German Space Agency Head Ends ESA Chief Candidacy, Backs New Term for Dordain

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PARIS — The head of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, has formally taken himself out of the running to become director-general of the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2011 and has said both Germany and France have agreed that the current ESA chief, Jean-Jacques Dordain, should be renewed for a two- or four-year term.

In an occasionally philosophical blog post laced with references to sociologist Max Weber’s meditation on the merits of science versus politics as a vocation, Johann-Dietrich Woerner says he has unfinished business at DLR. More broadly, he says, his life’s goal is not to chase after prestige or financial success.

“I consider it wrong — and unfortunately there are many examples of the correctness of this statement — that it is always desirable to aim higher and higher, as regards position or income, in one’s career. After careful consideration … I have informed the Federal Minister of Economics that I do not wish to be a candidate. This decision is closely bound up with my feelings, because I have grown very fond of DLR, its staff and its areas of operation — aeronautics, spaceflight, energy, traffic and security,” Woerner says in a statement on the DLR website dated May 31.

Government and industry officials have known for several months that, while it is generally viewed as Germany’s prerogative to select an ESA director-general this time around, the German government has been unable to settle on a candidate. Rather than surrender its “turn,” Germany has elected to back a new term for Dordain, who is French, with the understanding that Germany will be given a fresh opportunity to select a German candidate in two or four years.

Dordain’s current term ends in mid-2011, and ESA’s practice has been to settle on a director-general a year in advance.


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Whether Woerner would have been a consensus German candidate for the post of ESA director-general if he had sought the job is unclear. DLR is part of the mandate of the German Economics Ministry. But as the continuing controversy over a multibillion-dollar weather satellite program has made clear, the German Transport Ministry has a voice of its own in German space policy and is not hesitant about jumping into space affairs.

It is the Transport Ministry, which finances Germany’s contributions to Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization of Darmstadt, Germany, that has blocked progress on the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) satellite system, arguing that Germany should have the role of prime contractor.

ESA has selected a team led by Thales Alenia Space of France that includes a substantial role for OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany, but the title of prime contractor belongs to the French manufacturer — a fact that at least some German Transport Ministry officials have been unable to accept. The Thales Alenia Space/OHB team was selected over a more expensive bid made by Astrium Satellites of Germany.

Armed with an independent audit of the MTG contract award that validated the agency’s decision-making process, ESA officials say they are ready to sign a contract, valued at around 1.25 billion euros ($1.55 billion), for the six MTG satellites in the coming weeks. They further say that because the German government formally endorsed MTG at a November 2008 meeting of ESA government ministers, no further German approval is needed to begin work on the satellites.

But at Eumetsat, which is paying the majority of the estimated 3.3 billion euros in MTG system costs, a German veto has blocked MTG. Whether ESA will sign a satellite construction contract while the program is still in limbo at Eumetsat is not clear.

The German Transport Ministry’s refusal to accept ESA’s MTG decision is an implicit slap at the German Economics Ministry and at DLR, which did not insist on a German prime contractor when Germany and France were disputing program leadership at the 2008 ESA ministerial conference. After a bidding war that threatened to affect other European space programs, the two nations agreed that each would have a 34 percent stake in MTG, with the prime contractor to be decided on the merits of the industrial bids.

How much the German Transport Ministry would have weighed in Germany’s selection of a candidate as ESA director-general is unclear, but the MTG issue would have complicated a Woerner candidacy, government and industry officials said.

In his blog, Woerner says that while he was tempted by the ESA opportunity, he prefers to stay at DLR. “I remain enthusiastic as long as I feel that DLR is broadly behind me, and I am totally convinced that I have one of the best jobs in the world,” he says.

“Following my personal decision, the German Federal Government and our neighbor, France, have jointly proposed that Jean-Jacques Dordain should remain as Director General for a further period of office,” he says. “Other member states are supporting an additional term of Jean-Jacques Dordain as well. In any case it is the ESA council that has the right to decide about the future Director General. The consequence for Germany is that they will propose excellent German candidates for the forthcoming posts for ESA directors in core positions.”