An interview with Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of CNES

Le Gall

Jean-Yves Le Gall, the current president of the French space agency CNES, will also become president of the International Astronautical Federation at the end of this month. (credit: L. Jeitler / ITU)


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A man with a calm and assured demeanor, Jean-Yves Le Gall spares no effort promoting the cause of astronautics. He’s a globetrotter with supreme organizational skills whose perspective on space is well served by a razor-sharp wit. At the helm of Arianespace, he was the artisan of the tight technical procedures that made Ariane 5 the successful and reliable launcher it is today. He travels tirelessly across the planet to bang the drum for space. The characteristic lilting tones of his native Marseille, where he was born on April 30, 1959, come through clearly in his voice. He sat down to talk about the absorbing task of presiding over the destinies of the French space agency CNES and the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), just after chairing the July meeting of CNES’s board of directors.

It’s been quite a journey since the early years at Novespace and Starsem. It seems like you never rest. Where do you get your energy from?

Jean-Yves Le Gall: First, the space sector is evolving at a rate never seen before, so an organization like CNES, with its strong influence in the astronautics arena, has to stamp its presence as a space agency and technical field center. Second, the agency is fortunate to have so many highly talented people constantly creating new ideas! My job is to listen to all of these ideas coming from our four centres in Paris, Toulouse, and Kourou. And, of course, space is such a vibrant field that’s changing all the time, so we have to keep moving forward, or we’ll find ourselves lagging behind. That’s why three years ago I eagerly accepted the task of leading CNES, whose role as the public custodian of space systems is to maintain France at the forefront of the world space community.

You seem to be focused as much on space science as on space applications.

The space sector is evolving at a rate never seen before, so an organization like CNES, with its strong influence in the astronautics arena, has to stamp its presence as a space agency and technical field center.

Le Gall: Yes, because CNES is very active in research and technology, Earth observation and environmental monitoring, satellite telecommunications systems, and European security and defense missions. And, of course, the launchers sector, where we have always excelled and remain closely involved with ESA and Airbus Safran Launchers in developing the new Ariane 6 launcher. At the same time, we’re laying the groundwork for the future with the Prometheus and Callisto technology projects, while in science, we’re working with partners in Europe, the United States, India, China, Russia, and Japan, and most other global space players.

More than ever, you’re advocating a global partnership approach to Earth observation.

Le Gall: In space remote sensing, an area in which CNES has made France a pioneer, the COP21 [climate change conference] in Paris last December put the big climate challenges facing us in the spotlight. More than ever, we need to raise awareness in emerging nations through international initiatives like the Mexico and New Delhi Declarations. To this end, there will be a round table session with the world’s heads of space agencies at the next International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara in the last week of September, to set the space agenda for the COP22 in Marrakesh.

CNES intends to play a pivotal role in efforts to curb climate change. Following on from the COP21, we expedited the MERLIN and MicroCarb missions to study atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide. And we recently gave the final go-ahead for SWOT (Surface Water & Ocean Topography), a joint program with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to develop a satellite with a Ka-band altimeter-interferometer designed to gain new insights into the dynamics of Earth’s water cycle.

[CNES has decided to invest �‚�200 million in building the two-tonne SWOT observatory set to launch no earlier than 2021. Its Ka-band Radar Interferometer (KaRIn) will be equipped with two large Ka-band antennas perched at the end of a 10-metre boom, affording continuous, very-high-resolution coverage over a 120-kilometre swath of oceans, seas, lakes, rivers and other surface waters.]

With Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space, French industry is setting the standards in telecommunications satellites.

Le Gall: Through CNES and its defense procurement agency DGA, France is traditionally a leader in satellite telecommunications. Our manufacturers are looking to the future in developing electric propulsion and gearing up to meet growing demand for Internet connectivity. Today’s satellites are having to accommodate simply huge volumes of data: by 2020, we can expect data rates on the order of one terabyte per second. We’re at the cutting edge in this domain and we must stay there.

CNES is constantly seeking to play a pioneering role. Aren’t you trying to overshadow ESA?

