ESA Director General Jan Woerner said negotating a new financial framework partnership agreement with the EU is a priority for him in 2020. Credit: ESA

WASHINGTON — The head of the European Space Agency formally announced Feb. 28 he will leave ESA when his current term ends next year, confirming months of speculation about his future with the agency.

In a blog post, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said he had “finally decided” to step down from that position when his current term expires in July 2021, rather than seek another term, saying the agency needed a new, and younger, leader.

“For some months now there have been discussions about whether or not I would stay on for another term. Having given a great deal of thought to the question, I finally decided against it,” he wrote in the post.

There had been widespread speculation that Woerner would not seek another term, including a Feb. 1 email that he sent to ESA staff stating that he didn’t want to repeat what took place in 2018, when he claims he was targeted by a campaign from unspecified individuals seeking to erode his standing.

Woerner seemed to partially backtrack from that in a Feb. 3 blog post. “As long as the Member States place their trust in me as ESA DG, I will, with all the possibilities available to me, work for ESA, while adapting it to the rapidly changing environment it finds itself in,” he wrote. He later said he had no plans to leave prior to end of his term in July 2021.

The director general of ESA traditionally serves for a four-year term, with the option for two additional four-year terms. Woerner, who started his first term in July 2015, negotiated a two-year extension to his first term in 2018 to avoid any transition while the agency was preparing for its “Space19+” triennial ministerial meeting, which took place in November 2019 in Seville, Spain.

Under that 2018 arrangement, Woerner would have been eligible for two additional terms of three years each, rather than four. “I proposed not to give me another four years but instead give me two years to the four years which I had already. Then we can see whether I can get another extension for another three years, and three years after that,” he said in a 2018 interview.

Woerner said in his blog post that the agency needed a younger leader. “I will be 67 at the end of my term and I believe it is time to hand over to a younger leader. After more than 25 years heading public institutions, now is a good time to move on,” said Woerner, who led the German space agency DLR prior to being named director general of ESA.

Woerner emphasized the success of Space19+ ministerial meeting, where ESA member states agreed to provide nearly 12.6 billion euros ($13.9 billion) over three years, backing all of the agency’s major initiatives in areas ranging from cooperation with NASA on lunar exploration to a “space safety” focus area that includes work on planetary defense and orbital debris remediation.

At a Jan. 15 press briefing, Woerner said one priority for him in 2020 is to negotiate a new cooperative agreement with the European Union regarding funding for the Copernicus program of Earth observation missions and the Galileo satellite navigation program. In his statement, he said that remained a priority, as well as an “informal” ministerial meeting this summer and initial planning for the next major ESA ministerial meeting in 2022.

“I will leave ESA with good feelings, even though I will not have implemented 100% of what I had intended,” said Woerner, adding that he planned to return to his career teaching and doing research in civil engineering once his term at ESA ends. “I thank all those who have supported me these last few years. Together we can look back on many achievements – transforming ESA inside and out.”

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...