Editorial | A Tough Act To Follow

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Jean-Jacques Dordain Proved Very Well Suited To Run ESA

Leadership can be defined as the ability to get multiple parties to work together toward a common goal, a quality that doesn’t come easy when the parties in question are sovereign countries, each with its own unique history, financial wherewithal, scientific and industrial agenda, and national pride. But that quality was regularly on display during Jean-Jacques Dordain’s 12 years at the helm of the European Space Agency, a term that comes to an end June 30.

Perhaps many of ESA’s notable accomplishments during Mr. Dordain’s tenure were inevitable given that his tenure was by far the longest for an ESA director general. But many were uniquely attributable to his steady leadership, diplomatic skills, financial creativity and commitment to the programs he thought most important.

For example, he was instrumental in securing continued European government support for the Ariane 5 rocket following a 2002 failure — the fourth in 14 launches of what then was a relatively new vehicle — that, in combination with a commercial market collapse, shook the program at its foundations. The vehicle has since had 65 consecutive successful flights and is a commercial market mainstay, the importance of which cannot be overstated given the reliability problems that have plagued Russian vehicles for the last several years.

Mr. Dordain also played a key role in establishing Europe as arguably the top player in civilian Earth observation and environmental monitoring, an activity once led by NASA. Europe’s Copernicus program, whose Sentinel-2A optical observation satellite was successfully launched June 23, features a series of dedicated satellites and payloads to be hosted aboard weather satellites. It is shaping up as the type of comprehensive, long-term environment-monitoring activity that NASA originally had in mind for its Earth Observing System, ambitions that were severely curtailed by budgetary constraints, political opposition and disarray in the U.S. civilian weather satellite program.

Galileo satellites atop Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace
Galileo satellites atop Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

Copernicus is funded largely by the European Commission — the executive arm of the European Union — but here, too, is an example of Mr. Dordain’s impact: He is one of the main architects of the ESA-EU partnership in space that has emerged over the last decade. That arrangement, under which ESA acts as prime contractor on EU-funded programs, including Copernicus and the Galileo satellite navigation system, hasn’t always run smoothly — it has appeared downright dysfunctional at times — but it clearly has breathed life into programs that otherwise would never have gotten off the ground.

Similarly, Mr. Dordain nudged a reluctant ESA toward closer ties with the European military establishment, to the point that the agency is now involved in several so-called dual-use programs that leverage the agency’s expertise. Again, Copernicus and Galileo are examples. At one point, Britain questioned whether Galileo’s encrypted service had any place in the program because of its inherent military applications.

Mr. Dordain also demonstrated an uncanny knack for rescuing programs threatened by funding challenges. When NASA bailed out of the two-launch ExoMars mission, Mr. Dordain compensated by enlisting Russia to pick up some of the slack. When mission creep and the resulting cost growth again threatened the program, he was able to find funds in places where no one else would have thought to look to keep the expanded mission on track.

Not all of the challenges to ESA-funded programs are financial in nature. Disputes frequently have arisen between ESA member states over program leadership and industrial workshare, and over broader agency priorities. Mr. Dordain proved to be a master at mediating these often intractable-seeming disputes, cobbling together agreements that mollified all sides while preserving more program content than anyone had a right to expect.

Mr. Dordain’s legacy is not without blemishes, of course. In 2012 ESA ministers signed off on a design for a mostly solid-fueled successor to the Ariane 5, only to have it rejected less than two years later by industry, which ultimately forced a change to the current Ariane 6 design after an expenditure of considerable time and resources. In addition, ESA continues to conduct too much of its business behind closed doors, particularly for a civilian agency that should be doing everything possible to engage the public.

But the positives — tangible and intangible — that can be attributed to Mr. Dordain’s leadership at ESA relegate the negatives to near insignificance. ESA’s governments certainly have chosen a worthy successor in Johann Dietrich Woerner, who hails from the German Aerospace Center. But there can be little doubt, even in Mr. Woerner’s mind, that he has very big shoes to fill.