PARIS — Jean-Yves Le Gall has long been a key player in Europe’s space affairs but his position now is exceptional.
He is president of France’s space agency, CNES, Europe’s biggest national space agency; chairman of the ruling council of the 22-nation European Space Agency, ESA; and chairman of the European GNSS Agency, GSA, which is managing the European Union-financed Galileo positioning, navigation and timing network.
He is also president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), which each year organizes the large International Astronautical Congress.
That’s a lot of territory. In an interview, Le Gall addresses the Jan. 25 Ariane 5 anomaly, the vehicle’s first in 15 years, and whether the rocket should have been destroyed when it veered off course; the importance, or not, of a Buy European Act for European governments to use European rockets; the status of the Ariane 6 program; and the European Commission’s next seven-year budget, in which space space programs were supposed to get a big increase. Then Brexit happened.
The Jan. 25 Ariane 5 flight went badly off track and either overflew the town of Kourou or came very close. Why wasn’t the rocket destroyed by range-safety managers?
The range safety issues raised during the flight have been treated correctly and I really don’t have any worries about them at this point. And the maps clearly show that the Ariane 5 did not overfly Kourou. It remained completely outside the town.
You’ve seen the videos that suggest otherwise.
Yes, and there is a sort of parallax here. It remained outside the town. We put into place a board of inquiry regarding the safety issues and we have taken the necessary measures so that, in the future, things are dealt with in a deeper way than they were before. I am not really worried about what happened on Jan. 25.
At a certain moment people have to decide whether to push the red button to destroy the rocket.
Yes, but in this case the vehicle was never in a situation that would have necessitated that we push the red button.
But again, there are those amateur videos.
No. Its trajectory was not such that we would have destroyed it. Otherwise, we would have done it.
Perhaps a decision was made that, since the rocket was functioning well otherwise, destroying it would have posed more risks than letting it continue to fly?
I can say that we have taken on board the consequences here, and when we return to flight the protocols will be reinforced.
The protocols that govern how we follow the rocket will be reinforced to add more security to the process.
But if the protocols were respected during the Jan. 25 flight…
The protocols were respected.
Why the need to reinforce them?
Because we don’t want to be able, in the future to go places that are not authorized, so we are going to tighten procedures that are more upstream — preventive measures so this doesn’t happen again. For the flight itself, there were no problems, but before then, concerning the launch preparations, we will assure that the difficulties we encountered are not repeated.
The incorrect azimuth loaded onto the vehicle’s software is a separate issue.
Yes, but it’s naturally part of the whole equation.
So for the first few minutes of flight, when the rocket was still being tracked by the ground stations…
The main concern for us is to make sure we are never in that situation again. So all the work done before launch has been reinforced. And that’s why we are several days late with the next mission.
Was there an assessment that destroying the rocket posed more danger than letting it fly?
We assume full responsibility for what we did and we respect the decision that was made. The only issue for us is that the entire prelaunch process will be reinforced so that we do not find ourselves in this situation again. That’s what we are doing now. And the next launch is scheduled for early April [April 5].
This launch anomaly occurred as Ariane 6 prime contractor ArianeGroup was taking more responsibility for prelaunch activities from Arianespace. Was that a contributing factor?
People shouldn’t mix up things that are separate. People have a tendency to comment on changes and conclude that the fact of the corporate evolution and the difficulty on this launch must be linked.
They are not linked?
No. What happened could have happened a year ago, or a year from now.
If it had nothing to do with the new organizational chart for ArianeGroup and Arianespace and the personnel changes that accompanied it, how did it happen?
An error was made. The board of inquiry clearly established this. The board [created by the European Space Agency and headed by ESA’s inspector general] made its report and a statement was released.
The European Space Agency’s ruling council was unable to approve certain Ariane 6-related milestones when it met the week of March 14. Why not?
The Ariane 6 program is progressing as foreseen. There wa s a resolution that was to be voted during that council that was delayed for a bit. I think it will be approved this week [the week of March 26]. The resolution fixes the parameters in which we can discuss financing. It’s the standard procedure at ESA, where there is a resolution and then there are declarations committing the funds by each nation. It’s complicated, but that’s the way it is.
So this resolution will set the legal framework that then frees up the funding. This was the previously agreed financing. There are a few things to adjust, and that’s standard too.
There has been talk of accelerating the Ariane 6 program, so that it arrives fully on the market in 2020, rather than just a demonstration flight that year. Is there time enough to make this adjustment?
That would be difficult, it seems to me. But let me say that today, on my list of preoccupations, Ariane is not at the top. The program is moving ahead as it should.
