Woerner and Aschbacher
Current ESA Director General Jan Wörner (left) and Josef Aschbacher, selected by the ESA Council Dec. 17 to be Wörner's successor. Credit: ESA

WASHINGTON — The next leader of the European Space Agency says his top priorities are to improve the agency’s relationship with the European Union and support commercial space activities in Europe.

ESA announced Dec. 17 that the ESA Council selected Josef Aschbacher to be the next director general, effective at the end of June 2021 for a four-year term. Aschbacher has been director of ESA’s Earth observation programs and head of ESA’s ESRIN research center in Italy since 2016.

Aschbacher was the front-runner to succeed Jan Wörner, the current director general, and was being congratulated on getting the job last month when word leaked out that he was the preferred choice of ESA’s 22 member states.

“I’m very honored, but this is a major challenge,” he said at a press conference. “There’s a lot at stake for space in Europe, and I’m certainly looking forward to tackling these challenges with the best of my abilities.”

He said shortly after taking over as director general, he will release a document titled “ESA Agenda 2025” that outlines his vision and priorities. He declined to discuss the details of that document, saying he would wait until he takes office, but did discuss some priorities he sees for ESA.

One is better defining ESA’s relationship with the European Union, which has taken a growing interest in space and funds the Galileo satellite navigation program and much of the Copernicus Earth observation program. In the near term, that means completing negotiations on a new Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA) between ESA and the EU.

“The ESA-EU relationship, at large, I think is a very important aspect,” Aschbacher said. “It’s defining the future of ESA. What the relation is between ESA and the European Union will be very critical about how ESA positions itself not just for the next year or two, but the long term. It’s something I would like to tackle.”

A second priority for Aschbacher is commercialization. He said he would “intensify” efforts started by Wörner to promote the growth of the European space industry. “Sometimes people say, ‘Why does Europe not have a SpaceX? Why does Europe not have a Planet?’” he said. “This is something we need to look into. I have some ideas how this can be done, but I don’t want to go deeper at this point.”

A third priority is efficiency of ESA itself, minimizing the cost of agency operations. “This is a bit of in-house work to be done,” he said. “Almost any new DG would say that.”

ESA’s selection of Aschbacher as its next director general won widespread praise from European companies and organizations. “Great news and happy to work with Josef for the success of European launchers!” tweeted Stéphane Israël, chief executive of Arianespace.

ESA, though, has faced criticism for the closed approach it took for selecting a director general. Anna Rathsman, chair of the ESA Council, defended the agency’s approach. “It’s really very transparent when you look to the 22 member states,” she said at the press conference. “Internally it’s not a closed process.”

Wörner said he would work closely with Aschbacher on the transition in leadership. “I am confident that Josef will do the best for ESA,” he said, but added that he intended to remain on the job through the end of his term on June 30. “My contract goes through the 30th of June next year, and I’m ready and eager to fulfill my mandate.”

Ariane 6 funding and new astronaut class

The ESA Council took up several other issues during its meeting, including addressing the latest delay in the development of the Ariane 6. ESA announced Oct. 29 that the vehicle’s first launch had slipped again, now to the second quarter of 2022.

Daniel Neuenschwander, director for space transportation at ESA, said at the briefing that ESA secured 218 million euros ($267 million) to cover the delay. About one third of that funding comes from “reorientations” of funding from other, unidentified programs, he said. France is providing an additional 102 million euros and Germany an additional 54 million euros.

“This will allow us to cover a number of risks that are quite normal in the last phases of a development program,” he said. ESA previously stated that issues with the cryogenic arm that connects the launchpad to the vehicle, along with shutdowns of facilities because of the pandemic, caused the latest delays.

The council also backed plans to solicit applications for a new class of astronauts starting in the first quarter of 2021. Those future astronauts could be eligible to fly on future Artemis missions in cooperation with NASA, but that program alone wasn’t the only reason for selecting new astronauts.

Wörner said it was time for a “renewal” of the European astronaut corps, given that ESA selected its previous astronaut class a decade ago. “Everybody gets older and older,” he said. “It’s time to look for new astronauts.”

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...