How to cut the Gordian knot that stifles the Spanish Space Agency's operability

Los directores de la AEE de Ciencia, Isabel Pérez; Sociedad, Eva Villaver; Programas, Juan Carlos Cortés; y Usuarios y Servicios, Nicolás Martín, a finales de enero en la Conferencia Europea del Espacio de Bruselas - PHOTO/AEE
The ESA directors of Science, Isabel Pérez; Society, Eva Villaver; Programmes, Juan Carlos Cortés; and Users and Services, Nicolás Martín, at the end of January at the European Space Conference in Brussels - PHOTO/AEE

Introducing political factors of a partisan and circumstantial nature into the process of creating a new State structure of great strategic importance is not usually a good first step. 

  1. The new phase of the Agency's development
  2. Choosing Madrid as a secondary headquarters

And this initial step, mistaken from my point of view, is the origin of the main ills afflicting the Spanish Space Agency - hereinafter ESA -, an organisation whose few personnel are theoretically based in Seville, which is on its way to its first birthday, but which is still not operational. Why is that? 

Because it is suffering from a serious decapitalisation of qualified civilian professionals. From a staff of around 80 people on paper, it lacks a large number of civil servants and technical staff with extensive knowledge and experience in the management of national and international space programmes, essential qualities for participating in highly competitive working groups and forums.  

Las gestiones de los veteranos técnicos del CDTI consiguieron año tras año millonarias cargas de trabajo para la industria española en los programas de la Agencia Espacial Europea PHOTO/MBM
The efforts of the CDTI's veteran technicians year after year obtained millions in workloads for Spanish industry in the European Space Agency's programmes - PHOTO/MBM

Many veteran technicians who for decades have devoted their efforts to space matters from the Centre for Technological Development and Innovation (CDTI), whose main building is in the centre of Madrid, have vanished. To a large extent, they have been the ones who, year after year, have increased the workload of Spanish industry in the programmes of the European Space Agency (ESA) and other bodies of the global space ecosystem. 

But they are men and women who, like many others, have mortgages on their homes, children in school or at university, partners in private or administrative jobs, and a life made in the Spanish capital. They have never contemplated having to move from Madrid and cannot and do not want to leave their place of residence to move to Seville. 

El nuevo director general de la AEE tendrá que poner en marcha algunos de los programas espaciales que esperan, a la vez que resolver el acuciante problema humano - PHOTO/MICIU
The new ESA director general will have to get some of the waiting space programmes up and running while solving the pressing human problem - PHOTO/MICIU

The new phase of the Agency's development

And what has happened? Well, most of them have found a new place under the sun, either by transfer within the CDTI itself or because they have decided to make the leap to the private sector. It is not that they have resigned, it is that they have been forced to say goodbye to their exciting work of many years. So who in ESA will take over the competences that used to be exercised by the CDTI, a sort of mini space agency? Answer: no one, in most matters.  

That said, it seems clear that the Agency will overcome the difficulties that now keep it in a bind and, in practice, almost paralysed. I would like to hope that within a reasonable period of time it will reach the necessary maturity to become effective. And a new and hopeful stage is opening up before the ESA, if the man or woman who will shortly assume its executive management firmly exercises the role assigned to him or her by the ESA's Statutes.

As of 21 February, the person who must exercise the responsibility of cutting the Gordian knot that some politicians have created around the Agency, whose initial stage ended two months ago with the departure of its first director general, Miguel Belló, has yet to be appointed. A successful businessman with prestige in the sector, Belló had taken the helm of PREPA on a transitional basis on 20 April 2023. 

Miguel Belló se ha prodigado en variados escenarios dentro y fuera de España para dar visibilidad a la nueva AEE, al mismo tiempo que hacía arrancar la Agencia PHOTO/Space&Defense Industry Sevilla Summit
Miguel Belló has been lavished on various stages in Spain and abroad to give visibility to the new ESA, while at the same time getting the Agency off the ground - PHOTO/Space&Defense Industry Sevilla Summit

Accustomed to the frenetic pace of the space sector in its global dimension, to his surprise he was faced with administrative shortcomings and obstacles of all kinds. He had to start up the Agency at breakneck speed, while at the same time he was busy on various stages in Spain and abroad to raise the profile of the new ESA. But, fed up with being fed up, he threw in the towel at the end of December, just eight months after taking over as executive director.  

