How ESA’s Next Director-General Got the Job

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PARIS — Perhaps the only surprise in the election of Germany’s Johann-Dietrich Woerner as director-general of the European Space Agency is that Woerner agreed to do what was necessary to get the job.

As chairman of the board of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which like NASA has a mandate to conduct both aeronautical and space research, Woerner has said in the past that he had no burning ambition to take the ESA post and would be happy staying in what he called “the best job in the world.”

In an interview after his unanimous election by the 20-nation ESA’s ruling council on Dec. 17, Woerner repeated that he never sought the ESA post. For the moment, he said, he is focusing not on ESA but on his remaining six months at DLR.

“I am not now ready to say what plans I have for ESA; I’ll be focused on DLR until the last day of my position here at DLR,” Woerner said. “DLR has given me so much over the past eight years. I feel like a very lucky man. This is not a step I planned for my career, and I feel humbled by the vote of the council.”

Among Woerner’s ideas that will be tested at ESA is his often-expressed belief that a nation’s support for an ESA program should be based on that program’s inherent appeal to the nation, and not based on the kind of horse-trading that often gets ESA missions funded.

“The idea that I’ll support your favorite mission if you support mine — we really need to get beyond this,” Woerner has often said. “Some may think this is naïve.”

Woerner will succeed Jean-Jacques Dordain, a Frenchman who has spent much of his career at ESA and 12 years as its director-general following Germany’s odd inability to produce its own candidate four years ago.

Woerner did not make the effort four years ago to persuade those against his candidacy in the German government to win them to his side. His position then, and again this year, was that if the German government offered his candidacy to ESA, he would accept — more out of a sense of duty than anything else.

Bur with some in the government favoring Woerner as Germany’s candidate, and some others opposing him, Woerner’s disinclination to cover his political flank and fight for the post left Germany to ask Dordain to remain at the job for another four years.

The presumption then was that a German candidate that won Berlin’s approval and was acceptable to ESA’s other member states would be given the post for a four-year term.

Unknown was whether a long-planned conference of ESA ministers on Dec. 2 in Luxembourg would conclude with a general consensus about budgets and programs or would end in rancor and discord, as occurred at the previous conference two years before in Naples, Italy.

In the months leading up to the ministerial conference, the long-running Franco-German dispute about launch vehicles threatened to turn the Luxembourg meeting into another series of half measures to paper over deep differences between ESA’s two largest contributors.

In the event, a series of preconference meetings between the French and German delegations, including the two governments’ space ministers, resulted in a common decision on the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, its schedule and costs and, importantly, the role of industry in its design and operation. France has agreed to pay 52 percent of Ariane 6’s development costs of slightly more than 4 billion euros ($5 billion).

A German-Italian dispute on support for the international space station — Germany had complained that Italy was not holding up its end of a space-station-contribution bargain struck in 1995 — was also resolved when Italy agreed to raise its space station funding.

Germany was able to use funds freed up from the space station to add to its support for the Italian-led ExoMars mission, which Italy had made a priority. Just as important, Germany agreed to take a potentially large role in the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher, which will share hardware with the heavy-lift Ariane 6.

Having satisfied Italy and France, Germany was now in a position to help assure a successful Luxembourg conference and open the way for a German director-general of ESA.

Waiting in the wings were three other candidates for the post, from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. European government officials said these candidates — especially the Belgian and Dutch nominees — might have been seriously considered if the Luxembourg meeting had ended in failure.

In the interview, Woerner said he will need some time before coming up with a strategy for ESA over the four years starting in July. But he said that in his interview with ESA governments in advance of his selection, he focused on the “paradigm shift” in the role of industry in space program development.

“You have only to look over to the United States to see it,” Woerner said. “The lines of responsibility between government and the private sector are moving, and we have to recognize this. We need a total reconsideration of our actions, not just with launchers.