by Nick Mitsis
As the CEO of Arianespace, Jean-Yves Le Gall shepherded the European launch services company in 2005 through one of the most challenging periods it has faced since its inception 25 years ago. Arianespace entered 2005 at its lowest point and ended the year on a significant high note, all while building its business and enabling the satellite industry to move forward with new services and innovations.
Under Le Gall's leadership, Arianespace is now poised to operate a family of launch vehicles - Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega - providing satellite operators and governments with the capability to launch any size spacecraft to any desired orbit.
Even though one of the biggest achievements for Le Gall in 2005 was the successful return-to-flight mission of its heavy-lift Ariane 5 ECA, Arianespace and Starsem also launched 11 satellites (nine to geostationary orbit) in eight missions and won several of the most advanced payload contracts of the near term.
In addition, Le Gall strengthened the relationship between Arianespace and Starsem, ushering in a backup solution through the transfer of payloads between Soyuz and Ariane 5 to best meet customers' operational timing requirements. The successful launch of Galaxy 14 for Panamsat in August demonstrated the capability of transferring spacecraft between Ariane 5 and Soyuz.
In early 2005, Le Gall also finalized financial and political agreements with the Russian and European authorities for the construction of the launch facilities in French Guiana to operate the Soyuz rocket. An upgraded Soyuz vehicle entered service last year with a new digital control system, as the world's most flown rocket passed 1,700 flights since its creation. Soyuz will be in full launch mode throughout 2006 and 2007 from Baikonur before moving commercial services permanently to French Guiana. Likewise, Arianespace began work to refurbish the Ariane 1 launch pad for future flights of the Vega small launch vehicle, under development by the European Space Agency (ESA).
But these are just some of the highlights achieved under Le Gall's leadership in 2005. Recently, Le Gall sat with Editor Nick Mitsis and laid out his vision for Arianespace's future, what will drive the commercial communications satellite industry forward and his passion for keeping innovation alive in the global satellite industry.
Via Satellite: Aside from the successful return to flight of the Ariane 5 ECA, what do you consider Arianespace's major milestones in 2005?
Jean-Yves Le Gall: The return-to-flight of the ECA was indeed the major milestone for Arianespace in 2005 and it clearly demonstrated the commitment of ESA, CNES, EADS, the European space industry and Arianespace. But this event for our business would have been nothing without the rest of our accomplishments throughout the year. One of the most significant achievements for us in 2005 was that throughout all our campaigns, we had eight successful launches, which demonstrated not only the maturity of our system but also the excellence of our staff in delivering a diversity of payloads for a vast number of commercial and civil customers successfully into orbit time and again.
Another achievement was our return to the successful launch tempo that we had maintained in past years, placing 11 spacecraft into orbit during 2005. Furthermore, with the ongoing development of launch facilities in French Guiana for Soyuz and the progress made with the Vega program, our family of launch vehicles is now a reality and we will be able to fully service the market in the coming years.
The past year was a challenging one for the entire team at Arianespace. Everyone worked non-stop, not only with the ECA return-to-flight campaign but also with capturing new contracts, some of the most advanced payloads to come to market, and maintaining the strength of Arianespace's offerings to our customers. We are proud to have the enduring trust of our valued customers.
Via Satellite: In a business climate that has continued to fight price pressures, how did you successfully sell Arianespace while you had to prove the validity of the ECA?
Le Gall: Thankfully, we had our reputation and our solid service record with us as we entered 2005 and began to return the ECA to flight. I had numerous meetings with customers and potential customers during the year. I explained everything to them, including what our entire recovery plan was going to involve. The capability to fully disclose what we were doing, how it was going, and what realistic outcome we targeted to achieve as we returned the ECA to flight helped us win seven new launch contracts in 2005 for Ariane 5. In fact, many of our customers commented on how they appreciated our openness and transparency.
Via Satellite: Even though demand for satellite services is increasing, new satellite orders continue in modest numbers. What milestones within the global satellite industry do you consider as having the most significant impact on future demand?
