JERUSALEM — The International Astronautical Federation (IAF) on Oct. 16 elected Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the French space agency, CNES, as IAF president starting in late 2016 in a procedure that generated substantial controversy despite the fact that Le Gall ran unopposed.
The usually tranquil IAF election process was troubled by the fact that Jean-Jacques Dordain, who in July ended a long stint as head of the European Space Agency (ESA), withdrew his candidacy following ESA’s decision to reverse its previous backing of Dordain’s bid.
Dordain declined to respond to requests for comment on his decision and did not attend this year’s International Astronautical Congress, where much IAF business is conducted. IAF is one of the three organizations that manage the annual IAC meetings.
The friction around the selection of an IAF president began in the last days of Dordain’s tenure as ESA director-general, when the agency wrote IAF to back Dordain’s IAF candidacy.
Several government and industry officials said it was unclear whether ESA knew then that Le Gall – who has a very full-time job as CNES president – had declared his intentions to seek the IAF presidency. Le Gall is currently IAF’s vice president for industry relations.
Whatever the sequence of events before Dordain’s departure from ESA as of July 1, his successor, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, reversed the previous ESA decision and informed IAF that the agency now backed Le Gall’s candidacy.
In an interview here, Woerner said he was surprised to find, on arriving at ESA July 1, that the agency had made a decision about IAF in the closing hours of Dordain’s time at ESA.
Woerner said he met with Dordain – who on July 1 had been named as a special adviser to Le Gall at CNES, an unpaid position – and asked whether he really wanted the IAF job. Dordain, he said, did not signal that he would fight for the post, especially after conducting his own informal poll of support.
“What was especially important to me was that we had a European IAF president,” Woerner said.
Several officials with long ties to the IAF said that while both Le Gall and Dordain are well known and respected among IAF delegations, Dordain’s candidacy was hurt because he will be 70 in April.
Others said that was a convenient pretext. “Anyone who knows Jean-Jacques knows of his energy level. Having a guy like that now retired is a resource that IAF could have used,” one IAF member said. “Jean-Yves’s background is fabulous, but you do have to wonder how much time he’ll have given his multiple other professional obligations, notably at CNES.”
Officials agreed that apart from a consideration of the individuals concerned, ESA embarrassed itself with its reversal of opinion.
“We didn’t cover ourselves in glory on this one,” said one European government official. “The question now is what Jean-Yves intends to do with IAF.”
Le Gall will serve a three-year term starting in October 2016. The current IAF president is Kiyoshi Higuchi, who is vice president of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.