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Interview with Dr. Volker Liebig, Director of ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes

Dr. Volker Liebig talks extensively about ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes in an exclusive interview for EARSC

What are your thoughts related to the recent Space Council meeting?

The European Space Council has been a very
successful meeting where the European Commission’s Communication on the
preliminary elements of a European space policy was discussed. The EU
will identify user needs and build a political will around them, and
they will take the lead in areas where applications are concerned. ESA
and its Member and Cooperating States will develop future space
technologies and systems and pursue excellence in space-based
scientific research. So ESA has a leading function in science,
technology and infrastructure, but also for those applications where
ESA is the implementing Agency on behalf of the European Union. During
the meeting, everybody around the table supported the proposal of
Commissioner Verheugen and the Director General of ESA, Mr. Dordain,
that GMES will be the next flagship programme in the cooperation
between the European Commission and ESA following Galileo. This is a
very positive and encouraging perspective for Earth Observation and we
are working now on the implementation of this approach.

Space is a mixed sector, with a public
political strategy on the one hand and major industrial interests on
the other. How is this duality integrated in the ESA Earth Observation

Well, we cannot really distinguish between
the Earth Observation sector and other space sectors on this question
and of course there are some specialities. First of all, the space
agenda is driven by a programmatic goal, showing for example a priority
for GMES. But we have also to continue to strengthen the technological
base in industry. We have in ESA the Earth Observation Envelope
Programme (EOEP) and this is the programme where we develop the next
generation of technologies through scientific missions. On the other
hand, we have the European industry and all the industrial interests.
So first of all, we have to make sure that we have in Europe all
technological capabilities necessary to maintain and develop a strong
industrial base in all strategic areas. And Earth Observation is indeed
such a strategic sector. If we are successful with the two new
programmes, the Earth Observation Envelope Programme (EOEP) and GMES,
both of which will be proposed to the next Ministerial conference of
ESA in December, then we will have created a substantial framework to
further develop the European industry. And that is true both for space
infrastructure industry which will build up the space segment but also
for the value adding industry which is working downstream and is
creating additional value.

What will be the impact of possible new
alliances of space companies on the competitiveness of European space
industry? How does this affect the EO market?

A concentration process is taking place where the big companies are
merging into even bigger ones. Thus, in the private sector in Europe we
practically have only two big private consortia (namely EADS and the
Finmeccanica-Alcatel consortium). To a certain extent, this of course
is limiting competition in Europe. On the other hand, this
concentration is necessary to be more competitive in the global scale.
I am looking forward to see how this will develop.

How will this affect SME?

Smaller companies have to be careful to
find their place, because in this type of mergers, there is a tendency
of vertical integration driven by the big prime industry. However,
there are two or three companies now in Europe that can even compete in
a prime function with the big companies and this is a healthy
situation, because it creates additional competition. ESA sees it as
the task and duty to ensure that the small companies, which are often
in the field of applied sciences, can develop and find their place in
the world market. The ESA industrial policy has procedures called “best
practices of projects” where contracts are also awarded to non-primes.
We are also assisting them to develop capabilities.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges the commercial earth observation industry is facing in 2005?

The down turn of the commercial market, especially in the communication
sector, and the effect of this on the launcher market, has led to
industry being in a very difficult situation. Of course this did not
start only in 2005 but some 2 or 3 years ago. So we feel, and this is
also the policy of the Director General of ESA, that we need urgent
programme decisions. Therefore the Ministerial conference in December
is necessary because this decision for future programmes will ensure
that the market can develop. In Earth Observation we have even the
chance to implement a major new field. If we are successful with GMES
we would have a second sector of Earth Observation in addition to
meteorology that goes into an operational phase and this would
significantly stimulate the whole Earth Observation industrial sector.

Could you describe to us where ESA stands on the user market?

Part of the Earth Observation Envelope
Programme is an element to develop the value adding market. In
addition, ESA has spent more than 80 M€ in the last years to develop
the 12 GMES Service Element projects. This has been done with industry.
So far, about 220 user organisations are using GMES services through
these projects. If we succeed with GMES, the downstream user market
will be put in a strong position to open up new markets, both in Europe
and at global level.

What do you think about what‘s being
done at government level in Europe? Some Members States are adopting an
increased budget for space applications? What about for GMES?

