The ESA Convention was signed in Paris on 30 May 1975 by the nine original Member States. The original text is a lawyers’ masterpiece and describes the main aspects of the Agency in short but very precise words. The basic text remains valid, with some annexes, amendments and rules being defined later to address specific aspects. The Convention defines the purpose and roles of the Agency, the specific position of science, industrial policy, the commitments and duties of the Member States and some parts of the organisation.

For example, Article X, “Organs” just says: “The organs of the Agency shall be the Council, and the Director General assisted by a staff.

Is this Convention still up to date? Is it possible to act under the Convention in the rapidly changing space environment?

On 30 May 2020, SpaceX transported the Dragon Crew successfully to the International Space Station. Envy is the honest form of admiration. I am full of admiration for SpaceX but for NASA as well for having introduced the service mode for space transportation.

People in Europe and around the world praise the success of SpaceX and other startups, calling it “New Space”.

Should we stop at admiration or can ESA, too, enter into this new environment?

What are the characteristics of New Space? In talking with ‘New Space companies’, it is the following aspects that are most frequently mentioned:

  • cost reductions
  • commercialisation
  • disruptive innovation, AI
  • agility, flexibility
  • vision.

I am sure based on the original text of the ESA Convention and following the intentions of those who drafted it, ESA could be the European “New Space” Agency. To attain this goal, some drastic changes are necessary, avoiding reactions like:

  • But we’ve never done it like that!
  • We’re spending taxpayers’ money so we can’t change! (interestingly enough, when we conduct surveys we get a totally different picture of the “taxpayer”!)
  • We’ll have to discuss it first (for months) in the boards.

In a recent case when I opened up a position to improve ESA’s setup, human resources was asked to explain Why? What? Why at that site? Why at that grade?

And we need to go for service contracts with industry without micromanagement, asking in any step about details here and there.

The most drastic reaction came from a person in a ministry several years ago when, together with State Secretary Hintze, I proposed building a reusable capsule for human transportation. Rejecting our proposal, he asked me: “Are you ready to talk to the widow?”. (I answered “Yes”) After five years at the helm of ESA, I remain as sure as ever that the basis of ESA is excellent and ESA can be a “New Space” Agency, but the precondition is that the Agency gets more autonomy with clear report needs. It requires internal reorganisation and optimisation/reduction of the large number of boards. And last but not least, more openness to visionary projects that go beyond existing experience.