Boring Bureaucratic Lack of Vision from European Space Agency’s Director

In the eighties and nineties I worked for the European Space Agency (ESA). When I joined, I felt incredibly excited and proud to be a small part of the first wave of the greatest adventure of humankind – colonizing space. Then I found out that ESA is mostly a bureaucratic administration, and a recent RT interview with ESA’s Director General Jean Jacques Dordain confirms that impression.

I guess my problem was too much good science fiction. When I joined ESA I imagined something like the NASA of the Apollo program in the sixties and thought that perhaps, in ten or twenty years, I would participate in the return to the Moon that never happened, and then Mars, and then the stars.

Little did I know that ESA is meant for paper pushing like most state-run organizations and that, for European (as opposed to national) organizations, the problem is further aggravated by endemic petty squabbles among participating nation states.

One wonders how some excellent work still gets done. The answer is simple: the people. ESA, like NASA and other national space agencies, has wonderful people, smart and committed, motivated by grand visions of space exploration and colonization that keep them working long hours and giving their best.

The Rosetta team has great people. In one of the most awesome space achievements of 2014, the ESA team landed a spacecraft on a comet, which performed scientific measurements and sent data and images back. Though most media coverage of the mission has been centered on the pathetic ShirtStorm (or, better, BullShirtStorm) caused by online mobs of embittered feminists who didn’t like the shirt worn by mission scientist Matt Taylor at a press conference, the Rosetta mission has been rightly hailed as a spectacular feat, and it makes me proud of being a former ESA staff member.

ESANo Way to Live Outside Earth: Space Colonization a Myth

It’s well known that 95% of everything is boring routine and paperwork, and that is true even for space missions. Therefore, space scientists and engineers need motivation. Young people also need motivation to become scientists and engineers and pursue a career in space. For my generation, a source of inexhaustible motivation was the Apollo program, and the famous “Moon speech” of President John F. Kennedy.

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade…

NASA scientists, and even administrators and politicians, gave strongly motivating speeches in the sixties, full of inspiring visions of future generations living and working in space, and of our destiny to leave our planetary cradle behind and go to the stars. Who can provide a similar burning inspiration to space professionals and young people? The Director General of ESA is in a good position for that, but his RT interview is titled “No way to live outside Earth: Space colonization a myth – ESA director.

OK, Dordain doesn’t actually say that – the sensationalist title has been made up by RT journalist Sophie Shevardnadze. But the overall tone of Dordain’s replies legitimates the title.

“I must say that there is no alternative of planet Earth for humanity. This is maybe something that we have learned from space. There is no other place where this humanity can live. We cannot live on different planets in Solar System and going to an exoplanet will be much too far away, at least with the technologies that we know.”

What Dordain says is factually correct. We couldn’t support large numbers of people on other planets today, and we couldn’t go to the stars. Not with today’s technology, and not for a long time. But the required technology will be developed eventually, and in the meantime it’s important to keep the long-term vision of human expansion to the stars alive. The vision won’t be achieved by our or the next generation, but we are all part of the crew of Spaceship Earth en-route to the stars, and future generations will live among the stars. That’s the vision that ESA’s Director should offer. Instead, he sounds like a competent bureaucrat and administrator, cautious and politically correct. But not very inspiring, if you ask me. Hardly so.

One of the questions goes right to the heart of the problem:

in your early days when you were thinking about [space] exploration, it was so romanticized and every kid was dreaming to become an astronaut or cosmonaut. [H]ow has the interest in the space exploration changed?

Dordain answers that children and students are all interested in exploration and space, and space is still very inspiring.

No, Prof. Dordain, I am sorry, it isn’t. Space isn’t inspiring enough anymore, certainly not as it was in the sixties, and precisely because of the anti-visionary, de-romanticized approach of today’s over-bureaucratized space agencies. Today’s children may find space vaguely cool, but they want to become stock brokers of movie stars, not astronauts, because that’s what we adults value today.

In an article entitled “Innovation Starvation,” science fiction writer Neal Stephenson called for a return to inspiration. Our society, he argues, has lost the capacity to think big.

Let’s recover our capacity to think big inspiring thoughts, and do big inspiring things.

Images from European Space Agency and Shutterstock.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.