Inside the ESA Office of the Inspector General
A conversation with Inspector General Giovanni Colangelo
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Inside the ESA Office of the Inspector General
I am an advocate of increased transparency from the European Space Agency, particularly around programmes of strategic importance like Ariane 6. Previously, I had called on ESA to take a page out of NASA’s playbook and allow reports generated by the agency’s Inspector General to be published publicly to allow European citizens to evaluate how their taxes, in the form of contributions to ESA, were being spent. This call led me all the way to the ESA Inspector General himself, Giovanni Colangelo, and an hour-long conversation that gave me a greater understanding of the office and its responsibilities. I was also able to have a frank discussion with the Inspector General about why he thought that it was not appropriate to release the reports his office created.
Does size matter?
It's important to get a baseline of the office and its most prominent counterpart. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is an independent department that reports to the NASA Administrator, Congress, and the public. The office consists of a staff of more than 400 and is primarily set up to report on the agency's effectiveness while also offering some support in the form of legal counsel.
The ESA IG consists of just 11 people and its responsibilities are not just to review ESA’s work. The office does, of course, conduct in-depth reviews of programmes to define baselines and measure their progress against those baselines. However, the ESA IG is also involved significantly more, taking up a key role in ensuring the agency is run as smoothly as possible and that the Director General, directorates, and representatives of member states have the information they require to make key decisions on programmes. More on the exact duties of the office later.
My first question after discovering the differences between the NASA and ESA Offices of the IG was, of course, why is the ESA IG office so small? Well, although the office is looking to add to its numbers, the small size is by design and not a result of poor funding or neglect.
"I cannot have a huge army of people of 300 or 400 or even 50, for me, it's enormous, it's not what I need,” said Colangelo. “If I could have the possibility to hire five or ten more it would be enough. My idea is to create a group of very competent senior experts that can do all of these things."
The IG was, however, not confident about the prospects of easily finding people with the right profile to maintain and possibly increase the ranks of his office. "I’m always looking for proactive people that do not fear new challenges,” he explained. “For me, “good people” doesn't mean only competent people. Key factors to take into consideration are also accountability and a willingness to learn."
As a result of the small size of the ESA Office of IG, additional resources are sometimes required to allow the office to successfully carry out its numerous duties. This role is primarily filled by the agency’s technical directorate which is called upon by the office on a case-by-case basis. The ESA technical directorate is made up of more than 900 people.
Duties of the office
The responsibilities of the ESA Office of IG are broad, and its workload is impressive. On average, the office completes the following each year:
Corporate reviews: These reviews assist the agency with understanding the progress of a programme, if it is in line with expectations, and if not, what needs to be done to get it back on track. Types of corporate reviews conducted include critical design reviews and qualification acceptance reviews to name a few. The reviews are conducted by the Project Review Office, which falls under the purview of the Office of the IG. The IG’s office completes approximately 40 corporate reviews per year. These appraisals can be put on two tracks: traditional or fast track.
Integrated project reviews (IPRevs): A management tool that provides an assessment of programme's project plan. These assessments are used at the time of major project decisions (for example, the start of a programme's implementation phase) to provide visibility of project implementation details to the Director General who at the end of the process authorizes the project plan (i.e. the Business Plan of the project). They are also used as a tool to provide feedback to programme leadership before the implementation phase begins. The IG’s office completes 10 to 15 IPRevs per year. However, in a ministerial council meeting year, this increases to 20 to 25 a year to give the DG as much information as possible before presenting programmes to member states for approval.
Investigation boards: When something goes wrong or in instances when major decisions need to be made, the Office of the IG is brought in to assess what happened, recommend corrective action, and then follow up to see if the corrective action has been implemented and is having the desired effect. The most public instances of investigation boards are launch failures like that conducted following the loss of the Vega C VV22 flight. The IG’s office completes six to eight investigation boards per year.
Project resource assessments: A comprehensive independent assessment of the risk, schedule, and cost of a programme. This information is utilized to assist programme and project managers to better define a programme’s baseline before proceeding to the implementation phase. These assessments are extremely detailed and typically take between four and eight weeks of intensive investigation per programme. As a result of the intense nature of these assessments, the Office of the IG only has the capacity to conduct four to five of these assessments a year. The IG would, however, like to increase this to as many as eight to ten a year.
The above are the main activities of the Office of the IG, however, its responsibilities don’t stop there. It also coordinates agency risk management and maintains high-level agency internal and external risk registers, chairs “lessons learned” seminars, provides support for the directorates on a programmatic level, conducts ad-hoc peer reviews both at the directorate and project levels and, of course, conducts ministerial meeting preparation to ensure that all decision-makers have the information that they require.
