European Space Agency director Woerner not seeking extension to term

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HELSINKI —European Space Agency Director General Jan Woerner informed ESA personnel he is not seeking an extension to his current term ending June 2021. 

In a Feb. 1 email sent to ESA staff, Woerner said he does not want to face a repeat of the 2018 process, during which Woerner says he was targeted by campaign to erode his standing.

Woerner told ESA employees that he would leave the decision as to whether he continues in the role of director general through the end of his term in the hands of the ESA council.

However, in an apparent walk back from this position, Jan Woerner said in a Feb. 3 blog post that he will remain in the post as long as he receives the trust of the ESA’s member states.

In response to a request for clarification from SpaceNews, Woerner stated that leaving at the end of his term was not certain.

“ESA has a democratic setup, the Member States decide upon a possible extension. My current contract ends in June 2021,” Woerner stated, via an ESA media relations officer. Woerner added that he had no intention of departing his post early.

In November, Woerner successfully presented the Space19+ proposal to the ESA Ministerial Council meeting in Seville, Spain. The meeting secured a sizable budget boost from ESA member states, totaling nearly 12.5 billion euros ($13.8 billion) for the next three years.

The funding confirmed ESA’s continued commitment to the International Space Station, participation in a Mars sample return project and lunar exploration with NASA.

In the blog, Woerner underlined the importance of continuing work on programmatic-level preparations for the next ministerial level ESA Council, set for late 2022. 

He further stated it is an “outstanding honour and pleasure for me to serve ESA, its Member States, staff and contractors.”

Woerner became ESA director general in July 2015. Before this, he was the head of the German space agency DLR. 

ESA director generals are typically appointed for four years, with the possibility of two four-year extensions. However, Woerner’s case has been unusual. 

Woerner revisited the two-year extension to his initial four-year tenure, secured in 2018, in the Feb. 3 blog. “In the process of discussing a possible extension I was faced with various actions aimed at undermining both me and my position as DG.”

Woerner made similar claims in a December 2018 blog post, calling 2018 “the second worst year of my life…filled as it was with more than its fair share of intrigue, personal slights and institutional threats.” 

“Attempts to promote solidarity and cooperation frequently came to nothing as more or less hidden interests came into play,” Woerner wrote at the time.

In his Feb. 3 blog post — titled “DG of ESA, a perfect job with some hurdles…” — Woerner encouraged ESA member states to “make their decisions in the very best interests of the Agency, its Member States and Europe.” 

Woerner, who is German, succeeded Jean-Jacques Dordain of France, who held the role of ESA director general from 2003 to 2015. 

Woerner’s successor is likely to come from one of ESA’s big contributor member states. The matter of recent German and French incumbents, and the recent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, will variously impact the chances of candidates from these countries.

 

Story updated Feb. 6 to include response from ESA Director General Jan Woerner.