These are the challenges facing the newly elected director of the Spanish Space Agency

With more than half a life dedicated to the space sector, Juan Carlos Cortés is the person called to catapult the national ecosystem 
El nuevo director, Juan Carlos Cortés Pulido (derecha), tiene que pilotar y potenciar una organización con 13 meses de vida. En imagen, a las puertas de una reunión espacial internacional con parte del equipo directivo de la Agencia - PHOTO/AEE
The new director, Juan Carlos Cortés Pulido (right), has to pilot and boost an organisation that is 13 months old. In the picture, at the gates of an international space meeting with part of the Agency's management team - PHOTO/AEE
  1. Shaping the new national space framework
  2. The knowledge and experience that the new director brings to ESA

At last, after a four-and-a-half-month wait to fill the vacant post, the new executive director who is to pilot the Spanish Space Agency (ESA) for at least the next five years has just been appointed. 

His name is Juan Carlos Cortés Pulido, a 58-year-old aeronautical engineer, who has been elected by the ESA's Governing Council, its collegiate governing body. The decision-making meeting was held in a hybrid format, with "part of the members present at the Agency's headquarters in Seville and the majority by videoconference," they confirm.

The date of the meeting, midday on 15 May - a day off school in the Spanish capital as it was the feast of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid - meant that the highest institutional and legal representative of the ESA, the Minister of Science, Innovation and Universities, Diana Morant, who convened and chaired the meeting, was present in virtual mode.  

Acompañó el 22 de abril a la ministra Morant a  una reunión con el director general de la ESA, Josef Aschbacher, en el Centro Europeo de Astronautas de Colonia, en Alemania - PHOTO/ESA-Josef Aschbacher
He accompanied Minister Morant to a meeting with ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, on 22 April - PHOTO/ESA-Josef Aschbacher

The national space community is very satisfied with the appointment. The general opinion is that Juan Carlos Cortés is "the ideal and most suitable person to promote the national space sector as a whole", confirms Jorge Potti, Vice-President for Space at the Spanish Association of Defence, Security, Aeronautics and Space Technology Companies (TEDAE). This is reiterated by the managers consulted from official institutions and research centres, who know that he has a high level of training, knowledge and professional experience in the field of management, supervision and control of space programmes. 

The task ahead of Juan Carlos Cortés is a real challenge. Some of those who know the ins and outs of ESA are of the opinion that its human resources and its activity "is still green and needs to mature". Some consider that it should be "at a fast pace" and others "slowly but surely". But all agree that the organisation, which is just over a year old, "has to get its act together" because, they argue, "the extreme competition and acceleration that the space sector is undergoing all over the world demands it". 

One of the functions expected of the new strongman is to fill the technical posts in the job catalogue that remain vacant. Its origin lies in the transfer from Madrid to Seville of the space competences of some organisations, mainly the Centre for Technological Development and Innovation, CDTI. This decision has decapitalised ESA of qualified and experienced staff and the problem remains to be solved.

Uno de sus cometidos será coordinar la misión al espacio del español Pablo Álvarez. En imagen, con sus compañeros del Reino Unido, Francia, Bélgica, Suiza y Australia el día de su graduación como astronautas de la ESA  - PHOTO/ESA
One of his tasks will be to coordinate the space mission of the Spaniard Pablo Álvarez. Pictured here with his colleagues from the UK, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Australia on the day of their graduation as ESA astronauts  - PHOTO/ESA

Shaping the new national space framework

Another important pending issue relates to the Ministry of Defence. In close coordination with the Directorate General of Armaments and Material headed by Admiral Aniceto Rosique, the two organisations, for the benefit of both, are obliged to finalise the mechanism for linking ESA to defence space programmes. This includes, for example, research and development plans. 

There is no shortage of other immediate and urgent actions. Under the baton of its new director, the Agency is responsible for undertaking the different documents that should serve as a beacon and guide for the entire national fabric involved in space matters, both central and regional administrations, research and scientific centres and, of course, industry.

This is the case of the National Space Strategy, "which is already on track and in place". Reliable sources point out that it is in the process of "polishing its eight major identified strategic lines", so that a final draft "can be circulated as soon as possible, if possible, in the remainder of 2024". Once the final text has been agreed, the first National Space Strategy will be submitted to the Council of Ministers for approval. 

