An interview with former Director General of ESA, Jean-Jacques Dordain.
Jean-Jacques Dordain is Chairman of the Supervisory Board at Rocket Factory Augsburg AG. Having been professionally involved in space travel since the 1970s, he brings a wealth of experience to the table and is a highly valued member of our RFA family. From his dreams of being an astronaut to becoming Director General at ESA and eventually joining RFA, Jean-Jacques has a unique story to share!
We sat down with him to talk about his professional journey, the challenges he faced, his view on the current developments and why he is so passionate about what we are doing at Rocket Factory.
You were Director General at ESA for 12 years from 2003 to 2015. How did you get that role?
I was already working at ESA and became the first Director General to be promoted from within ESA itself, so that was easier for me than my predecessors because I already knew the people at ESA. I was the Director of launchers when I was invited to apply for the Director General role by the Nordic ESA member states. The selection process is very complex. But after a few months, I was appointed Director General.
It was a very special position to be in because on the one hand, you have this fantastic team of 2,000 people supporting you. But on the other hand, when it comes to making crucial decisions, you are alone.
That can’t have been easy.
You get great advice! But in the end, making decisions is always the most difficult part. Because there is a difference between making a decision and making a choice. When you make a choice, you should have all the elements to choose from. When you make a decision, there are always some uncertainties and thus some risks.
What was your job as a Director General like?
There was a lot of politics and diplomacy. I had to propose new projects and ideas to the member states of ESA. And therefore convince 22 countries to make joint decisions at the same time. This is where politics and diplomacy are very important because you have to explain to 22 countries that they should combine their specific interests into one mutual interest. And after that, you have to implement the decisions within the ESA rules together with the industry and all the ESA partners. It’s a lot of work, but all of it materializes into fantastic projects.
What are you doing now?
Now, I support young enterprises to make their dreams come true. I still have the pleasure of working in space but I don’t have the responsibility or do any of the administrative tasks anymore. It’s much better. Just the fun parts.
Is it true that you originally wanted to become an astronaut?
I tried to become an astronaut back in 1977. I did not make it, but I was among the final five candidates selected by France. Sometimes I joke that my dream was always to become an astronaut, being Director General of ESA was just the backup!
Space is a passion for me, not a job. Not many people are able to live their passion as I did and still do. I would still fly into space if I was offered the opportunity. That dream remains alive.
While you were at ESA, what was the most exciting thing happening in spaceflight?
There were so many events. Landing on Titan with the Huygens probe is one because it was the first marking event of my first mandate. Landing on this faraway moon of Saturn with its thick atmosphere was fantastic. ESA was the first to ever achieve this. But I was just the lucky Director General at the end of a chain of successive Director Generals doing the proposal, studies, development and the launch of that project.
Another one was the landing of Rosetta on a comet because it was the last marking event of my last mandate. I was just lucky to be there when it landed. I don’t take credit for this amazing mission. It was a multi-generational team effort.
So it´s all about the team.
Absolutely! It´s the same here at RFA. The biggest asset of RFA is its dedicated team and the pleasure of feeling part of the team.
Let’s talk a little bit about JUICE and JWST, which also happened during your time. How was your experience there?
James Webb was just a continuation of the NASA-ESA cooperation for the Hubble Space Telescope. When NASA decided to create the next generation of space telescope, they naturally discussed the idea with ESA, because of the success of Hubble.
One of the ideas that emerged was the use of a European launcher to launch JWST. That was significant because it is unusual for NASA to put such a big project on top of a European rocket. This shows the confidence they had in our capabilities. Making the deal between NASA and ESA was the easy part. The hard part was for NASA to explain to the US launch operators that it preferred to launch with Europeans and for ESA to explain to the European scientists that we were using money for science to purchase a launcher.
Why is that so important?
The launch is always a very critical part of a space project. You work decades for a mission and then the launch is 10 minutes of bottlenecks and stresses. It’s all or nothing. This is the reason why it’s the launch of any mission that is always very, very emotional. No launch is easy. When I was the DG, I used to quote Winston Churchill before any launch: “You can never guarantee your success, but you must always deserve it”. And after a successful launch, I would say “my only regret is that it looks easy.”
What was your first touch point with private spaceflight?
It was – of course – SpaceX in 2002. Traditionally, we had always taken a government-driven top-down approach. But New Space works from a privately-driven bottom-up approach. It’s a totally different approach, but the two are not antagonists. They are both necessary. What traditional space agencies can do is promote and help new private enterprises.
I remember my first meeting with Elon Musk. He said that he thought space agencies were representative of the traditional space industry. But he also quickly realized that he could not do without the agencies. There is always interaction between the two worlds.
This year Europe lost its independent access to space. Ariane 6 is late, Vega-C had critical failures and is grounded. What are your thoughts?
My thoughts are first going to all those who are giving their best to get both Ariane 6 and Vega-C into orbit. It confirms that launching into space is not easy.
But it also demonstrates that the model European space access relied on for decades must be adapted to a world where commercial offers are available at much lower prices. Ariane has been the most reliable launcher in the world for decades, but being reliable is not enough anymore.
