Space research boss quits

February 14, 2003

The head of France's National Centre for Space Research (CNES), Alain Bensoussan, has resigned after a report saying the country's space programme - the spearhead of Europe's space ambitions - faces crisis and needs radical reform.

The report, by a commission led by Roger-Maurice Bonnet, head of the Committee on Space Research and former director of scientific programmes at the European Space Agency, concludes that "without a strong CNES there is no Europe in space".

It calls for reforms, including a review of the centre's finances and an audit of projects being undertaken. It is highly critical of the state of the centre and proposes an internal reorganisation.

The report says the commission's conclusions were "strongly influenced" by the added setback of the disastrous failure on December 11 of an Ariane 5 , when a fault made it necessary to destroy the rocket soon after launch.

Priority should go to solving Ariane 's problems, ensuring its reliability, learning the lessons of December's failure, rationalising production and reducing costs, it says.

There were fears for the future of the centre before publication of the report, which came from a commission appointed last November by research minister Claudie Haigneré and defence minister Michèle Alliot-Marie to investigate and find ways of overcoming "institutional and industrial difficulties".

The centre was set up in 1961 and became crucial in making France the dominant force of Europe's space industry. But a crisis of confidence arose last year after five years of budgetary cuts that threatened implementation of planned programmes, and reports of incompatibility between Mr Bensoussan and the director-general, Gérard Brachet, who resigned last September.

Unions made a near unanimous call for Mr Bensoussan's departure in October, along with demands for more government finance for the increased number of programmes to which the CNES was committed despite the drop in funds.

Meanwhile, a fall in the number of satellites being launched dealt a blow to Arianespace, the agency that markets the rocket's commercial services, of which the CNES is principal shareholder.

Ms Haigneré, who will present a plan for the future of the space programme and the CNES in mid-March, asked Mr Bensoussan to continue as head of the centre until the appointment of a successor.

Mr Bensoussan had chaired CNES since 1996.

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