New ESA chief: Europe must be at the forefront of rockets

Europe needs to be back at the forefront of the rocket market, according to the future director general of the European Space Agency (ESA). "We have to be at the forefront in launchers. The pressure is high, it is extremely high," Josef Aschbacher said at ESA's New Year's press conference in Paris.
Vega rocket on launching
ESA rockets like Vega have to fight against strong competition (ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Vidéo du CSG - JM GUILLON)

This year, he said, the focus is on the first flight of the Vega C rocket and preparations for the first flight of Ariane 6 next year. This must happen as planned, he said. "I will also focus on what the next European rocket will be after that," Aschbacher added.

No "magic solution" against competition

"I don't have the magic solution of what we do and how we do it," Aschbacher said. However, he said, it is clear that we need to work together in Europe to find solutions, especially in the area of launchers. The 58-year-old Austrian announced that he would also sit down as soon as possible with EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, who is also responsible for space. The private U.S. company SpaceX, in particular, is providing massive competition for European space travel. Billionaire Elon Musk's company is focusing primarily on partially reusable rockets.

Outgoing ESA Director Jan Wörner thanked everyone who had supported him in recent years. "I will forgive all those who fought against me," he said. Wörner had actually announced after Aschbacher's election in December that he intended to fill his mandate until the end of his term next summer. Recently, the German surprisingly announced that he would probably step down at the end of February.

Wörner doesn't want to be a "lame duck"

"I think it's better for Josef not to sit in the waiting seat for six months," he said, explaining his decision. He also said he did not want to take the position of a "Lame Duck."

The 66-year-old Wörner has been head of ESA since 2015. He previously headed the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, among other things, for eight years. If Aschbacher takes the helm at ESA as early as March, he will announce how things will continue for him, Wörner said.