Three of the world's six major space agencies have in recent weeks relieved their chiefs of staff. All three are men who have proven their abilities and have now been selected to head the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), France's space agency (CNES) or the European Space Agency (ESA).
The most recent to assume his important role is the new NASA administrator, Democratic lawyer and politician Bill Nelson, who was nominated by US President Joel Bien on 19 March. However, it was not until 29 April that he was unanimously approved by the Senate and was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris, a ceremony that took place on 3 May.
The 78-year-old Bill Nelson, a personal friend of the new White House occupant, will have as his right-hand man as associate administrator Pamela Melroy, who has not yet been cleared by the Senate, but will be cleared without a hitch. Melroy is a former Air Force test pilot, a former NASA astronaut and one of only two women to have commanded a space shuttle mission.
Nelson enters NASA with a loaf of bread under his arm. President Biden has requested an increase of 6.3% for the 2022 fiscal year, which means 24.7 billion dollars, 1.5 billion more than in the 2021 fiscal year. This sum of money is to be concentrated on four major areas, preferably on near-Earth projects but also beyond to explore the solar system.
The emphasis remains on the Artemis programme to return astronauts to the Moon, which would take the first woman and the first black astronaut to our natural satellite, although there is no longer talk of setting foot on it in 2024. In parallel, NASA will reinforce its robotic missions to Mars, which should culminate in late 2030 or early 2040 with the arrival of human beings on the Red Planet.
A second scenario in which Joe Biden and Bill Nelson want to focus NASA's interest is in developing new technologies that bring more quality to the benefits derived from space activities. In this area, the aim is to help the growth of the commercial space industry and to promote the development of clean energy.
There is also a strategic line to improve understanding of the Earth by substantially increasing investment in observation satellites that can address climate change. Nelson will be responsible for launching a new generation of space-based platforms dedicated to studying urgent issues for safeguarding health and life on Earth.
A fourth line of action is continued attention to the International Space Station as an orbiting research laboratory. It requires continued funding for manned spaceflight to and from space, continued on-board experiments, and the enormous costs required to deliver supplies of oxygen, food, fuel and spare parts. All of this is aimed at keeping the orbital complex fully operational until at least 2024, with a crew of seven people with a full guarantee of survival.
Bill Nelson takes the helm of NASA with the experience of having been an astronaut, having been present on a space mission and having devoted much of his political life in the Senate to space affairs. In contrast, the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, has opted to nominate a neophyte in the sector for the post of President of his important space agency.
The person nominated by the Elysée Palace is Philippe Baptiste, a mining engineer from the University of Nancy in his 50s, former chief of staff (2017-2019) of the Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, Frédérique Vidal. His next post was advisor for Higher Education, Youth and Sport to the then Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. Before being appointed on 14 April by the Council of Ministers of the French government, Baptiste also had to pass an evaluation of his merits, in this case by the National Assembly and the Senate, which finally gave their approval.
With the election of Philippe Baptiste, Emmanuel Macron has changed the French administration's previous pattern of handing over the reins of CNES - short for Centre National d'Études Spatiales - to a veteran of its powerful industrial sector. But the new head of CNES is not an insider. He is a proven specialist in the digital field, in algorithms and artificial intelligence, who has worked as a senior scientific manager at the oil company Total, IBM and official research institutions.
To pilot what is considered the leading space agency in Western European countries, Macron and his current prime minister Jean Castex have emphasised the newcomer's ability to reorient the French space industry towards applications derived from space technologies with a high impact on its society and industry, and have dismissed his limited experience and knowledge in the space field.
Philippe Baptiste replaces Jean-Yves Le Gall, a veteran and expert in all aspects of global astronautics. Le Gall has been at the helm of CNES for eight years - from 2013 to 2021 - and prior to that he spent 12 years as president of Arianespace, Europe's leading launch services company, which has taken him all over the world to sign contracts and cooperation agreements.
With a budget of 2.335 billion euros for 2021, the new head of French space affairs has already defined his five main priorities. They are a compendium of the guidelines formulated for him by the Ministers for the Economy, Higher Education and the Armed Forces, Bruno Le Maire, Frédérique Vidal and Florence Parly, respectively. They are summarised as turning the industrial fabric towards the digital field, boosting independent access to space, reinforcing innovation by promoting start-ups, cooperating with the military space strategy and strengthening the scientific influence of the CNES.
At the European Space Agency (ESA), the new strong man is the 60-year-old Austrian Josef Aschbacher, who has derailed the aspirations of the Spanish minister and astronaut Pedro Duque. With a PhD in natural sciences from the University of Innsbruk, he was due to take up the post of ESA director general on 1 July, but the departure of his predecessor, Germany's Jan Woerner, catapulted him to the post on 1 March.
He manages a budget of 6.49 billion euros and on 7 April he presented Agenda 2025, the Agency's new roadmap. The new roadmap consists of focusing on more ambitious space missions, extending security-related programmes, boosting the commercial aspect, balancing staffing levels and strengthening relations with Brussels now that the EUSPA has been created. In addition, it wants to facilitate access to private capital for new projects, to bring high level technical expertise to third countries and to double investment in new technologies.