European Space Agency Director General Jan Woerner at IAC 2019. Credit: AIAA via Flickr

WASHINGTON — The outgoing director general of the European Space agency announced Jan. 8 that he will step down at the end of February, four months ahead of schedule.

In a blog post, Jan Wörner announced that, after consultation with the chair of the ESA Council, Anna Rathsman, he will resign at the end of February. That will allow the incoming director general, Josef Aschbacher, to take over on March 1.

Wörner said that decision was based on several factors, including that Aschbacher, who has been director of Earth observation at ESA since 2016, is already familiar with the agency. Other factors included planning for the next ESA ministerial meeting in 2022, ongoing negotiations with the European Union on a financial agreement known as the Financial Framework Partnership Agreement that governs their joint programs, and the “duration of the transition and its consequences internally and externally.”

“Based on these various considerations the Chair decided, together with me, to propose to the ESA Council an official take-up of duty by the new Director General on 1 March 2021,” he wrote. “The period until that date will be used to secure a smooth transition.”

Less than a month ago, Wörner indicated he had no plans to leave before the end of his term in mid-2021. At a Dec. 17 press briefing about the selection of Aschbacher as director general, the agency stated that he would take over “not later than” July 1. “I was just quoting the document which was approved,” Wörner said when asked if that language meant he might retire before that date. “My contract goes until the 30th of June and I’m ready and eager to fulfill my mandate.”

Wörner, in his blog post, said he had “taken stock of the situation” since then, particularly since Aschbacher was already a top ESA official. He added that even before the agency published the official job opening for his job, he stated “my readiness to leave the position as early as the Member States deemed appropriate in the light of the situation after the election of the new Director General.”

Wörner said he plans to return to civil engineering, his area of research before taking a series of administrative positions starting in 1995, first as a university president and then head of the German space agency DLR. He became director general of ESA in 2015, with a four-year term extended by two years to avoid it ending amid preparations for the agency’s Space19+ ministerial meeting. Wörner was eligible for two additional three-year terms, but last February announced he would not seek them.

“I will look back on my time as Director General of ESA with great fondness. As I’ve said before, I consider it to be the most extraordinary job and a real privilege to be able to do it,” he wrote in his blog post. “Of course, I will miss it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...