Apparently it was decided to scrap the proposed dual production of Ariane 6 boosters and Vega-C’s first stages in Italy and Germany, and to consolidate it in Italy. No second line at MT Aerospace in Germany, which will be given work on a turbopump in exchange.
That dual-production idea has been abandoned, in fact it was pretty much abandoned several months ago. It had little economic merit. It took time for everyone to agree, but that’s OK. We signed an agreement on this subject, on Feb. 1, among ESA, ASI [the Italian Space Agency], [the German Aerospace Center] DLR and CNES.
Have the Ariane 6 industrial contractors respected their commitment to invest 400 million euros of their own funds into the program?
It might seem paradoxical, but Ariane 6 is not a subject of preoccupation because the roadmap set by the agency has been followed and we’re where we were supposed to be with it. It’s a complex program, but it’s progressing. Really, Ariane 6 is not a worry at this point at ESA, at least not for me.
How important is it to have European governments commit to a European preference in launchers?
It’s not a pressing subject in my view. The fact is that they all select European launchers except in rare cases.
And yet, ArianeGroup set it as a condition of their agreement as Ariane 6 prime contractor.
Yes, but today the real subjects are the demand for satellites and to make sure that the Ariane 6 program advances well. European satellites being launched by European launchers — this exists as a fact today.
What are your sources of worry?
Three subjects: The first is the next European Union financial package, which is very important for ESA, which is naturally interested in how its biggest contributor — not France, not Germany, but the European Commission — is doing.
The continued work on Galileo [positioning, navigation and timing] and Copernicus [Earth observation], the new programs such as GovSatCom and others are also subjects of concern.
You believe in GovSatCom, in which the European Commission would finance milsatcom in Europe?
It’s a subject of discussion. I don’t know it it will be realized. It’s part of the debate over the next MFF [the European Commission’s 7-year budget, 2021-2027]. Today the commission’s space budget is 12.4 billion euros [$15.3 billion], and for the next financial package they are talking about 21 billion euros.
The commission wants to raise its space profile and it’s good news.
What is the concern with Galileo?
Completing the development of Galileo, which today is Europe’s largest space program, is a priority. Things are really moving. Today if you have this kind of phone [pulls out an iPhone X] you have Galileo in there and the precision is remarkable.
But we are at just the beginning of Galileo and its entry into commerce.
You are chairman of the European GNSS Agency, GSA. There’s been talk about giving GSA a wider remit, perhaps including Copernicus. Your view?
The GSA is doing well. As far as its future role, these are still open questions. Galileo and Copernicus are very different. Galileo had to create an entirely new ecosystem. Copernicus entered, and added to, an existing ecosystem in Earth observation. For now the GSA’s principal mission is clearly Galileo.
And your third source of concern?
The relations between ESA and the EU. The system overall today is working and the commission correctly considers that it is lucky to have an agency like ESA and the excellent expertise it has, so it can lean on ESA as its executive arm.
Galileo’s Public Regulated Service, PRS, is to offer a secure, government-only signal. How is it progressing?
I don’t see any problems there. The Brexit issue has to be managed, and that’s complicated. The problem is that PRS was developed principally between France and Britain. Now we have the security monitoring center in Britain that’s closing and moving to Spain. So this is a real subject.
Doesn’t Brexit make an increase in the European Commission’s space budget impossible?
I am not sure they will get their requested 21 billion euros, but I think they will be able to not only maintain the current budget, but get an increase.
These figures presume that the UK is completely out of Copernicus and Galileo financing?
This presumes a soft Brexit.
Meaning the UK continues as now in Galileo and Copernicus?
No, in Galileo they cannot continue to participate. It’s complicated if they are not a member of the European Union.
It’s just a matter of signing a couple of conventions, no?
It’s possible but there is a lot that has yet to be negotiated for Galileo. For Copernicus, there is a double source of funding by the Commission and ESA and the UK is remaining in ESA.
The International Astronautical Congress (IAC) this year is in October in Bremen, Germany. How is it looking?
In terms of abstracts, we have a record number of submissions: 4,300 abstracts submitted. This is 15% more than the previous record, for the IAC in Beijing. I foresee somewhere around 6,000 or 7,000 people. I’ve had the good fortune in my career to join things just as they are taking off.
Bremen’s a small town. Where will they all stay?
In hotels up to a 100-kilometer radius around Bremen. It looks like it will be a big success. In fact the three IAC congresses in front of us all look good: Bremen this year, Washington, D.C., next year for the 50th anniversary and then Dubai in 2020. People will be curious to see how it is.