The guarantee of access to space will be more robust if it relies upon several competitive sources, as is currently the case for satellites in Europe and launchers in the US. Competition is good for both companies and customers. It provides customers with the best prices and companies with the motivation to continuously improve to keep making competitive offers. This is where RFA is so important!
You saw this potential of a new business model decades before the likes of RFA, Latitude, Isar Aerospace, OrbEx and all these companies came along.
Yes, I was convinced we could develop a launcher totally differently and with much lower costs. As a young research engineer on rocket engines, I met Lutz Kayser. He was a German entrepreneur who founded the private company OTRAG, which developed orbital launchers in the 1970s. He was the first guy that I knew of to try and use this private model and make launchers at a low cost using tubes, pipes and other parts he could buy in the shop next door. Fascinating!
Unfortunately, his project was ultimately unsuccessful. Among other reasons, it was too early. But it was the first time I heard that it could be possible to make a launcher privately.
Do you think the only way Europe can maintain access to space now is to commit to commercializing the industry, where institutions buy privately developed products and services instead of developing them themselves?
Yes. because it’s exactly what NASA is doing successfully. They are just purchasing services through competition bidding among several US commercial operators. In addition, they support new technologies available as open sources.
Interestingly, when I went to the German Parliament last year on behalf of RFA, I was told the European market is not big enough to sustain several sources.
And I said “I never said that we shall stay within the European market. What we wish is to be competitive in the world market.”
Our competitors are not just Isar Aerospace or the Ariane Group. Our competitors are also SpaceX, Blue Origin and ULA. We want to be successful in the world market, not just the European market. At least this is the end goal. Of course, we are not yet there and first we have to launch!
What brought you to RFA in the end? What was something that drew you in?
I’m here for two reasons. First, I had made a commitment to Manfred Fuchs back in 2006. I was Director General at ESA and we were in a meeting with OHB when the topic of Elon Musk was raised. With Lutz Kayser still in my memory, I told Manfred “If you put 100 million on the table today, I will leave ESA tomorrow and come with you to make the best launcher in the world.”
Of course, he did not do that. But years later, his son Marco Fuchs came to me after I had left ESA and said “Do you remember what you promised my father?” He confirmed that he was financing the start of a new enterprise. I told him I was ready to do for him what I had promised his father. And that new enterprise became RFA.
But I have a second motivation.
Even before the Ariane6 project started in 2014, I had already tried to change the European launcher sector several times within the framework of ESA but I did not succeed. It showed me that changing from the inside without being challenged from the outside was very difficult. So, my wish is to make RFA the outside challenger helping to change the European launcher sector I could not change when I was at ESA.
Thus, the success of RFA will be much more than the success of RFA. It will prove that we can make a launcher totally differently. The day RFA demonstrates this with two or three launches is the day the European launcher sector will totally change.
What do you think defines the New Space industry? What are the key points that make a successful modern launcher and how do you apply those to RFA?
Costs, costs and costs. It’s all about significant cost reduction. That’s the key to the future. And that´s the main driver of RFA.
Obviously, it has to work and be reliable and, as I said already, we are not yet there. But the key driver is cost. I have met costs at RFA that I never believed were possible when at ESA. And what’s interesting is that RFA is using parts from different industries to build their launcher.
It’s a totally different approach which is 100% cost-driven. What RFA has been able to do so far with just 50 million is incredible: A functioning Helix staged-combustion engine, a qualified first stage, and an upper stage that was hot-fired for its full flight duration of 280 seconds multiple times. We are on a good track to fulfill our commitment to complete the full development and two first launches within six years and within 100 million Euros.
But we have to demonstrate and prove we can successfully fly into space. Until we have demonstrated that it works, it’s just hope. It’s not a reality yet.
What are the things that make you confident in our ability to build a working launcher?
The people. Definitely the people. The biggest asset at RFA is the dedicated team. When I come to Augsburg, I try to spend one or two hours with four or five people on the team and I really enjoy that.
Each time, I measure the expertise, I feel the passion and I appreciate the ownership. I also value the diversity of culture. There are more nationalities in the 200+ people at RFA than in the 2000 people at ESA! I learn every day I meet the people of RFA.
What was your greatest moment so far at RFA?
The whole journey has been exciting, but of course, the biggest moment so far was our successful upper-stage hot fire in May 2023, where we integrated the Helix engine into an upper-stage tank system and hot fired for a full duration of 280 seconds. It is an incredible achievement. RFA was the first private space company in Europe to achieve this success with a staged combustion engine. This hot fire test was the first big step for RFA in proving their technology and business case to the world.
But the most exciting moments are the ones still to come, and among them are the firing test of the first stage on the launch pad and ultimately the first launch. As a rocket engineer, of course, I especially love things that involve fire. Controlling fire and bundling it into engines of this power is an incredible achievement of mankind.
Controlling fire. That’s a great line to end on. Thank you very much for your time, Jean-Jacques Dordain!
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