Le Gall: We see the further development of HDTV, mobile connectivity of voice, as well as video and Internet services via satellite, fueling the growth for the coming years in satellite services. Also, we now have bundled services of video and data that are gaining strength with customers. All of this will require more hardware as the demand for these services grows. Today, we have operators that are developing exactly what the market needs. That is why I believe the future will be stronger and more prosperous. When you deliver services that customers need, instead of offering applications you hope they will use, you then have a successful business that is poised for growth.
Besides the new applications, we see other trends and forecasts evolving, some of which I don't agree with. Specifically, many say satellite operator consolidation means fewer spacecraft and fewer launches. I believe consolidation means huge players with many capabilities, which are fundamental to the development of the market. This is actually an exciting time for the global satellite market, because all these changes carry with them strong opportunities to usher in even more new markets and applications that will continue to move the industry forward.
Via Satellite: How do you believe the reshaping of the FSS industry will influence the direction of business moving forward?
Le Gall: These acquisitions, along with the new executives at the helm of some of the global operators, I believe will have a positive impact on the industry at large. These companies now will become more financially sound, grow their revenues and expand their offerings. These developments will have a positive impact on everyone along the supply chain, including the customer. Many people are saying that consolidation is a negative for hardware and service suppliers, but I do not agree. Stronger companies in the market will produce stronger offerings for customers. Therefore, we will have more users of space-based communications.
Via Satellite: Speaking of satellite orders, if consolidation happens among the satellite manufacturers, who do you believe will be left standing?
Le Gall: Five major manufacturers of spacecraft are obviously too many for the market to maintain at current levels of demand. However, if consolidation occurs, it will happen by class of satellites in my opinion. In other words, we may see a streamlining within the ranks of manufacturers for the smaller payloads, and a consolidation among the producers of the upper-end payloads. Again, the market will dictate such outcomes. There will always be a need for large payloads, but we have seen a recent increase in orders for smaller platforms.
I don't think we can say there are too many American or European companies: all satellite manufacturers are global in their business today. But perhaps we can say that two or three manufacturers of small payloads are too many for the market, just like we can say that four or five manufacturers of large payloads make this market sector too crowded as well. If consolidation occurs, I believe it will happen within class of spacecraft, not necessarily among national companies.
Via Satellite: How significant of an impact is the Launch Services Alliance playing in today's market?
Le Gall: The Launch Services Alliance is a very good example of what we must do to provide a solid mission assurance option for our customers in the market. The Launch Services Alliance is put in place as a real and reliable option for assured backup. And it has been used successfully among our customers - who tell us they are very impressed by the capability this option provides in their contracts. Currently, our clients for the Optus D and Skynet 5 contracts have chosen Arianespace as their primary, and have Sea Launch as their backup should it be needed.
Via Satellite: How do you define successful assured access to space?
Le Gall: For me it is simple. We must fulfill whatever desire the customer has for his or her campaign. Today, with a range of missions, we can cover all payload sizes to their desired orbit. In the end, Arianespace succeeds when we keep all the elements technical, financial and business-in mind as we execute our launches.
Via Satellite: Money has been cleared, as well as ground at the Guiana Space Center (CSG) for future Soyuz operations. Within a launch cycle campaign, how many will the spaceport in French Guiana be able to handle simultaneously?
Le Gall: We plan on having the capability to operate two Ariane 5s, one Soyuz and one Vega campaign at the same time. During simultaneous launch campaigns we may have a slight increase in the number of our engineers working at CSG during the time of the launches. We have a strong, dedicated staff at the facility and they are capable of delivering highly detailed services to customers during the launch campaigns.
Via Satellite: Arianespace experienced delays with some of its launch campaigns in 2005. How do you respond to critics who cite launch delays as burdensome on the customers awaiting launch in your full backlog?
Le Gall: We had delays both with the launcher and with some spacecraft and, yes, there were some complaints. We acknowledged those delays and worked with our customers to make up for lost time. The fact is that our mission to return the ECA to flight took more time than originally anticipated, but we could not afford any mistakes. With each mission, we want to give as much attention to detail as possible for our customers. That way, we assure a successful launch. The team worked around the clock last year, and now we are back to our regular launch tempo with no delays foreseen in 2006.
Via Satellite: Along with your leadership of Arianespace, you are also CEO of Starsem. What is your business plan for Starsem moving forward?
