collapse.
At the same time, d’Escatha was one of the few European government officials in the audience at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August 2012 for the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover, to which CNES had contributed hardware.
D’Escatha’s biggest contribution to Europe’s space policy may be his insistence — against the German government and against French industry — that ESA start work on an Ariane 6 rocket to replace Ariane 5.
ESA governments in November agreed to start work on Ariane 6 design, even as they approved continued development of an Ariane 5 upgrade, which d’Escatha came to view as an unnecessary diversion of funds.
In the weeks preceding the ESA ministerial conference in November, there appeared to be a real possibility that the 20-nation ESA would be paralyzed by the inability of France and Germany to come to an agreement on how to move forward on launch vehicles. French officials had suggested that everything else they do with ESA would be on hold pending the Ariane 6 decision.
The Ariane 6 now being designed will be smaller and less expensive to operate than Ariane 5. It is designed to make it possible for European governments to launch their satellites on their own rocket, thus maintaining autonomy in an area that France still views as strategic.
Left unsaid is that the Ariane 6 is likely to require only a fraction of the 10,000-strong work force behind today’s Ariane. The future vehicle has few fans in industry, which likely will have to close factories in the middle of the next decade as Ariane 6 replaces Ariane 5. The German government is concerned that Ariane 6 will not have the power to assure Europe a role in international space exploration or a future international space station.
But if it performs as designed, Ariane 6 will allow thelaunch consortium to maintain enough of a presence in the global commercial market so that, combined with government launches, the vehicle will reach the minimum launch rhythm needed to maintain reliability and to keep costs down for the governments whose satellites are its most-favored customers.
In that regard, Ariane 6 is a classic d’Escatha maneuver.