Making ESA ready for the future

At the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, I had the honor of being among the students awarded with ESA’s Student Sponsorship to attend the conference and of meeting the agency’s Director General Jan Wörner. Read about his plans for ESA and beyond the agency, about what inspired him to pursue a career related to space and how can ESA inspire others.

The interview was conducted primarily for the magazine Přírodovědci, whose next issue will feature a Czech translation of the text below.

Johann-Dietrich “Jan” Wörner became the Director General of ESA in July 2015 after working as head of DLR (German Aerospace Agency) and the German delegation to ESA for eight years. Before that, he headed the Technical University in Darmstadt, where he had studied civil engineering before some time in the commercial sector.

But who is Jan Wörner? From all his activities as DG as well as personal views, it’s clear that he places much emphasis on international and multi-level cooperation, communication between people as well as nations. His phrase “European with a [insert a language] accent” became almost a leitmotif and is very comforting to hear in the currently spreading political climate of nationalization. It also fits well within Wörner’s evident sense of humor. In IAC’s Heads of Agencies plenary and their Q&A for ISEB students, Wörner smiled by far most of all the panelists.

Jan Wörner, Moon Village jam session
Jan Wörner, Moon Village jam session (IAC 2016)

Last year’s IAC has gained much media attention largely because of Elon Musk’s dreams of Mars colonization. They present an intriguing contrast to Wörner’s visions of Moon Village. Don’t, however, think of contrast as exclusion. On the very contrary, these plans could be launched at the same time, possibly even with mutual support. The contrast lies in the execution of the concepts: Musk’s SpaceX, so far it seems regardless of the funding sources, would be responsible for the outlined Mars missions (and while its goal is to provide the launch infrastructure and someone else would have to take care of the numerous other challenges, it sounds like working for SpaceX rather than alongside it) and presumably for selecting the crew. It’s one billionaire’s grand plan conceived to his image. The concept of Moon Village, in contrast, is not restricted to the visions of Wörner or ESA; it’s supposed to be as open to other subjects, be they states, national space agencies, universities or private companies, and the development and working of the Moon Village would adapt flexibly on the interests and options of the actors. This itself tells a lot about the Director General: his emphasis on wide cooperation, accessibility and internationality is apparent in virtually every aspect of his work.

“The strongest work I can deliver is to make ESA ready for the future.”

Enabling smoother cooperation of ESA and commercial entities is an integral part of Wörner’s vision for the agency. Considering his Moon Village concept and the Space 4.0 outline, what is his vision of future space exploration? “We have to make a difference between the contents and the process,” he reminds us. “For me it’s very important that the space agencies, of course namely ESA, are really capable of working in the future. This is not automatic. The strongest work I can deliver is to make ESA ready for the future in the changing world including more commercialization, digital agenda, and more. Space 4.0 means commercialization, participation, digitization, but also jobs, growth and education. This is a part of it, and the other part is “United Space in Europe”. I was educated in the spirit of the European Union by my parents, so for me it was clear that at a certain point in time, we’ll have the United States of Europe. But we are far away from that, and moving away from that right now.”

Despite the Brexit and largely politically polarized Europe, Wörner has a contradiction to that – and that is the above mentioned “United Space in Europe”. What can we imagine under that label? “It does not mean a merger of all space activities, but it means that private and public space institutions in Europe should try to work together for the sake of the citizens,” Wörner explains. “Competition is good, but it should not lead to duplication and inefficient use of taxpayers’ money. For me, it means working together between for instance Eumetsat, the European Union, European Commission, ESA and other institutions in the public as well as private sector. This is something I hope I can bring forward in my term as the Director General.”

In the United States of America, the number of private investors, developers or entrepreneurs is growing, and Wörner feels that Europe is also ready and able to follow this development and the European Space Agency can be something like an enabler, not just a “funding agency” like space agencies were to private companies in the past. “We can also deliver knowledge to enable entrepreneurs entering into the market to use technologies which are already there,” Wörner adds. “I see a changing of the agencies. One step, which we are now doing more and more, is public-private partnership. We’ve been doing it already in telecommunications, now also in the launcher sector with Ariane 6 and Vega. We have a private investment of the companies, and we are now also proposing to do it in Earth observation. So let’s say this is a calm way towards more and more commercialization. We’ll see how it fares.”

