In his office, filled with rocket and satellite miniature models, Jean-Jacques Dordain, managing director of European Space Agency (ESA) focuses on industrial cooperation, Ariane 6, and the upcoming competition from Elon Musk. How do you continue dreaming after successfully landing a satellite on a comet? The head of the European Space Agency still has great projects in mind. Many of which start today.
Jean-Jacques Dordain. Let’s not forget to dream! Everything is so fast-paced that we may easily forget what was accomplished yesterday. Also, the Rosetta mission is not yet over: it continues to do its job, i.e. analyzing gases emitted by comet Tchouri. And as we are still collecting abundant information, even if Philae does not wake up we will surely have
enough data to occupy the scientific community with work for the next 20 years.
Leaders League. You are now working on Ariane 6, generating crucial expectations for the European space industry. How is this new launcher innovative?
J.-J. D. First I must remind you that we are still signing contracts with respect to Ariane 5, and that both launchers will coexist during a two or three year transition period. Even with
these conditions we are certainly confident in the future. As we have taken substantive technological and organizational risks, failure is not an option. On the former point in particular, innovation stems from the fact that ESA is no longer responsible for building the launchers. The agency delegated this responsibility to the industry, which develops
the programs under our control in exchange for a commitment to take risks upon implementation in commercial exploits. The new rocket is not very different from its sister regarding its main characteristics. We kept the engine used by Ariane 5 – it has proved to be efficient. We also focused on allowing more flexible settings, as expected from the market. It needs more tailoring opportunities. At last, we innovated by creating an intergovernmental contracting department to allow collective contracts. It may not transform Europe into a guaranteed spatial market, but will certainly, encourage probable business guarantees and lead to greater cost-effectiveness. For
instance, Ariane 6 will be two times cheaper than Ariane 5.
Leaders League. Is that a direct response to the late Space X success, Elon Musk’s lowcost program? How do you feel about that new competition?
J.-J. D. I admire Elon Musk, without any reservation for what he is doing. Nevertheless, he has two advantages that I don’t have. First, he benefits form a guaranteed governmental
market of four to five launches a year. Europe cannot compete on these grounds, since it is more liberal in its organization. The United States are more protective of their industry, and any entrepreneur with an efficient program will have his market guaranteed by the authorities. His second asset is to have started from scratch. Elon Musk is the third operator after Atlas and Delta to enter the market. He adapted to existing needs and therefore did not bear the constraints of the typical public contracts, or any industrial heritage. I cannot grow apart from the Ariane 5 legacy.
Leaders League. Space tourism is generating a lot of expectations from the public audience, not to mention commercial opportunities. Will ESA take any advantage of it?
J.-J. D. Our activities are not dedicated to generate any direct benefits. When it is the case, it is preferable to concede them to private organizations. The logic applies to space tourism. With the public funding, the ESA has three main missions: contribute to common knowledge, develop services for citizens (weather forecasts, communications) and lastly, improve European industrial competitiveness.
Leaders League. To what extent does the agency contribute to industrial competitiveness ?
J.-J. D. The public part of the partnerships takes the risk of developing new technologies, and the private one takes the risk of using them in its business. This allows the industry to maintain a technological advantage over its competitors in the field of services associated with satellites. The impact of space activities on the economy is huge. Take weather forecasts for example: an estimated proportion of 30% of the European economy depends on them. A 1-day improvement in the forecasts would have colossal impact on the continental growth. Imagining the whole of telecommunications and navigation systems were shut down for one day is the best way to illustrate the leverages of the space industry on the economy. I would also add that three years ago the British Chancellor of the Exchequer chose to raise his contribution to the ESA by 25 %. Isn’t that a strong signal?
Picture credit : @viktorsekularac
Interview : @ph_kuhn
Translation : @hugo_weber
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Other articles of the same issue:
Leonardo da Vinci: An Undaunted Dreamer
Why Should We Chase Dreams?
25 Innovative Leaders (Part II)
Wisdom on Risk Taking
Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action (TED Video)