Profile: Alvaro Gimenez, Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, European Space Agency

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Alvaro Gimenez was named director of science and robotic exploration at the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) in mid-March and was immediately presented with news that NASA, which is ESA’s principal partner in science missions, will be scaling back two previously planned cooperative efforts with ESA.

The double blow made Gimenez’s life much more complicated than he might have imagined in the months leading up to his nomination, and it will force a rearrangement of ESA’s ongoing ExoMars missions and its selection of the next Large, or L-class, science mission, budgeted at about 1 billion euros ($1.48 billion).

In addition to juggling these two issues, Gimenez must begin preparations for ESA’s next conference of its member governments’ space ministers, a meeting that occurs about once every three years and determines ESA’s multiyear budget.

Gimenez, who was previously the science-policy coordinator in the office of the ESA director-general, assumed his current post May 1. He spoke to Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

 

You arrived just as NASA delivered two pieces of bad news: The U.S. cannot afford its own rover on a joint U.S.-Europe Mars mission in 2018, nor can it finance a planned collaboration in future L-class science missions. How do you like your job so far?

It’s true I was handed hot potatoes from day one. It’s part of the challenge of the job! But I am optimistic about the future. We have done many excellent science missions with NASA and we have a number of ongoing collaborations. NASA remains our key partner. As for Mars, the fact is that neither of us can realize the ambitious goals of Mars exploration on our own. We are, I think, linked together in this.

 

What are your objectives for your four-year term?

One goal is to help provide the scientific community the tools needed to remain competitive, to retain the leadership positions that it has acquired. At the same time, we need to balance risk and feasibility. The key is to invest in technology. One concern I have is that scientists will not propose missions that are too daring because they fear they will never be approved. But to achieve innovation we have to assume risks. Otherwise, there will never be breakthroughs. Without those breakthroughs, you are not making progress.

 

But if scientists propose huge missions beyond what you can afford, and thus need to combine missions with NASA or Japan, isn’t this also risky?

Yes, and that is one of the particularities of the science program. We are user-driven. Users are scientists, and they propose dream missions. Scientists talk with one another across the Atlantic, and they come up with daring and innovative ideas — which is what they should be doing.

One current challenge is the situation in the United States. NASA’s programmatic outlook does not allow us to realize in the near future the ambitious cooperative scenarios we have been considering in the past.

 

What is the next step for the L-class missions that will now, for the most part, need to stand on European-only financing?

There will be a meeting of the Science Program Committee in June during which the approach will be discussed. Back in March we asked backers of the three L-class missions to assess whether they can propose a European-led mission fitting inside the ESA L-class budget. Maybe one or more of them will say, “No we can’t.” This is what we need to find out before proposing a way forward to the Science Program Committee, which we plan to do in February 2012. We have asked for scenarios not requiring major cooperation with agencies outside ESA. Should this not be feasible we may have to issue a new call for mission proposals, and review the outcome.

Another option is that we launch an M-class mission with the available funds, although this is not what I would like.

 

What lessons do you draw from this experience with NASA?

One lesson is that you cannot predict everything. What has been more reliable than to cooperate with NASA, until now?

 

Is the solution to require that all missions are European-only?

We have to implement European-led missions regardless of international cooperation. Such missions have been the backbone of the ESA science program in the past and will remain so in the future. Cooperation is an important element in the program but it cannot replace European-led missions. European-led missions may not match the scientists’ dreams. But I cannot believe — and I have not heard anyone say — that we cannot do cutting-edge science missions for 1 billion euros.

Look at what scientists in North America and Europe have done together — the Hubble Space Telescope, Cassini-Huygens, Soho — these are great examples of what can come from cooperation. So if the question is: Do we want to split up these communities in which U.S. and European scientists move and cooperate freely? Do we want to separate them? I don’t think so. But cooperation may need to take different forms than what was originally foreseen for the L missions.

 

How can you reduce the risk that a partner outside your control may come up short?

One way may be to better characterize the risk of cooperation. Up to now it has been viewed as a pure added value. It remains that, but perhaps we should focus on partnerships with a clear lead, i.e., with a minimum percentage to be performed in Europe — 70 percent, 80 percent. Or, conversely, to consider in a few cases junior contributions to missions led by other agencies. What seems clear is that using a partner to stabilize your own budget concerns, which has worked in the past, is unlikely to work in the future.

We have learned that we need to develop missions that realistically fit within our budget constraints. We can’t just use our L-class budget as a piece of a much larger mission that is not affordable. Look at Herschel and Planck, two European spacecraft developed as a single L-class mission that are performing fabulous science.

 

They were also seriously late and over budget and for a time were seen as presenting a threat to your entire program.

Many of the issues were due to the decision to combine the two satellites into a single mission. But despite the difficulties, we got there and we have two exceedingly productive, world-class space telescopes. We need to get past the vertigo that comes from leading. We cannot rely on our partners each time we come up with big ideas.

 

Is there anything you can do within your budget to increase the frequency of Medium-class missions?

This is an issue we are trying to address — to keep a regular pipeline of proposals coming. There are several different models. For most missions in the science program, ESA leads the funding and the development of the mission, and member states provide the payload. Other missions have smaller budgets and can be led by a member state. Corot for example, was led by France.

 

ESA invested in Corot in order to save it.

ESA did contribute to Corot, but the point is that Corot is an excellent mission. ESA’s system is designed for missions too big for national agencies, and where work can be spread around. We should be flexible enough to lead some missions, and to be contributors to other, possibly smaller missions. In the U.S. you see principal-investigator-led missions, which may be going too far for European tastes. But we should be thinking of a new way of organizing ourselves so that smaller missions, like Corot, are among what we do.

 

You have spoken about a regular series of technology demonstration missions. What do you have in mind?

Well, LISA Pathfinder would have been an example of what we should have done. It was designed to prove technologies for the LISA mission, which is now being reconsidered. Unlike some disciplines with longstanding experience of space missions, like X-ray astronomy, the fundamental physics community that originated LISA does not have much experience in the space domain. They have longstanding experience in ground-based experiments, but that is not the same as doing things in space. The time it takes from mission inception to launch, as well as the design approach — these are different between terrestrial and space missions, and we need to lead the fundamental-physics community toward becoming regular users of space. But it will take time to introduce this community to what we can offer.

 

Would you say LISA Pathfinder is worth it even though LISA will not be built, at least not for the moment?

Absolutely. We need this technology expertise for a range of possible future mission concepts. The timeline for the LISA Pathfinder mission now is less critical, however.

But what I am thinking of in terms of future technology demonstrators are missions costing around 100 million euros, with no more than one or two instruments, which could be developed in five years at most. For these missions, there must be leadership from someone else, because we could not apply the customary ESA rules for it. The paperwork, the testing — these would need to be a little lighter than our usual approach. The point is that if you design a small mission and its ends up costing a lot, then it’s of little use.

 

Your budget is decided every three years or so at ESA government ministerial meetings. The next one is planned for late 2012. What can you realistically propose?

Our science budget is, in terms of purchasing power, just about at the level where it was 15 years ago or so. What I hope to be able to propose is that purchasing power is maintained, and possibly to achieve a little bit of real increase. By the time of the ministerial, the Mars program with NASA should be once again on stable footing. What is certain is that we need to start preparing for the ministerial meeting just after this summer.