La comunidad espacial española está muy satisfecha con nombramiento. La opinión generalizada es que Juan Carlos Cortés es la persona más idónea para impulsar el conjunto del sector espacial nacional - PHOTO/AEE
Juan Carlos Cortés is the technician who for two decades has been assisting the minister who chairs the Spanish delegation at ESA ministerial meetings. And the one who organises them, if they are held in Spain - PHOTO/AEE

Another top-priority issue, because it frames all space activities in the territory, airspace and jurisdictional waters, is the Spanish Space Act. Its possible regulatory sphere has aroused the interest of consultants, legal experts and specialists in the field. Although "the ESA's intention was to have a first draft completed by the end of this year, it is still at an initial stage, awaiting the approval of the European Space Act by Brussels". 

A third document is the Space Technology Programme, equivalent to the concept of the National Space Programme. The reason for the change of name is that "the 70 million euros for its implementation come from the addendum to the Brussels recovery funds," says a person familiar with the matter, whose tender for access to such funds has already been published. It is also of the utmost importance to start working on Spanish priorities for the ESA ministerial meeting to be held in Berlin in November 2025.

Juan Carlos Cortés es el técnico que desde hace dos décadas asiste al ministro que preside la delegación española en las reuniones ministeriales de la ESA. Y el que las organiza, en el caso de celebrarse en España - PHOTO/Esa-S. Corvaja
Juan Carlos Cortés is the technician who for two decades has been assisting the minister who chairs the Spanish delegation at ESA ministerial meetings. And the one who organises them, if they are held in Spain - PHOTO/Esa-S. Corvaja

The knowledge and experience that the new director brings to ESA

Once Juan Carlos Cortés' appointment has been published in the BOE, he will take over from the current interim director, Air Force Brigadier General Juan Carlos Sánchez Delgado, head of ESA's Security and Planning Directorate. At the end of 2023, the general replaced Miguel Belló, the interim director, who promised Minister Morant to "get the Agency off the ground". He did so, fighting tooth and nail against bureaucracy during his 10-month tenure.

A serious operational problem strangling the functioning of the ESA is that, more than a year after its creation, it still has no IT infrastructure. It depends on the CDTI, which Juan Carlos Cortés knows well, to launch a tender process to implement an efficient IT system at the Agency's headquarters in Seville.

Con la actual secretaria general de Innovación, Teresa Riesgo, y el entonces comisionado del PERTE Aeroespacial, Miguel Belló, informando a la comunidad espacial nacional de los resultados de la cumbre de la ESA en París de 2022 - PHOTO/JPons
With the current Secretary General for Innovation, Teresa Riesgo, and the then commissioner of the Aerospace PERTE, Miguel Belló, informing the national space community of the results of the ESA summit in Paris in 2022 - PHOTO/JPons

But what does Juan Carlos Cortés bring to the table? His links with the national, ESA, European Union and third country space domain go back 30 years. Today he is the head of the Spanish delegation to ESA, whose Governing Board appointed him vice-president in April. He has been at CDTI for the last two decades. Between 2018 and 2023 he was its director of Space, Large Scientific Facilities and Dual Programmes.  

Before that he held there the post of director of International Space Programmes and Returns (2013-2018), director of Global Innovative Markets (2010-2013), director of Aeronautics and Space (2009-2010), head of the Aeronautics department (2005-2009) and head of the European Space Agency Programmes Department (2004-2005). And at the National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA) he worked as programme manager for unmanned aircraft launch systems (1992-1996). 

Entre los retos que la AEE tiene que afrontar está su contribución a la gobernanza del espacio y a la gestión del tráfico y espacial - PHOTO/ESA
Among the challenges ESA faces is its contribution to space governance and space traffic management - PHOTO/ESA

Juan Carlos Cortés has been ESA's Director of Programmes and Industry since mid-June 2023, which means that, with his recent appointment, this post is now vacant. But it cannot be for long, because it encompasses many critical responsibilities for the Agency, among them the management and coordination of national participation in all international cooperation space programmes. 

But not only that. It also assumes the prioritisation, management, technical and even economic monitoring of the Agency's programmes, both national and multinational, the supervision of industrial returns involving purchases abroad, as well as the promotion of private investment in the space sector. The list of competencies is even more exhaustive, reflecting the size and importance of the Programmes and Industry Directorate, which is now left without an incumbent. But there are very competent staff to fill the now vacant seat.