Le Gall: No, not at all! Quite the opposite, in fact. ESA and CNES work together in complementary fashion, hand in hand. CNES conducts its programs in close cooperation with ESA’s, and France is doing great work through ESA with Germany, Italy, and the other member states. More than ever, we’re all part of “Team Space Europe.”

And do you maintain good relations with the European Commission and its space programs?

Nobody really knows at this point how things are going to turn out, but I firmly believe the UK will remain part of the European space effort.

Le Gall: Yes, our relations are excellent. I meet the Commission’s people in charge of space in Brussels once or twice a month. I think all government-level bodies, be it ESA, member states, the Commission, GSA [the European Global Naviagation Satellite Systems Agency], or Eumetsat, are working in concert in the interests of all concerned. The same goes for industry. This is especially evident on the Ariane 6 program. Everyone has got the message that it’s time to leave egos aside and pull together if we want to stay competitive.

Haven’t you been affected by the Brexit vote?

Le Gall: The result of the United Kingdom referendum obviously raises a number of issues. The UK is a key partner of Europe’s space program. Nobody really knows at this point how things are going to turn out, but I firmly believe the UK will remain part of the European space effort.

The European Union is set to release a document in October on Europe’s space strategy.

Le Gall: Europe’s space strategy must be managed prudently, like a shared portfolio. It’s vital that we continue to consolidate what we’ve already accomplished with the operational Galileo and Copernicus systems. But we mustn’t be averse to taking on riskier challenges like launchers or new “killer” applications.

What directions do you see Europe’s future space effort taking?

Le Gall: I see three key drivers. The first is NewSpace, which is a global trend fuelled by innovation and miniaturization for applications. The second is climate, following the wakeup call to the world sent by the COP21. And the third is exploration, especially of Mars. I’m amazed how missions to reach the Red Planet have really stepped up a gear. If you’d asked me a year ago when I thought the first crewed mission would be likely to reach Mars, I would’ve said 2040–2050, well over the horizon. Today, I’m surprised to see that in the United States both NASA and private concerns are talking about a crewed mission to Mars orbit in 2025–2030; in other words, tomorrow. At the IAC in September in Guadalajara, we’re going to be hearing about “colonizing” Mars.

Why this interest? Because satellites and launches that were too costly a few years ago are now being provided cheaper and making such propositions affordable. In these three key fields defining the current focus of astronautics, established and emerging space players are jockeying for position, and so must Europe. For example, the United Arab Emirates will launch a mission to Mars in 2020 and their young engineers and research scientists are showing a keen interest in innovation and climate.

So for you, does that mean the Moon Village concept favoured by ESA’s Director General Jan Wörner is a lower priority?

Le Gall: No, absolutely not! Jan Wörner is a visionary who is the first to have grasped the value of crewed exploration. His “Moon Village” is quite simply a generic concept affirming that all exploration projects will start out in the vicinity of the Moon.

CNES is without doubt the first space agency in the world to have focused on the commercial uses of space systems, through Arianespace, Spot Image, and CLS. But today it’s pulling out of these private initiatives. Why is that?

Personally, I lobbied hard to get Ariane 6 going in 2012, but at the time many were pushing to upgrade Ariane 5 with the Vinci engine. Ultimately, this solution did not prove to our advantage and events have shown that I was right.

Le Gall: We’re not pulling out—quite the opposite, in fact! CNES was behind these companies that have revolutionized the world of astronautics. It’s thanks to CNES that Arianespace is so solidly established in the geostationary launch business with a 50 percent share of the commercial launch services market. In Earth observation, it’s also thanks to CNES that Spot Image was able to build the foundations of a space remote sensing system, today managed by Airbus, and the agency is continuing to work on the applications of the future through its new Directorate of Innovation, Applications and Science. Our aim is to help bring satellite applications to the widest audience.

With the sale of CNES’s holding in Arianespace to Airbus Safran Launchers, are you not handing the more lucrative side of the space market over to the private sector?

