European Space Agency chief will quit 'perfect job' in 2021 after 'dirty games' to oust him

Jan Wörner dodges another round of 'hurdles' by stepping down

The ESA Director General Jan Wörner at his  start-of-the-year press briefing, held at ESA headquarters in Paris, France, on 15 January 2020. (c) ESA - P. Sebirot
The ESA Director General Jan Wörner at his start-of-the-year press briefing, held at ESA headquarters in Paris, France, on 15 January 2020. (c) ESA - P. Sebirot

European Space Agency Director General, Jan Wörner, has confirmed he will be vacating his post in 2021, citing "some hurdles" in public as his reason for leaving but writing of "dirty games" in an email to staff.

Wörner was elected DG of ESA in 2014 and, following a contact extension in 2018, his term is due to end on 30 June 2021. With Space19+ and a bonzer budget under his belt, Wörner has decided to call it a day.

His tenure has not always been smooth sailing. In an email to ESA staffers, seen by The Register, Wörner opened up regarding the challenges of his 2018 extension, telling his colleagues: "I don't know how much you were aware of the very dirty games which happened at that times," adding that "Lies and rumors were spread around intentionally in order to hurt me."

At that point, veteran space reporter Peter de Spelding had written about the soap opera-esque machinations behind the scenes to oust Wörner.

An ESA insider told The Reg that back in 2018, there was concern Wörner might have been removed within weeks after remarks that did not go down well with some European government officials. Wörner himself described 2018 as "the second worst year of my life", filled "with more than its fair share of intrigue, personal slights and institutional threats".

Ominously, he added, the experience had "served to provide a true lesson in life and, if nothing else, one learns whom and what one can rely on in difficult times."

While he was eventually granted an extension to 2021, Wörner told staffers that after the successful Space19+, muttering began once again about "possible successors", with the media "used to undermine my position" and he'd understandably had enough.

Prior to taking on the ESA challenge, Wörner served as chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

"To be clear," he said, "I am not ready to once again be the focus of such discussions to the detriment of ESA and its democratic setup."

Wörner praised the democratic underpinnings of ESA in a public blog on the matter, saying it was "essential that we preserve these values especially in times of international change and multiple challenges."

He did not elaborate on what the change and challenges might be, but did open his email to staffers, sent on the day after the UK officially departed the union, with: "[The] UK is leaving the European Union but neither ESA nor Europe. We have the special responsibility to secure that UK remains a strong partner in Europe as space can bridge even more difficult political crisis."

While Wörner has publicly said he will hang on until the end of his term "as long as the Member States place their trust in me", he told colleagues there is every chance he might depart "as soon as appropriate" should a new DG be selected in order to allow his replacement "to make sound preparations for the next Ministerial".

The timing is interesting as the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA) prepares to become the EU Space Programme Agency (EUSPA) in January 2021. Not quite the open-to-all ethos espoused by ESA as a more EU-centric approach is adopted.

As well as the huge amounts subscribed at ESA's last ministerial meeting, Wörner has also shepherded the agency through some trying times, with his latest focus being dealing with debris and collision avoidance in orbit. Back in October last year, he told The Register that in addition to more commercial opportunities on the International Space Station, he was also looking forward to ESA's contribution to NASA's Lunar Gateway (itself the subject of machinations by lawmakers).

It now appears that somebody else will be at ESA's helm when those boots finally step onto the lunar surface once again. ®

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