PARIS — Andre Lebeau, who as president of the French space agency in 1996 was at the center of the last big debate in Europe about future space policy, and who paid for his convictions through a forced resignation, died Feb. 26. He was 80.
Lebeau had a varied career in the space sector before being named CNES president in 1995. According to CNES, he participated in the second French Antarctic expedition in 1958 before joining the space agency in 1965.
Lebeau spent several years at the European Space Agency () before being named director of France’s meteorological agency, Meteo France. In 1990 he was named president of Eumetsat, Europe’s meteorological satellite agency. He was subsequently vice president of the World Meteorological Organization until 1994.
But it was as president of CNES that Lebeau is perhaps best remembered. In the run-up to a key ESA ministerial conference in Toulouse, France, in October 1996, Lebeau came to symbolize the deep hesitation in France about joining Germany and the United States in the international space station.
During the ministerial conference, in what may have been an unprecedented event, dozens of CNES employees marched through the streets of Toulouse declaring that the station was a “trap” that would devour scarce resources that could be better used in satellite technology development.
Lebeau had never hidden his skepticism about the value of manned spaceflight missions. But on the eve of the ESA ministerial, he was confronted with German government insistence that Europe’s participation in the space station — the largest multinational science and technology project of all time — was nonnegotiable.
Perhaps mindful of a French dictum that advises a minister disagreeing with government policy to “shut his mouth or resign,” Lebeau elected not to keep quiet. Francois Fillon, the French minister responsible for space at the time, said later he had no choice but to accept the resignation of Lebeau given his criticism of Fillon’s, and France’s, decision to join the station rather than risk a collapse of the Franco-German consensus that is the core of Europe’s space policy.
CNES President Yannick d’Escatha, whose 10-year term is ending in March, paid homage to Lebeau in a Feb. 28 statement, calling him “a great name in the space sector but more than that, a man of duty and conviction, with visionary and courageous commitments.”