A question of transparency?
The IG reports first and foremost to Director General Josef Aschbacher. As a result, all reports created by the office are sent to the DG and, of course, to all relevant parties. For instance, an Ariane 6 report would be sent to the DG, the president of CNES Philippe Baptiste, and the CEO of ArianeGroup Martin Sion. The question is, why aren’t taxpayers of ESA member states considered relevant parties? One could certainly argue that without them the agency would simply cease to exist.
When asked why these reports could not be shared with the public, the IG explained that releasing the information would be “disruptive” for industry.
"Resource assessments outline the baseline: how long a project will last and how much it will cost. Can you imagine if this information goes public? It would be too disruptive and could heavily endanger any competition. This information is for the DG, for the directorate, and for the project manager," he said. "This type of information is a bit too sensitive."
Despite this, the IG did concede that there are ways that his office and the agency as a whole could be doing better. However, he stated that there was no doubt that for the time being the agency would not be changing its stance on making IG reports public since many reports are covered by non-disclosure agreements and contain security/data protection elements, which in some instances include personal data.
I suggested to the IG that there could be a compromise to be found. A suggested compromise was that defined programmatic categories like budget, timeline, and risk could be rated on a three-colour spectrum. Green would indicate all is going according to plan, yellow that there are concerns, and red that there are problems and corrective action is necessary to allow the programme to continue. This system would give the public a chance to track the progress of major programmes without being blindsided by the announcement of delays. The most recent year-long Ariane 6 maiden flight delay is a perfect example of that. We all knew a late 2022 flight was going to be difficult, but the extent of the delays was genuinely shocking. I should note here that I do appreciate that the agency has since released a development timeline leading up to the maiden flight of Ariane 6 that gave a much clearer picture of the vehicle’s progress. I think more should be done, though, especially around spending which in the case of Ariane 6 has, by all appearances, ballooned from initial estimates.
In response to my suggestion, the IG noted two stumbling blocks he foresaw. Firstly, this type of “sanitized” report would put additional pressure on his already overloaded office. That’s fair. Maybe to implement these assessments, there should be an “Office of Transparency” within the Office of the IG that is solely focused on this task. I also think that not all programmes require this kind of disclosure. There could be a predefined euro figure that, once crossed by a programme, automatically triggers a greater degree of transparency.
The second stumbling block that the IG foresaw was the necessary clearance from contractors. In other words, the Office of the IG would, in his eyes and by proxy in the eyes of ESA, be required to have all releases vetted and approved by the contractors that were being reviewed. Now, let me state for the record here that during our discussion I found Mr. Colangelo to be insightful, passionate, and genuinely dedicated to ensuring the agency was always operating at its best. I do, however, feel that there is a sense of detachment from the public that is funding these programmes and not simply at the level of the IG. I am not suggesting that all decisions made by the agency be put to a vote but simply that taxpayers are informed about how effectively the funding that they supplied is being used regardless of how those disclosures affect the relevant contractors.
It’s difficult to compare the ESA and NASA Offices of the Inspector General. They do have some overlapping responsibilities, but the structures, reporting lines, and scope of the two offices just aren’t the same. It also appears that the primary mission of the two offices is different. The NASA OIG is primarily focused on serving the American taxpayer that funds the agency while the ESA OIG is focused on serving the agency and its structures. As a result, a true representative of the European taxpayer does appear to be absent from ESA structures. One could argue that representatives of ESA Member States represent each state’s taxpaying public, but these individuals are either not empowered or not willing to offer much if any transparency to their constituencies.
The only question that remains is: would a greater degree of transparency have a positive impact on the agency’s operations? There’s certainly an argument to be made this it would, in fact, have a negative impact. If, for instance, there was a greater degree of transparency around the cost overruns and development delays of Ariane 6, it's not hard to imagine voters of a member state putting pressure on officials to opt out of funding the vehicle. That would certainly have a net negative impact on the agency and further exasperate an already concerning lack of launch capabilities. A rebuttal to that argument could be that although there would be short or even medium-term disruption, future programmes would be more efficient and more considered with development timelines. However, developing space hardware is rarely that simple. We know that developing a new launch vehicle is not a simple endeavour nor are many of the ambitious projects that ESA undertakes on a daily basis. As a result, would greater transparency improve operations or simply put undue pressure on the men and women working on these projects for little to no upside? I confess to being less sure of my advocacy for a greater degree of transparency than when I first started writing this article.
