COVID-19 continues — inevitably and inescapably — to be the main focus for much of the world, influencing and shaping every aspect of our daily lives, private and working alike. The measures put in place by the various national governments are placing severe restrictions on the freedoms to which we are accustomed but are, as we all know, absolutely necessary if we are to limit the number of infections among the population and allow the medical system to be able to take care of all those in need of help. In the midst of all this, sad news reaches us of the loss of yet another key figure in the history of ESA and of Europe’s space endeavour.

Jean-Marie Luton, who has passed away aged 77, was the fourth Director General of ESA, serving from 1990 until 1997.

He was born on 4 August 1942, in Chamalières, near Clermont-Ferrand in France. After graduating from the prestigious École Polytechnique in 1961 with an engineering degree, he joined the aeronomy department of France’s national scientific research body, the CNRS. His work there focused on geophysics research and an experiment flown on NASA’s OGO-6 satellite.

He was named special research advisor at French space agency CNES in 1971, a decade after its founding, and in the same year was seconded to the Ministry of Industrial and Scientific Development, where he participated in the negotiations in the framework of the European Space Conference that led to the creation of ESA.

Mr Luton was appointed Head of the Research Programme Division at CNES in 1974. Soon after, he became Head of the Planning and Development Division, then Programme Director in 1978. He was named Assistant Director General in 1984, in charge of relations with governmental authorities, relations between CNES and its subsidiaries, and financial planning.

A French delegate to the ESA Council, he also served as Chair of ESA’s Administrative and Finance Committee (AFC). In addition, he represented CNES on the Arianespace shareholders’ board and was thus closely involved with the world’s first commercial space transportation company, founded 40 years ago, on 26 March 1980, soon after the successful maiden flight of Ariane on 24 December 1979.

In May 1987, he joined French firm Aérospatiale as Director of Space Programmes in the Strategic and Space Systems Division. Named Director General of CNES in February 1989, he took up his duties as Director General of ESA in October 1990, succeeding Professor Reimar Lüst – who sadly passed away on 31 March this year.

A number of highly successful space science missions were conducted during his time as DG. Ulysses was launched just months after the Hubble Space Telescope, while the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO), and Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) were placed in orbit in the mid-90s.

Then, Ariane 4 performed successful launches of Meteosat-5 and 6, and ERS-1 and 2 from Kourou, French Guiana. It was also Luton who was in charge when at the ESA Council meeting at ministerial level in Granada in November 1992 the go-ahead was given to develop Envisat and, in cooperation with EUMETSAT, to initiate MetOp and MSG.

European astronauts, who in the late 90s would go on to join the European Astronaut Corps, participated in notable Spacelab and Shuttle missions to deploy the EURECA science platform or to service and repair the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as missions to the Mir orbital space station, pending assembly of the International Space Station (ISS).

Among the many challenges that Luton had to overcome in his time as ESA Director General were the reorientation of the major infrastructure programmes, Columbus and Hermes, decided upon at the Munich ESA Council meeting at ministerial level in November 1991, and the failure of Ariane 5’s first test flight on 4 June 1996. The failure occurred following the complete loss of guidance and attitude information 37 seconds after start of the main engine ignition sequence, and led to the loss of four Cluster spacecraft.

Fortunately, the ministerial meeting in Toulouse, France, in 1995 gave new impetus to the European space endeavour, with ministers agreeing to fund Europe’s contribution to the ISS and subscribing the Declaration covering the development of the Columbus Orbital Facility and the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) to be launched by Ariane 5. 

Antonio Rodotà took over as ESA Director General on 1 July 1997 when Jean-Marie Luton left to become Chairman and CEO of Arianespace in July 1997. In 2002, he became Chairman of the Board of the company, and retired in 2007.

Jan Wörner:

There was no direct overlap between Mr Luton and myself. However, the fruits of the excellent seeds he sowed in the organisation can still be seen in ESA today. His strong European spirit transcending national interests, so typifying ESA, saw him pave the way with key programmes confirmed at ESA Ministerial Councils such as Columbus and ATV. In addition, he gave us all a lesson on how to overcome difficult situations, in particular when the visionary Hermes project was stopped and when the newly developed Ariane 5 failed. I met Mr Luton on several occasions concerning space activities in France and could feel his great personality and leadership abilities.

Jean-Jacques Dordain (ESA Director General, 2003–2015):

Times are difficult for all, but ESA pays a heavy tribute with the successive losses of Professor Lüst and of Jean-Marie Luton, from whom I learned so much during 11 years, a solar cycle, at ESA. Jean-Marie Luton had to face many challenges at ESA, political, financial and technical. He conducted the necessary changes of the organization in spite of a lot of resistance and he transmitted to his successors a robust Agency supported by all Member States, respected by international partners and praised by European

industry. The successes of Ariane 5, Columbus, ATV, Envisat, Huygens are based upon the heritage of both Professor Lüst and Jean-Marie Luton. Jean-Marie was a leader who listened and a person who took care of others. Merci Jean-Marie. Your achievements are still alive.

European Space, and especially ESA, have lost a pioneer and a visionary. We will never forget him.