What is the situation today? It is only 72 hours since the deadline for applications for the post of CEO vacated by Belló closed. A Selection Committee of six people is already studying the CVs and must propose to the Agency's president, who is the Minister of Science, Innovation and Universities, Diana Morant, "even a shortlist" of those they consider most qualified to take the executive reins of the ESA.  

Parte del capital humano que durante décadas ha formado el cohesionado equipo de técnicos que gestionaban los asuntos espaciales de la ESA en el seno del CDTI. En imagen, con el entonces ministro de Ciencia, Pedro Duque - PHOTO/MICIU-CDTI
Part of the human capital that for decades has formed the cohesive team of technicians who managed ESA's space affairs within the CDTI. In the picture, with the then Minister of Science, Pedro Duque - PHOTO/MICIU-CDTI

Choosing Madrid as a secondary headquarters

Applicants for the post, which has the rank of undersecretary - which is no mean feat - must prove, for example, that they know the national space industrial and technological ecosystem, that they have experience in programming and executing projects, that they have good relations with the European Space Agency (ESA) and that they are familiar with economic management in similar organisations. Of course, and I know that several of them have applied. 

The deadline by which the Committee must submit the list of three candidates to the Governing Board of the agency chaired by Minister Morant has not been made public, nor when the Board must make its decision. But they want it to be as soon as possible. What is known is that the evaluation team is made up of the director of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Rafael Rebolo; Lieutenant General Ignacio Bengoechea, former second in command of the Air and Space Chiefs of Staff; and the former director of the Department of National Security, General Miguel Ángel Ballesteros, the driving force behind the creation of the ESA. 

Un Comité de Selección de seis profesionales de prestigio del sector espacial y tecnológico nacional deben proponer a los tres mejores aspirantes a director general, decisión que debe tomar el Consejo Rector de la AEE - PHOTO/MICIU
A Selection Committee of six prestigious professionals from the national space and technology sector must propose the three best candidates for Director General, a decision to be taken by the ESA Governing Board - PHOTO/MICIU

The team also includes Hispasat's corporate general manager, Ana María Molina; the director of the Spanish Space Operations Support Centre, Ana Laverón, professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid; and Cristina Garmendia, minister of Science and Innovation in José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's government between 2008 and 2011, who chairs the selection committee.  

Once the new director general has been appointed, he or she will have to start up some of the programmes that are waiting to be implemented, while at the same time solving the human problem: how to welcome back the veterans who for years have fought for millions of dollars in workloads for Spanish industry at ESA. One solution is being considered. Since there is no going back to Seville, the most plausible alternative would be to set up a complementary headquarters in Madrid or its surroundings. Easier said than done, because it would have to convince the technicians who have already abandoned ship. But let's try.

La ministra Morant y Miguel Belló con el alcalde de Sevilla, Antonio Muñoz (derecha), a quien la sede de la Agencia en la ciudad debía propiciar que retomara la vara de mando tras las municipales de mayo de 2023 - PHOTO/MICIU
Minister Morant and Miguel Belló with the Mayor of Seville, Antonio Muñoz (right), to whom the Agency's headquarters in the city should enable him to take up the post again after the municipal elections in May 2023 - PHOTO/MICIU

It would be desirable for the Ministries of Science and Defence, under whose auspices the Agency is located, to reconsider and be convinced of the benefits of such a measure.  But it is necessary to count on Moncloa's approval. President Sánchez's first decision back in June 2022 was to rule out Madrid. Afterwards, the government organised a national selection process. In December 2022, the Council of Ministers opted for Seville, a move that should have favoured the mayor of the city of Seville, Antonio Muñoz, to take over again after the municipal elections in May 2023. But it was not possible. 

There is no legal impediment for ESA to have a second location in Madrid. The governmental decision-making centres for space are in the capital. CNES, the French equivalent of the Spanish agency, has its headquarters in Paris and a second one in Toulouse. President Sánchez does not presume to change his mind? Well, with the agency he has a new opportunity.

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