WikiLeaks claims a space casualty

Controversial comments attributed to the CEO of a German satellite manufacturer have cost him his job. Late Monday the board of OHB-System announced it was removing Berry Smutny from the position of CEO, effective immediately. (The release says he is “suspended”, but the implication in the release and media reports, such as this Deutsche Welle article, is that the suspension is permanent.) Smutny’s dismissal is linked to comments he allegedly made to US diplomats in Germany revealed in a leaked cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published last week by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

And what did Smutny say that was so controversial? He was critical of Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system in an October 2009 conversation with US officials, calling it a “a waste of EU tax payers money championed by French interests” and “a stupid idea that primarily serves French interests”. (He also claimed that an irony in German investment in Galileo, which could be used to improve the accuracy of missiles, is that some French missiles with nuclear warheads are aimed at Berlin.) What made the comments particularly controversial is that, a year ago, OHB-System, in cooperation with SSTL, won a contract to build the first 14 Galileo satellites. Smutny did say in the cable that he expected OHB to win a Galileo satellite order and, if so, the company would deliver on time and on budget, although he said there was a possibility the contract would be canceled if the overall costs grew to a level that “the EC can no longer stomach”.

When the cable was released last week, OHB-System issued a statement denying that Smutny made those comments and playing up the company’s “excellent relations” with French companies and institutions. However, in Monday’s statement, the OHB board “saw no alternative to this decision in order to effectively avert any further damage to the company on the part of customers, political representatives and the public at large.”


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