Interview: ESA Director, Magali Vaissiere, on priorities, partnerships and space
You’ve had a long and distinguished career in space, could you outline how you got to the position of being the first female Director of ESA?
Well, I graduated as an engineer, first in France and then in the US, where I got a degree from Stanford University. I then started my career in industry, in the private sector. But not in the space sector, to begin with.
It was a technology field though?
I started in radars, at a company called Thomson-CSF. This later became Thales. After that I moved to space, when I joined what is now Airbus Defense and Space.
And then, with a successful career in the private sector you turned your sights on the European Space Agency?
Altogether, I had 24 years of experience, acquired in the private sector and in industry. I decided at that point, that I would try to further develop myself, so I applied to join ESA.
I was selected at first as a department head. At that time I was the first female department head in charge of technical activities. This was the telecom department.
Then, two and a half years later, the job of director became available at the newly created TIA directorate. That’s Telecommunications and Integrated Applications. I applied and I was selected.
I became the first female director and in fact, still today I am the only female director.
How long have you been at ESA now?
Altogether I will have accepted to do three terms of four years, so I've been in post for 12 years as a director.
ESA’s ARTES program, which helps R&D investment become successful commercial products and services, celebrated its 25th anniversary at the end of 2018.
Can you say a few words about the 25 year evolution of the program?
At the end of the ‘90s, the ARTES was the first program of its kind, created as a consequence of the deregulation of the telecommunications sector. It induced a huge transformation of the industry, and of the agencies that were busy working on telecommunications.
You see, as a result of the deregulation, government institutions were not allowed to interfere in the commercial sector. So, we had to invent a new way of working with industry which would be acceptable, not introducing any distortion on the commercial market.
So, the goal was to support the industry without hampering its ability to develop a competitive edge?
That’s right. So, what we introduced at ESA was the concept of public-private partnerships.
I realized that, while we were able to develop isolated pieces of equipment or technologies, we were not able to bring things together, at the level of a complete system. This made it difficult to be sure that the systems would be eventually exploited, commercially.
The only way that I could see to make sure that the technology would fly and even would be exploited commercially was to put in place this new form of program at ESA that I had proposed to name Public-Private Partnership.
Was it successful in the end?
I think it was quite successful. This allowed the ARTES program to really grow significantly, and become much more relevant because we started to work not only with the manufacturers but also with the operators.
And of course, the operators are the ones who eventually exploit the technology and sell the capacity to the end users. Either directly or indirectly.
You brought the entire industry much closer together
This allowed us to work with the whole ecosystem that is required to use technology in space and make it available to solve problems on the planet, like providing telecommunications, access to internet, and TV, of course.
And now we're dealing with everything, from the basic technology, all the way up, whether it is for the space segment or the ground segment, the broad satellite system and even what we call the downstream applications.
We have the ability to use the infrastructure that we have developed to solve new needs of society, and of business.
Has there been one specific innovation that you've witnessed that really changed the game?
I think that the most significant innovations that we can see today are not only technological innovations, they're really business transformations. We see this happening with the emergence of much more compact technologies, or in the possibilities of using very very small and very cheap satellites.
That was not the case 15 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Now it's much easier to develop a satellite and use it.
Also, because of all the infrastructures which have been put in place, people realize the higher and higher value of space. They see what space can bring to people and to business.
As a result, there are many more players coming into the sector. In particular, players with deep pockets, such as Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon
It’s a period of transformation
Today we're seeing so many innovations on all fronts. Whether it's technology, business, or the players involved. It’s everywhere.
This is because of the transformation of space technology that is giving us plenty of different solutions that were not possible before. And at the same time we see that the full digital transformation of the world economy offers a wealth of opportunities for space.
I think it’s a good thing that space is experiencing a lot of transformation and innovation to become an integral part of the new Digital Society and economy
Can you say a few words about how Luxembourg can contribute to the Satcom future?
Firstly, Luxembourg is really an exceptional state, I think it’s number one among the 22 member states in terms of percentage of the GDP which is dedicated to space. So, that's remarkable.
Second, Luxembourg has decided to invest as a priority into the commercial market, starting with telecommunications and also applications. This is why Luxembourg, in the context of ARTES, is a key member state.
We're very grateful to Luxembourg for having trusted our ability to transform ourselves from developing very big programs to working at a much smaller and cheaper scale, and still doing it well.
Finally, I think Luxembourg people have a very good business mindset. This is a Member State which is very careful about making sure that we set the right environment and the right regulations, so that business can flourish.
In this fast changing environment with a number of big players like the US and China involved, how can the European space industry keep its competitiveness? Can ESA help?
First of all, I have to confess, we are living in very challenging times.
My view is that the member states should be ready to revisit their priorities. For me, the commercial sector is really the foundation of the success of the industry as a whole.
This is a very clear priority, and especially now, when we see a market which is in complete transformation.
We need to dedicate the right amount of money. But our institutions also need to react in a timely fashion. This is important because we cannot just postpone decisions till we feel ourselves to be more ready. Decisions have to be made ‘timely’.
Is there a plan in place?
What we are proposing is a substantial transformation of the ARTES program. We have called this Artes 4.0.
First of all, we are ambitious in terms of budgeting request. To reflect the change of priority that I see as very necessary.
Secondly, we're also trying to be much more efficient and effective. It’s a matter of speed of implementation, speed of decision making and so on.
Additionally, the system must also be more flexible. The whole institutional system, the member states themselves, really need to support the kind of new players that will appear in Europe, whilst, obviously, maintaining the competitiveness of the incumbent players.
Will the established players need to adapt too?
Having reflected for some time, many of the incumbent players have also defined new strategies for the new market they're facing: this means new projects that we have to put in place with them.
We will not cover everything, but I think that with the requests that we have, we can be reasonably optimistic that we’ll cover a very good part of what will be needed for the industry to thrive.
And then probably in two years from now we will have to revisit the needs again. You know, trying to focus today on what will happen in two years is difficult. The future is never certain.
The timescales seem to be getting shorter and shorter
When I joined ESA, coming from industry, I was a little bit shocked because the institutions like to plan for the long term. This is good of course, when you can do it. But the time span was 10 years, this was a minimum.
I would say, “10 years is a very long time. I'll do three years and then I try to extrapolate, but it is the only thing I can do.”
Today, I am even saying, "Whoa, three years, even that's very difficult." We still try to do it, but I think that 18 months, maybe two years is the maximum, then we'll have to readjust the plans.
That is why we have embedded into the ARTES 4.0 program enough flexibility to be able to make these quick readjustments if and when required.