PARIS —Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall is all but certain to be named president of the French space agency, CNES, in the coming weeks following his nomination to the post by the French prime minister. The question now is how much influence Le Gall will have in naming his own successor at Europe’s launch service provider.
The Evry, France-based Arianespace consortium is owned mainly by the industrial companies that built the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket and are positioning themselves to be contractors for the next-generation Ariane 6 vehicle, whose development funding will be up for a vote of European governments in mid-2014.
But CNES remains Arianespace’s biggest shareholder, with a 34.7 percent ownership, just ahead of the different components of EADS’s space division, Astrium, whose French, German and Spanish divisions have a combined 30.5 percent ownership.
French government officials said the approval process for the job of CNES president includes having the Le Gall nomination approved by the French president’s office and by the two houses of the French parliament. That could take a couple of weeks, meaning that Le Gall likely will not be formally named to his new position by March 18, the day retiring CNES President Yannick d’Escatha leaves his office.
Government and industry officials said three names are now circulating as possible Le Gall successors at Arianespace. One comes from CNES, one from Arianespace and one from EADS. In principle, Le Gall could arrive at his new position in time to weigh heavily on the choice as the head of Arianespace’s biggest shareholder.
Le Gall has been head of Arianespace since 2001, when he was named director-general and given day-to-day operational control of the company. He added the role of chairman to his job in 2007.
His 12-year tenure began shortly before a late-2002 Ariane 5 failure that so rattled European Space Agency governments, which finance Ariane rocket development and pay for certain fixed costs to assure Arianespace’s financial equilibrium, that they were uncertain of being able to continue the project.
Since that 2002 failure, Ariane 5 has posted a flawless record of 54 consecutive launch successes and remains the most popular carrier of commercial satellites among the world’s launchers.
But Le Gall and others, including d’Escatha, in the past couple of years have come to believe that a new Ariane vehicle was needed with an entirely different business model. It would be less expensive to build and much less expensive to operate, and would position itself to be more appealing for satellites owned by European governments. Importantly, it would be less dependent for its financial survival on the vagaries of the commercial satellite market.
This is what Ariane 6 is supposed to be, and what European Space Agency () governments in November agreed to investigate ahead of a final go-ahead decision in mid-2014.
The choice of Ariane 6 by CNES enraged officials at Astrium, who argued that a $2 billion Ariane 5 upgrade — with more payload-carrying power and a restartable upper stage — was preferable given the lack of clarity about who would build Ariane 6.
Behind the Astrium argument was an acknowledgement that Europe’s current 10,000-strong Ariane industrial base would be cut approximately in half with Ariane 6.
Backed by Germany, whose industry favored the Ariane 5 upgrade, called Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution, ESA governments agreed to split the difference: Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution will be developed, with a first flight in 2017 or 2018, while early designs of Ariane 6 will be carried out until mid-2014 and a final decision on development.
With his two biggest shareholders in head-on conflict about the issue, Le Gall was obliged to be discreet about his own view. But it was clear that he and other Arianespace officials firmly believed that with China and India knocking at the commercial market door, and with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of California promising a new rocket that will carry satellites at half the price Arianespace and the principal Russian competition, Ariane 6 was imperative.
If, as expected, he is now confirmed as president of CNES, Le Gall will arrive knowing what direction he wants to take for Ariane 6. What he cannot know is whether in mid-2014 the French government, whose finances are not in good shape, will have the money necessary in 2014 to commit to build a rocket likely to cost 4 billion euros ($5.2 billion) or more.
France will be expected to commit to about half the total Ariane 6 investment, and perhaps more at least at the start of the program.
At the same ESA ministerial conference that will decide Ariane 6, CNES will be asked to help finance Europe’s continued use of the international space station through 2020 — a cost to CNES estimated at 1.65 billion euros. Add to that CNES’s 50 percent share of the Ariane 5 upgrade and 50 percent of Ariane 6, and France will be asked to commit more than 4 billion euros.