Le Gall: The current business model for Starsem has an equal ownership split between Europe and Russia with launches out of Baikonur and, in the near term, we have three launches planned from Baikonur for both 2006 and 2007. In three years, with Soyuz in French Guiana, Arianespace will be marketing commercial launches for Soyuz. So, Starsem will no longer manage operations of the vehicle, but the company will continue to be the place where the Euro-Russian cooperation in launch services is defined.
Via Satellite: We witnessed China increase its space business in 2005. How significant do you view China and its offerings in the market?
Le Gall: I do not believe that China will be able to fully compete in the global marketplace with classic spacecraft and launcher systems. Even if China were going to increase its activities, today, I do not see our launch service offerings competing with China, because they do not have all the tools needed to fully sell integrated launch services like the Western providers do.
Via Satellite: In your opinion regarding Japan, is the H2-A going to play a significant role on the global launcher scene?
Le Gall: Ultimately, it will be the volume of satellites launched into orbit that will determine the impact of the H2-A on the global scene. But I think that the H2-A will play an important role in the Japanese and Asian regional markets as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries launches more capable versions of H2-A over the coming months.
Via Satellite: What is your view for the future of European Space?
Le Gall: The health of the European space sector is good, and I believe a clear vision for its future is taking shape. Recently, there was a ministerial meeting where 95 percent of the budget of the European Space Agency was approved. I am pleased that Europe is committed to seeing important scientific and civil missions moving forward. But even though a solid policy is in place, policy by itself means nothing without execution. We are fortunate to have strong leaders in place. Europe, like the United States, plans to go to Mars and the moon, and of course, there is the Galileo navigation program where we just launched the first test satellite. We launched many significant missions for ESA last year, including the Venus Express probe, and have some more slated within our launch manifest for 2006 and 2007.
Via Satellite: In 2005, NASA awarded Arianespace a significant civil contract, even though the United States has its own dedicated vehicles for civil missions. Do you see future U.S. civil missions for Arianespace?
Le Gall: First, let me say that we are honored to be launching NASA's flagship astronomy satellite, the James Webb Space Telescope. The decision demonstrates the trust NASA places in Arianespace to successfully launch this large and advanced spacecraft to L2. As far as the future is concerned, time will tell. It also will depend on the scale of future U.S. civil missions that materialize. And I am certain as space exploration advances, and continued growth is made with the International Space Station, there will be a strong need for cargo and scientific payloads to be sent to space. Such developments will be beneficial for Arianespace, because the Ariane 5 is perfectly suited for such civil missions.
At this occasion, let me say that all what has been achieved in the last couple of years would not have been possible without our institutional partners and in particular ESA and CNES. They are very well placed to know that Ariane 5 ECA is the most modern launch vehicle currently in operation and they are very eager to use it for various missions in the future.
Via Satellite: As you look forward for building a stronger Arianespace, what concerns do you have?
Le Gall: I am very customer focused. I believe in meeting with our customers on a regular basis, even if that means I have to be traveling every week, I will do that. I am always concerned with successfully executing our manifest with the best solution for the customer. Beyond that, I am always striving for our company to be the strongest service provider in the industry. As I have stated, we sell more than just launches, we sell partnerships and complete services to space. The entire process, not just the launch, is most important for us and maintaining such a business is forefront in my mind. I get very little sleep when it comes to this.
Via Satellite: What excites you the most and keeps you in the launcher business?
Le Gall: The night of a launch. For me, that is what makes this position most enjoyable. I get highly focused the days before a launch and cannot wait for that moment.
Via Satellite: What legacy do you hope to leave as CEO of Arianespace?
Le Gall: I come from a family of sailors. In fact, my father taught me that the measure of a good sailor is seen after he has weathered a storm. I feel as if I have just weathered a significant storm and I hope I am remembered as the Executive who successfully navigated Arianespace through its rough times. I have now plenty of ideas to continue to develop the company. We have more to accomplish and this is very exciting now that the storm seems to be behind us.
Nick Mitsis is the editor of Via Satellite magazine. He also sits on the board of SSPI's Mid-Atlantic chapter.