Le Gall at IAC 2017
Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), speaking at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, in September. Credit: IAF

When the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) selected Adelaide, Australia, as the site of its 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), many feared the worst. They worried the location would depress attendance, particularly for the many attendees from Europe and North America who would need to spend the better part of a day to get there.

Those fears turned out to be unfounded. The IAC wrapped up a month ago with more than 4,500 attendees, a figure that the IAF’s president, Jean-Yves Le Gall, called “very outstanding.” The week-long event started with the announcement that Australia would, at long last, establish a national space agency, and ended with a keynote by SpaceX founder Elon Musk giving an update about his Mars mission architecture.

Those events, in particular Musk’s talk, no doubt helped boost attendance, but they were not without difficulties. Accommodating Musk’s speech meant moving and condensing technical sessions, to the dismay of some attendees. It also involved crowd control measures to avoid a repeat of the chaos from Musk’s speech at last year’s IAC in Guadalajara, Mexico. Those measures worked, though, with the audience orderly filing into the main hall for a talk that started only a few minutes late.

Le Gall wants to build upon the success of this year’s conference — now as much a business and networking event as a technical conference — in future years. The 2018 IAC will take place in Bremen, Germany, while Washington will host it in 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings. At this year’s IAC, the IAF selected the host for the 2020 event: Dubai.

Le Gall, who is also president of the French space agency CNES, spoke recently with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust about this year’s IAC and plans for the future of this event.

What is your overall impression of this year’s IAC?

I’ve been delighted to see the number of attendees. When the decision was made to go to Australia, a lot of people were afraid that, because it’s so far from the U.S., so far from Europe, it would diminish attendance. At the end of the week, we realized we had more than 4,500 attendees from 84 countries. It has been an outstanding Congress because, frankly speaking, we didn’t expect more than 3,000, and 4,500 is a very outstanding Congress. I think that is because IAF is more and more active and we have many events worldwide, and now it’s kind of a brand name. When there is a Congress organized by the IAF, of course people are coming.

Having Elon Musk give a keynote certainly helped in boosting attendance.

Of course, we had the speech from Elon, but it not just because of the speech from Elon. You saw the all the heads of space agencies worldwide, a large number of representatives of space companies everywhere, a lot of startups, a lot of students. There were a number of agreements that were signed during the IAC because startups in particular are looking for people with whom to do business. It is kind of an evolution of the Congress. We used to have just technical sessions, and now, more and more, it’s the place to network.

What role do you believe the IAF played in the decision by the Australian government, announced at the conference, to establish a national space agency?

The idea to have a space agency in Australia was around for a couple of years, because I visited Australia twice for the preparation of the Congress and I heard about this idea. But, it is clear that having the Congress in Adelaide helped catalyze this idea, to decide finally to have a space agency. The fact that Australia has decided to have a space agency is excellent both for Australia and for many other countries.

What other aspects of the IAC stood out for you?

There are two points that are quite important. The first one is that we decided that, in 2020, the IAC will be in Dubai. This is completely new. Next year we will be in Germany, in Bremen, the year after in Washington DC for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. In 2020 we will be in Dubai.

At the same time, we elected four new vice presidents for the Federation. I am delighted because, as you know, I am pushing very hard to have diversity around the world. So the four vice presidents, we have a lady, Gabriella Arrigo, from Italy. We have two people coming from Asia, Seishiro Kibe from Japan and Baohua Yang from China. We also have somebody from Africa, probably for the first time, Valanathan Munsami, the head of the South African space agency. We have an IAF with a bureau that is more and more diverse. This is exactly what I wanted because I think that it is important to adapt the IAF to the new world space order, with many, many emerging countries that are now involved in space.

From my point of view, it was my first Congress as president of the IAF. It has been very, very successful, and in particular the attendance was very, very exciting. I am sure that we are now going to enter to a new era when we have more than 5,000 people at the Congress because next year we will have a lot of people in the center of the Europe. The year after, for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in Washington, it will also be a huge success, and Dubai as well, because Dubai is very attractive and, in addition, we will have a World Exposition in Dubai and the launch of their probe to Mars. I think for the coming years the IAC will definitely be the place to be.

One of your priorities as president of the IAF, which was highlighted at the IAC, as been the “3G” diversity initiative focusing on geography, generation and gender. How is that progressing?

I think that it is progressing pretty well. We have now more and more women attending the Congress, and in key positions in the organization. We have more and more young people, and we contemplating the possibility of entering into an agreement with an organization of young engineers. We have more and more people coming from everywhere in the world. Once again, the IAF, in my opinion, must reflect the space world of today, and the space world of today is definitely no longer men, no longer old men, and no longer old men coming only from the historic space powers. We need the young people, we need ladies, we need people coming from everywhere in the world. I think we are on the way to success with this.

How are plans for the 2018 IAC taking shape?

For 2018, it is clear that, for Germany, the key word for space is “innovation.” It will probably be around innovation, but we will handle that in the coming months, probably at the spring meeting [of the IAF]. But innovation in Germany is very important.

Will next year’s IAC feature plenary talks by people like Elon Musk, despite the disruption to the overall congress they cause?

We will see. We still have time. It is clear that having someone very important speaking about an exciting project is a plus for the IAC. So we will see what we can do. I was more than satisfied for my first Congress as the head of the IAF.

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...