Member States are currently evaluating
their priorities in preparation for the ministerial conference. Most,
if not all, have expressed that GMES is a priority for Europe. I
therefore would expect that GMES would be well supported despite a
generally tight budget, in particular for the biggest Member States of
ESA. Although it is always difficult to start a new programme like
GMES, I am confident that the Members States will recognise the
strategic, industrial and political importance of GMES and support the
ESA space component accordingly.

Have you noticed any new interest in GMES beyond its current stakeholder community?

GMES is driven by European policy
priorities and its corresponding user community. We have a user
community for GMES services in the European Commission. For example,
the environmental sector, agriculture, food security, maritime
security, crisis management, humanitarian aid are among the services
using satellite-based maps. In these services there is a services
interest in the international area. We are developing new services for
international organisations, such as the F.A.O. where we can support
the food programme with space data evaluating very early in the season
how agricultural crop growth develops in order to prepare decision
makers for an eventual crisis. For example in Africa we have done this
analysis three times now. We also support other UN agencies. If natural
disasters happen, we develop services in the crisis management area
using satellite images, and provide them to UN organisations such as

ESA is committed to sustainable
development initiatives in developing countries: what concrete progress
in market development can industry expect?

In this sector, the market follows user
interests to a certain extent. But ESA, however, has taken an
initiative to demonstrate, together with industry and the space
agencies, what can be done in this field and which are the services to
be developed. For example the TIGER project is running in Africa with
application projects in almost all countries. The TIGER project is
implementing some of the recommendations of the World Summit on
Sustainable Development, WSSD, which took place in 2002 in
Johannesburg. If methods are developed then of course also the market
develops. For example if the administrations and governments in these
countries develop a new method based on satellite data and if the
method is successful and cost saving, then governments will choose
these new EO-based services.

Could you provide me with inputs for a two-fold scenario of
space sustainability using space applications? (actors, roles,
relationships, timeframe…)

is an important issue, not question, and I think that more and more
space based methods are used at least for other project management
services in order to reach the sustainability of activities. In the
environment this is obvious. On the other hand, using space
applications for sustainability only can be done if the space sector is
sustainable and stable enough that it can deliver and activate this
service, so there is a big dependence. Regarding the actors, of course
there is a close relation to governments. Therefore there is a public
demand in this area. It is important to guarantee a certain continuity
of services, otherwise the public sector will not invest in introducing
them. This is especially true for developing countries, where
space-based applications may be even more needed than in developed
countries. In this context, important players are international aid
programmes inside the UN system as well as the European Union or other
governmental and non-governmental organisations.

How is the European research programme going to include ESA‘s objectives in the space sector?

Well, first of all, I should say that we
are developing a common view with the European Union and with the ESA
and EU Members States. Therefore, when it comes to the EU and ESA, I
see a common programme that is coming up, not only in the technology
sector but also in selected future activities like Galileo and GMES,
and maybe in others. Nowadays we are discussing the space technology
programme with the EU. The debates are reflected in the orientation
paper of the last Space Council, developing a common space programme
for Europe. All the Member States include their national programmes, so
I think one idea of the common activities and the cooperation is to
make all the space activities in Europe more efficient because so far
we are not yet fully there. We still have a lot of national programmes
in Europe that are duplicating activities. On the other hand, Space is
a strategic issue and comparing Europe for example with the US, we are
in danger of losing ground in the most important technology areas.
Therefore, we have to combine our efforts. We still have many national
capabilities in parallel. We cannot afford to have redundant activities
in Members States with systems that already exist. There is some area
for improvement, which, of course, depends on the willingness of the
national space agencies and their correspondent governments, and their
willingness to focus on a European approach. I certainly feel that this
is absolutely necessary and we need to combine and to concentrate
developments and to fill other gaps with the remaining capacities.

How do you see the future in terms of
coordination with the European Institutions (EU, ESA, etc), the network
of technical centres and the cooperation with industry?

Well, as I said, the Council confirmed that
European space policy should include a true European space strategy, a
space programme reflecting the associated costs and funding sources as
well as a commitment by the main contributors as to their roles and
responsibilities. It is important that space has found a political
voice in the European Commission and that the EC will be a driver for
the applications domain in space. ESA will be the European implementing
Agency for European space programmes. ESA will use the European
capabilities in the member states including the network of technical
centres. We have of course to become more efficient in Europe, so we
have to make a trade off in the future between the “efficiency” and
maintaining redundancies. This is also true for industry. At the end, I
think industry and governments will benefit from the new cooperation in

On EARSC behalf and personally I would like to thank you for your time on this interview.