The battle to be Spain’s preferred microlauncher - Spain's Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) has completed technical reviews of a pair of small satellite launch solutions presented by Pangea Aerospace and PLD Space. Both companies have been awarded an initial €1.5 million in funding. An additional €42 million will be awarded to one of the two companies towards the end of the year. The programme is part of the country's Strategic Projects for Economic Recovery and Transformation initiative. The baseline requirement for the programme was that the solutions presented would need to be able to deploy 500-kilogram payloads to an altitude of up to 800 kilometres. Pangea Aerospace is leading a consortium of companies to develop its solution. Calling itself the National Team, the consortium is made up of five members: Pangea Aerospace, GMV, ITP Aero, Aenium, and URAX. There does appear to be some confusion as to whether the Pangea Aerospace bid was submitted as a consortium, though. According to PLD Space Raul Torres, a Temporary Union of Companies was not filed which appears to mean that Pangea could not legally submit its bid as a consortium. This appears to be backed up by the technical report itself which makes no mention of the consortium. It's unclear how this will affect Pangea's bid.
Orbex plays CEO musical chairs - Orbex announced that Martin Coates has been appointed as interim CEO, taking over from acting CEO Kristian von Bengston after founder and CEO Chris Larmour abruptly departed in April. Coates served on the Orbex board from June 2015 to July 2018. He joins Orbex after serving as Managing Director at Agratec Limited for almost 13 years. Interestingly, besides a press release that I received from Sonus PR on behalf of Orbex, I have not seen any official announcement from the company on any of its channels regarding the appointment.
Let’s go to space! - ESA announced an initiative to provide support to companies developing micro and mini launchers that could be used to respond to the agency's small payload needs. Through the initiative, the agency intends to award up to €300k to providers to demonstrate the maturity of launch systems and to conduct a launch service compatibility analysis. This is the latest sign that ESA is willing to serve as an anchor customer to European launch startups to increase the continent's sovereign access to space.
The UK Space industry wasn’t built in a day - The UK Space Agency announced the Space Clusters and Infrastructure Fund. The £50 million fund will be utalised to support the development of research and development facilities that will further grow the country's £17.5 billion space industry. The initiative is a pilot project that will seek to support between five and ten projects with up to £10 million each.
I can see my house from here - UK-based Earth observations startup Satellite Vu has closed a £12.7 million Series A2 funding round. The company has now raised a total of £30.5 million in funding. This latest funding round was led by Molten Ventures, with participation from Seraphim Space, A/O Proptech, Lockheed Martin, Ridgeline Ventures, Earth Sciences Foundation, and Stellar Ventures, all of which are existing investors. According to CFO Camilla Taylor, the funding puts the company in a good position to achieve its commercialization goals over the next 12 months. The Satellite Vu team expects to launch the first satellite in the company's planned constellation in June 2023.
3D printing in space - The DLR MAPHEUS-13 suborbital microgravity research mission was launched from the Esrange Space Center. Aboard the flight were several experiments, including a technology demonstrator exploring a solution to perform 3D powder printing in space. Other experiments on board examined how brain cells are affected in microgravity and how two liquid metals interact with each other in microgravity.
Locked and ready to rock! - ESA has completed all deployments of its Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) mission. The six-week operation saw the successful deployment of all of the spacecraft's solar panels, antennas, probes, and booms that had been tucked away for launch. The final deployment saw the swinging out and locking into a place of the probes and antennas that make up the Radio & Plasma Wave Investigation. When the deployment process was completed successfully last week, Juice was about 8 million kilometres from Earth.
A longer look at the goods - Finish Earth Observation data provider ICEYE announced the release of its Dwell product. Dwell uses the company's synthetic aperture radar satellites in a long-duration imaging mode to capture significantly more information about a target. The image is created from a 25-second collection of a target in contrast to the standard 10-second collection period. According to Head of Data Product at ICEYE John Cartwright, Dwell will be ideal for customers looking to extract more information from radar imagery including movement and direction.
That’s a lot of thrusting! - French in-space propulsion startup ThrustMe announced that the company has now received over 100 orders for its cold gas I2T5 and gridded ion NPT30-I2 thrusters. The company, which was founded in 2017, revealed that production is already fully booked for 2023 and orders for 2024 are "growing rapidly."
A non-binding agreement - The Council of the European Union approved conclusions on a "Fair and sustainable used of space." The document, among other things, recognized that space is a global commons, acknowledged an increasingly congested low Earth orbit, called on member states to foster and implement mitigation measures to minimize space debris, and acknowledged the effects of light pollution and electromagnetic interference caused by large satellite constellations. While not a binding document, it’s the highest level of “policy intent” from the EU that gives a political mandate for actions in the Member States and the Commission.