In need of space projects, CNES employees have blue ones

The entrance to CNES in Toulouse, in March 2017 (REMY GABALDA / AFP / Archives)

“We have been devitalized”: the CNES, created 60 years ago to put France in the club of great powers in space, has been shaken by a movement of discontent against the State’s strategy, raising fears on a mission science difficulty for the benefit of the private sector.

The CEO of the National Center for Space Studies, Philippe Baptiste, told AFP he wanted to “find solutions to address some legitimate concerns” within the agency, which has nearly 2,400 employees (Toulouse, Paris and Kourou).

On April 14, more than 600 employees of the Toulouse site went on strike against the “objective and performance contract (COP)” just signed by the State and the public establishment.

A walkout of some time, but “historic” for a company full of executives and engineers, generally reluctant to strike “, said Julien Anxionnat, CFDT delegate. And the mobilization continues with GAs, petition , COP’s “rewrite” workshop …

– “The drop of water” –

The formalization of the contract, which is renewed every five years, is the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, the unionist stressed, in the context of a concern raised in the summer of 2020: the CNES, which historically attached to the Ministry of Research, then under the primary supervision of Economics and Finance.

By shifting the space issue to Bercy, President Emmanuel Macron is “broken with a multi-decade vision driven by General De Gaulle”, who created CNES 60 years ago, wrote an employee collective last week, in a world forum.

Bruno Le Maire presents French space strategy at ArianeGroup in Vernon (Normandy), December 6, 2021
Bruno Le Maire presents French space strategy to ArianeGroup in Vernon (Normandy), December 6, 2021 (Eric PIERMONT / AFP / Archives)

As already touched by prominent French scientists (Jean Jouzel, Serge Haroche, Françoise Combes, Yves Coppens …), these employees fear that the French space sector will turn away from scientific research in favor of the industry dimension only, to “catch up” with American Space X and create more space for start-ups, according to the roadmap created by Bruno Le Maire by the end of 2021.

“The government wants to distribute public money to industrialists – preferably start -ups – to support more or less technical serious initiatives, without a long -term perspective, and without relying on the knowledge of the CNES”, regret collectively supported by inter-union.

– “To Do” –

He cited the “enormous” amount – 1.5 billion euros – of part of the space plan of “France 2030”, the implementation of which “Bercy entrusted to the Public Investment Bank” for the benefit of the sector of “new space”. (a term denoting an explosion in the number of private actors on the world spatial chessboard).

“We can’t miss an ecosystem that is exploding. To miss the new space train is to be buried in CNES”, pleaded Philippe Baptiste.

But for employees, “it is unpleasant to see that there is a lot of money whose color we can not see”, brings Denis Carbonne, representative of the CGT. And the “COP” is pushing the point at home according to him, because the State is “asking us to be less vigilant on the technical side when we sign contracts with the private sector … it distracts us” .

“We have nothing against helping start-ups”, commented Julien Anxionnat, but it is the very philosophy of the COP that is causing the problem “because it requires us to do more + to + do + than + do +”.

In this new roadmap, according to them, CNES threatens to become “a simple funding agency” that has lost historical knowledge, the launcher of the Ariane program, the Pléiades Neo satellite, the SuperCam camera on Mars …

“Now we don’t have a big project,” sighed an employee from Toulouse, on condition of anonymity. Some have also stopped, such as C3IEL, a micro-satellite in partnership with Israel.

However, “the level of activity has never been very high”, emphasizes the CEO, citing “incredible” missions in pipelines such as MicroCarb Earth observation satellites or NASA’s SWOT. ..

But they are at the end of the race, and Philippe Baptiste admits that “he misses two or three big emblematic missions” preparing early.

In leadership since 2021, the CEO has full confidence in the future of the agency and its “essential” dual scientific and technical roles. “Our knowledge is unique, no industrialist would commit to making a seismometer on Mars; we are!”.

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