The Spanish Minister for Science and Innovation, Pedro Duque, does not have an easy path to take over from Germany's Johann-Dietrich Woerner and sit in the command chair of the European Space Agency (ESA) on July 1st, 2021. The ESA is an international organisation of 22 European countries, including Spain, and has a budget of 14.4 billion euros to finance space programmes until 2024.
The director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the Italian astrophysicist Simonetta di Pippo, is one of the most serious candidates to head the European Agency. If she succeeds, she would be the first woman to hold the post, while nipping in the bud the aspirations of astronaut Pedro Duque, who dreams-or used to dream-of flying to the ESA headquarters in Paris to head the organisation for at least four years.
While the minister Pedro Duque is backed by the president of the Spanish government, Pedro Sánchez, the Italian minister enjoys the confidence of the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, which puts them on an equal footing in terms of high-level support. However, Simonetta di Pippo has other assets. An astrophysicist by the University of La Sapienza in Rome, she joined the Italian Space Agency (ASI) in 1986, where she was Director of Observation of the Universe (2002-2008), a post from which she joined ESA to become the first woman to reach a senior position as head of manned space flight.
She left the Agency in 2011 at the request of the Korean Ban Ki-moon, then Secretary General of the United Nations, to lead the policy, strategy and activities arising from the agreements and mandates of the General Assembly. Since then, she has played a leading role in international activities to promote and raise awareness worldwide of the importance of space technology and applications as a tool for sustainable development.
Now 61, Simonetta di Pippo has been the space advisor to Portugal's António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, since January 1, 2017. Her experience includes issues related to the peaceful use of outer space, the use of science and disaster risk reduction.
Pedro Duque and Simonetta di Pippo are not the only ones who have applied for the post. A total of 11 candidates applied and were admitted, although ESA did not confirm the names, except for those who publicly proclaimed their candidacy or resignation. At least two people are known to have stepped down. One is Roberto Battiston, 65, former president of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) between May 2014 and November 2018. The other is Étienne Schneider, 49, former deputy prime minister and finance minister of Luxembourg.
In addition to the director of UNOOSA, there are other women candidates including Chiara Manfletti, the youngest of all. She has the support of the Portuguese government of António Costa, has dual Italian-German nationality and was President of the Portuguese Space Agency from its creation in March 2019 until last September 15.
An engineer from the Technical University of Aachen (Germany) and trained in space engineering and management in London and Strasbourg, Chiara Manfletti has held leading positions at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). Since April 2016, she has been an adviser to the ESA Director General and has subsequently served as Director of its Policy and Programme Department. She combines a broad knowledge of the European space sector and, according to those who know her, "she is a veritable portent of vitality and knowledge".
Another woman longing for the position, but fewer possibilities, is Germany's Claudia Kessler. Described as an "entrepreneur and visionary", she founded the company Astronautin GmbH in April 2017 to offer commercial space travel and has invested in HE Space Operations, a company devoted to recruiting and selecting personnel with an interest in the space sector.
Two other male candidates are also fighting hard for victory with the support of their respective governments. Both are veterans of the Agency who know the ins and outs of it and have worked up the ranks to place themselves under the immediate command of the current Director General. Austrian Josef Aschbacher, who has been ESA's Director of Earth Observation since July 2016 and is fully supported by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The other is Belgium's Eric Morel de Westgaver, Director of Industry, Procurement and Legal Services at the Agency since November 2013, who is supported by Sophie Wilmès, Belgium's Federal Prime Minister.
Aged 58 and trained at the University of Insbruck, Aschbacher joined ESA in 1990, served as a representative in Asia and was one of the initiators of the Copernicus Earth Observation programme carried out in cooperation with the European Union. Morel de Westgaver, older than the former, is an economist from the Catholic University of Leuven. He joined ESA in 1987 and held important positions, always linked to cost analysis, industrial policy, procurement and financial affairs.
A third man who has been almost everything in the space sector worldwide also makes a surprisingly good choice. He is Jean-Yves Le Gall, 61, President of the French space agency (CNES) from 2013, and was re-elected in February by President Emmanuel Macron, who is in charge of the Republic's high-level space policy.
An optical engineer by training, he joined the space sector in 1981 and has not yet left it. Since 1985 he has been at the head of major state companies, parastatals or official French institutions always linked to space, where he has remained for many years, as is the case with Novespace, Arianespace and now the CNES.
The starting signal for the underground battle to replace the current director general was officially given on June 25 when candidates were accepted and it ended on August 31. An independent commission set up for the occasion will select the most suitable candidates and submit the proposal to the ESA Council chaired by Sweden's Anna Rathsman.
This is a competitive selection process involving a number of factors, including leadership, management skills, communication skills, senior positions and, of course, unspeakable political reasons. The forecast is that in about nine months' time, before the end of this year, this body - which brings together the heads of the official representatives of the 22 Member States - will decide on who will lead the Agency's destiny until mid-2025.
Since Danish Erik Quistgaard left the post of ESA Director General in 1984, the seat has been occupied by candidates from Germany, France and Italy, the three largest contributors to the Agency's budget, together with the United Kingdom. Over the last 36 years, two Germans, two French and one Italian have been at the helm of Europe's space industry, which means that quite a few of the 22 countries are now considering a change of direction and that the executive direction of the Agency should go to a candidate from a smaller country such as Austria, Belgium, Portugal... or Spain.