Profile: David Williams


British National Space Centre

The British government’s appetite for competitive bidding applies even to its selection of space agency heads. An open competition for the post of director-general of the British National Space Centre (BNSC) — the first of its kind in Britain — ended with the selection of David Williams.

Williams, who assumed his post in May, spent 10 years as director of strategy at Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization. Eumetsat has 20 national members contributing different amounts to the agency. In that sense, the challenges of managing Eumetsat are not so different from those that face a BNSC director-general.

BNSC is a partnership of 11 different government departments and research agencies. Finding common ground among them to move a space policy forward has never been easy, as the partners have widely divergent interests.

Among BNSC’s members are the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Ministry of Defence; the Natural Environment Research Council; and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. This is one reason why periodic calls are heard that Britain create its own space agency in the conventional sense of the term.

In an interview with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding, Williams preferred to focus on the benefits of the BNSC structure, which recently resulted in Britain’s taking a surprisingly large share of Europe’s Aurora space exploration program, and a surprisingly small stake in the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) project run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission.

BNSC is a partnership of a diverse group of agencies that contribute funding. What power does the director-general have to set or change its policy?

BNSC develops the future policy and direction of Britain’s space effort. If you look at any enterprise, the head guy doesn’t act alone. You try to set a direction and reach a consensus. Importantly, you are the principal source of advice to the minister responsible for space — Lord Sainsbury in the case of the U.K.

Britain in December decided to take a very small share, around 5 percent, of the GMES program despite the fact that GMES appears to be exactly what Britain has been asking ESA to do. Was the lack of investment due to a weakness in the BNSC partnership structure?

Actually, I would say it was a reflection of the strengths of our process. One reason behind our decision was that when the people who were going to use the data from GMES looked at what they needed, they saw a mismatch with what was proposed. In the U.K., we try to make decisions on programs like this based on usage, and in addition we then want a good industrial role.

Is there a way of reversing this decision so as to permit British industry to have a prime contractor’s role in one of the GMES satellites?

In the next couple of months? No. But the government has a Comprehensive Spending Review every three years, and one is being prepared now. Part of its goal is to revisit the areas we are involved in to see whether any adjustments are needed.

What needs to be modified in GMES?

Continuity of data is one area that needs to be addressed. If prospective users are not certain the data will be there over the long term, they are not going to invest in the system or the training and equipment necessary for its usage. In the specific case of GMES, the Sentinel satellite missions need to be reviewed with data continuity as a priority.

In this case, the U.K. will be losing a likely prime contractor role — for Astrium Ltd. — on the Sentinel-1 satellite because of its low investment. Is that an acceptable trade-off?

We mustn’t confuse the issues here. One the one hand, you focus on the mission and the users who need the data. On the other hand, you need to build a satellite. The priority is to get the users to tell us what observations they need, what sensors and with what frequency.

As far as the Sentinel-1 radar satellite is concerned, the issue is: How does it meet the perceived needs? This was a little vague. In fact, many people put radar in second place among the missions they want to see because it cuts across many areas. Second-place priorities often have funding problems.

Is the Eumetsat example a useful model for GMES?

In many ways it is. Eumetsat has been providing nearly 30 years of data to its users, without a gap. If you want sustainable services, you need a steady supply of data. I think Eumetsat is now being recognized in the GMES system.

Does GMES need to be rethought?

It may be better to address one or two Sentinel missions properly — guaranteeing successor missions and data continuity — rather than going broad and shallow with five missions whose successors are not certain, given the available funding. You have to look again at the whole package.

Things are also happening around the world outside Europe. We need to look and see what is being built, to assure that we are gaining benefits from this, and not duplicating efforts elsewhere.

BNSC recently invested in a Ka-band broadband satellite system called Hylas, being managed by Avanti Screenmedia. Why route your investment through ESA instead of directly financing the project?

This is a unique project. By going through ESA we have allowed other countries to become involved, and other industries to come on board. Based on risk-reduction work done in ESA, the company has raised capital in the stock market, and we think this is exactly the kind of initiative we should support.

Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation project is costing more than forecast. Does BNSC accept that the new expenses are justified?

The U.K. is one of the governments that have yet to decide whether to put additional money in Galileo. The total additional costs are a bit more than 400 million euros ($513 million), half of which is to come from ESA. ESA has asked that nations declare their intentions by Aug. 24, and the U.K. will meet this date.

Britain will be expected to take its pro rata share — about 17 percent — of the required 200 million euros in additional ESA payments to Galileo. Is it automatic that you will agree to this?

Nothing is automatic when it comes to spending public money, and each decision needs a solid case.