Increasing cooperation of ESA with the private sector is certainly not the only way in which Wörner is modernizing the agency. His activities to bring the people closer to ESA, particularly the ESA Citizens’ Debate, are also changing the landscape. In the debate, most people considered science as the main driver of future activities of ESA. Would the next Cosmic Vision reflect that? “In the Citizens’ Debate, we asked about 2000 citizens across Europe at the same day about their priorities and wishes and science played an important role, so it is unlike the public discussion about short-term return of investment. And this was good, it shows that people still have this spirit of curiosity,” Wörner smiles. “We need that, I’m quite sure. We should not look only at the money, the short term. Science is something like a sustainable development for the future. I was very happy about that. For me it means that within ESA, we should take care of the science missions in a clear way and look right now also in the changes, meaning smaller missions may be possible, maybe we can also give more opportunities to smaller entities in Europe to have a launch capability, and the possibilities don’t end there. So it’s right, we need to confirm and change our Cosmic Vision and it’s time to look into it.”

“To dream is not something which is not serious.”

In the Citizens’ Debate as well as the Moon Village jam session at the IAC, Wörner stressed the importance of outreach. For him, outreach doesn’t mean just a commercial for space. That’s needed too, but it’s not the point of outreach. “What we need is that the people are motivated to create a future. Space can help with that, because in space, you see that dreams can be fulfilled. If we fly to a tiny comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, more than ten-years’ flight and a unique demanding mission, this is a dream. When I heard for the first time about Rosetta, I said the concept was unbelievable, not possible. But it is possible, so to dream is not something which is not serious,” the Director General emphasizes. “Dreams are serious, and with dreams, we can really go forward. This is also something we need to reflect in outreach: the inspiration, fascination, motivation.”

For Wörner personally, the path to space started when he was three years old. Sputnik was launched and his father took him outside on his arms and said: “Look there, you’ll see the Sputnik satellite.” “I couldn’t see anything but he was saying it in such a convincing way that I thought there is something,” Wörner recalls. “Ever since then, I was following all the different space missions, so of course I was awake during the night in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the Moon. I followed all of this very intensively, both the American and the Soviet Union activities.”

Witnessing the rise of the space age was a major source of inspiration and interest for Jan Wörner, but perhaps not the only one. If you follow his various talks or presentations closely, you’ll notice that he often uses references to science fiction: the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek, Star Wars… “My first SF movie I saw was called Orion. It was a 1960s German movie and it was about a spacecraft where the commander came from America, the crew from many different nationalities, and the security officer from Russia. In 1966, from Russia, not from the Soviet Union. It had the technical science fiction but also the political science fiction. I’m always a fan of science fiction and I still like it.”

Wörner’s distinctly utopian vision of the future, hinting at what we’ve seen or read in science fiction many times, is one we’d probably all wish to live to see: filled with international and public-private cooperation, peaceful, placing emphasis of scientific discoveries, open and accessible for the people, looking from the Moon and beyond deep into the universe. And it’s not out of our reach. Like Wörner noted, dreams are serious and they can be fulfilled if we work on them. Maybe, like him, we should not shrug about much darker outlooks permeating the media and instead get to work on making that brighter version of the future happen.


Since the interview was conducted, ESA Ministerial Council took place in December, and the results seem pleasing, albeit with minor disappoitments (here you can see Jan Wörner’s summary). Additionally, the Moon Village concept is getting more attention as of late, and we can only hope that specific commitments and pre-preliminary schedules will be made available in the foreseeable future.

Follow Jan Wörner on Twitter or his blog.


Finally, you can look forward to an interview with former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, which will be published on Thursday. The Czech translation will also be published later by Přírodovědci. What does he think about the Moon Village? How does he see the future of space exploration? That and more in the article.


My blogposts from the IAC can be found here and here.

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