Le Gall: Well, you know, CNES really wrote the book on public-private partnership more than 35 years ago. When such partnerships work, it’s their vocation to become fully private concerns. The public side of the partnership plays a priming role. Once it’s up and running, public institutions move on. We could have ceded our holding in Arianespace much earlier, but plans changed when the first Ariane 5 ECA and its upper cryogenic stage failed on launch in December 2002. Without that mishap, CNES would have sold its stake in Arianespace long ago. When I was in charge at Arianespace, managing the business was a very challenging prospect during that 2002–2005 period. Now things are a lot simpler and the company is on a stable footing, so now is the right time for a new ownership structure.

Ariane 6 is a crucial element of Arianespace’s development. Is the program on track?

Le Gall: The new Ariane 6 launcher won’t reach cruising speed for another six or seven years yet. Its first launch is planned for 2020, then it will ramp up over a period of three or four years. Until then, we’ll continue to operate the range of Ariane 5, Soyuz, and Vega launchers in place since 2012. The future in the short-to-medium term is Ariane 5, and in the medium-to-long term Ariane 6.

Is CNES already looking ahead to Europe’s next space launch system?

Le Gall: We need to start work on that now. When Ariane 6 got the go-ahead at the ESA ministerial council meeting in Luxembourg in December 2014, we were able to get the program on the rails quickly because CNES had started the conceptual studies back in 2007–2008. That’s why we’re continuing to focus on the future with the new Prometheus methane-liquid oxygen engine and the Callisto technology demonstrator.

Don’t you regret that Ariane 6 was approved a little too late?

Le Gall: There are always things you may regret. Personally, I lobbied hard to get Ariane 6 going in 2012, but at the time many were pushing to upgrade Ariane 5 with the Vinci engine. Ultimately, this solution did not prove to our advantage and events have shown that I was right. The important thing is that the Ariane 6 program engaged in 2014 is now moving forward and on track.

What is CNES’s position on the private constellation initiatives now emerging?

Le Gall: Here again, European manufacturers based in France are playing a key role supplying satellites for large constellations like O3b, Iridium Next, and OneWeb. We have a technology support program in place for industry. But there’s a debate about the role of constellations and geostationary satellites in bringing broadband service to the widest number. We’re helping to shape that debate and we’re working in this area. We’ll see what happens and I don’t want to take sides. On the other hand, we always prepare for all eventualities and we’ll remain in the race.

Let’s talk now about your role at the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), where you’re set to take over as President.

Le Gall: I’ll be taking up my post on September 30, on the final day of the IAC in Guadalajara. At the opening of the Congress, I’ll still be President Elect. I’ll become President at the second meeting of the General Assembly on September 30.

What new actions do you intend to pursue for IAF?

I wouldn’t have accepted the post of IAF President if I hadn’t been living in Paris. Its Executive Secretariat is near my home, so it’s quite convenient for me to go there once a week.

Le Gall: In an increasingly global space arena, now is the time for IAF to raise its profile. Its annual congress, IAC, has become a must-attend event where stakeholders gather to talk about programs, where priorities are shaped and ideas are discussed. For example, we’re going to be talking in Guadalajara about colonizing Mars and private capsules set to fly to Mars before the end of the decade.

To support IAF’s actions, I have put in place a 3G Diversity programme—for Geography (all nations), Gender (promoting gender equality), and Generation (older hands mentoring new talent). We’re fortunate to be at a time when space is extending its reach and acquiring a new dimension as costs come down and emerging players are coming to the fore.

As well as being in charge of CNES, you’re also going to be leading IAF and you recently took over as Chair of the Administrative Board of GSA. Isn’t that a lot of work for someone who prides himself on doing things properly?

Le Gall: Well, unlike my position as CNES President, the two other posts aren’t operational ones. I wouldn’t have accepted the post of IAF President if I hadn’t been living in Paris. Its Executive Secretariat is near my home, so it’s quite convenient for me to go there once a week.

As for GSA, which manages the Galileo system, I was already an administrator and I was asked to Chair its Administrative Board, which I’ll be doing four times a year at its headquarters in Prague. That way, I’ll be contemplating astronautics from three key vantage points: a European perspective with CNES and ESA, a global perspective with IAF, and an applications perspective with GSA and Galileo.