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Q & A

Facilitator in chief

The space-faring countries are going to need to work together if they are to achieve their ambitions for the 21st century. That’s the view of German educator and engineer Jan Wörner, who sees the European Space Agency he leads as uniquely positioned to serve as an international facilitator among such competitors as China, Russia and the U.S. Europe wants to enlist collaborators to establish a Moon Village research station; the Trump administration wants to send astronauts to the moon while keeping Mars as the ultimate goal; the White House also would eliminate funding for some Earth science instruments that European scientists had been counting on. Wörner is not naïve to those and other sources of tensions, but he sees a desire to cooperate, too. Scientists in China are eager to share Earth science data, and ESA astronauts are learning Chinese, he notes. Wörner spoke to me by phone from his office at the European Space Agency headquarters in Paris.


Moon Village begins

We will have the first missions under the umbrella of Moon Village this year. We have more than 150 signatures on the declaration to be part of the Moon Village. The Moon Village is an open concept. So, what do you provide? Transportation, logistics on the surface, navigation on the surface, would you like to look for energy, harvesting the energy or doing some in-situ resource utilization with 3-D printing and so on. There might be an institution which is interested to do some research on the surface of the moon, but do not have the possibility to go there. We bring them together.

Mining on moon

We need new technologies and we have already, in the International Space Station, developed a lot of things which work in microgravity which we can then also use on the surface of the moon. There may be new challenges. How to make 3-D printing with the moon material in low gravity and so on. There are discussions to [extract] helium-3 from the moon.

Moon base benefits

The far side of the moon is not as investigated as other parts. If you build an observatory and a radio telescope, you can have a better view into space, into the universe, because you are in the shadow of the moon. And the moon can be also a very nice place for planetary defense of the Earth, as an outpost to observe the universe, as an early warning station for asteroids, meteorites coming toward the Earth and, in the far future, also to use the moon as a base for some countermeasures. And the moon can be a test bed to go to Mars. I hope we will not build on Mars or moon for people to stay there forever. But mining in space will be something in the future as tourism will be. That’s clear.

Brexit, European Union and ESA

Brexit doesn’t affect us because we are an intergovernmental organization, not part of the European Union. We have 22 member states right now. One country, one vote. We have the ESA convention, more or less unchanged since 1975. Every member state of ESA has to go through their parliament to get ratification of this convention. So, it’s national law. [The United Kingdom] will leave the European Union probably, but will not leave ESA. I don’t like it that U.K. is leaving, but in 2016, Great Britain increased their contribution to ESA dramatically because ESA is a stable point for them.

ESA budget

Our budget right now is something like 5.7 billion euros per year. And in our case, we do not want to have any stable budget year by year. The director general gives a proposal for all the different programs, and then the ministers sign up for all the different proposals. So, it totally depends on how we propose missions. We are fighting always for the money. The advantage is for ESA that we do not have just an annual budget but a multiannual budget based on the different missions.

Commercial Earth observation

The taxpayer paid for these satellites, and therefore the data should be free and open, available, to cover the Earth observation and even more areas in the future. The value of space is today very important, whether it’s the value for the return of investments like navigation, cable communication, Earth observation, or whether it’s for humankind and geopolitical aspects.

Politics of Earth science

We can tell you that in our case, our member states love Earth observation very much. They would like to do more because, you know, we have what we call geo return rule. If we have member states paying 20 percent of our [Earth observation] program, they are eligible to get also contracts of a value of 20 percent, and therefore, they love it. So, Earth observation is clearly easy to sell. Earth observation is about 30 percent of our overall budget and human space flight is similar to that.

Climate science data business

Climate change is something where we really can give an impact to the society. For man-made disasters as well as natural disasters, and I think that Earth observation is really a good tool to help people worldwide to overcome specific problems. Be it earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fire, flooding, whatever. Also for the future, to look to the source of CO2 emissions [can] give politicians clear information how to handle it. We are right now changing also the way we are doing Earth observation projects. In the past, we did it financed 100 percent by the public side, be it ESA or the European Union. Right now, we do all the public-private partnership in Earth observation and we are gradually increasing this part, so this is something which I see will come in the future: more private activities.

Sharing climate data with China

I’m arguing in favor of that because if you have, for instance, data concerning CO2 emission, if this comes just from one country, whatever that country is worldwide, it will not be accepted by the other ones. If you exchange the data you get two things. First of all, you get higher frequency of information, which is good to see as the sources of CO2. And secondly, you get trust that you accept the data of the others if you give your data.

Working with China

The most important reason for us to do cooperation is to bridge Earthly crises. And we can do so. We are working with Russia intensively together for launch. In a tiny Soyuz capsule, you have [an] American astronaut, Russian cosmonaut and European astronaut together. Then you have some warm feelings that it’s still possible even in times of sanctions and so on to do something together and I think we have to bridge Earthly crises, and therefore we are also cooperating with China. Some of our astronauts are now learning Chinese in order to be prepared if we can have in the future together some human missions.

Mars is a challenge

For our exploration, we have three destinations right now. Lower Earth orbit, the moon and Mars. We will have in 2020 a rover on the surface of Mars, which will drill into the surface, 2 meters deep, let’s say 6 feet or something, to look for life. The Russians are providing us a launcher for that mission and United States of America are part of the scientific investigation. We are working together for Mars. Where we have some slightly different opinion maybe, timewise, is when to go to Mars with humans. Mars is really a challenge. With today’s technology and the orbits of Mars and the Earth around the sun, a journey will take about two years, plus-minus some months. And this is with respect to health issues, it’s really difficult. If you look back to Apollo 13, they had a technical problem. They were back in a few days.

Space debris

Right now, we have 4,500 known satellites in orbit. 4,500. 1,500 are still active, meaning we have already 3,000 satellites which are not active any longer. We can call them space debris, and we have to do something. This is the danger. Space debris is really something. Three years ago one of our satellites was hit by a space debris and part of the solar panel was destroyed, so we know that this is not only a movie like “Gravity.” It is a real issue. We are looking to something like space traffic management and also assist with automatic systems in case a satellite is not working any longer so that we have automatic systems to avoid a future increase of space debris.

ESA as facilitator of cooperation

We have regular meetings [with NASA]. None of our scientific missions is purely a European mission. In most of them, we have contributions from the United States of America and we’re also part of missions in the U.S., so therefore this is really the difference to the middle of the last century when it was a race in space. Right now, it’s cooperation in space, and there’s still some race on the Earth. Maybe this is part of the beauty that we can do it more easily and NASA and others can use us also as a, how should I call it, facilitator of cooperation.

Sharing exploration costs

The cost of landing people on the moon is already something. I saw some numbers these days for a trip to Mars which is really so far beyond our limits that I don’t dare to discuss about it right now. ESA has no project, no program so far for human transportation, so we are heavily dependent on our friends in the East and West. So, that means that also in the SLS, the new launch system, ESA is part of it. We are happy with that.

Rocket supply and future demand

I don’t think that we have a shortage. It’s the opposite right now. Worldwide, we have so many launch providers that the competition is very strong. We have through NASA the new SLS system, we have Boeing activities, we have ULA activities, you have Jeff Bezos doing something with Blue Origin, then you have SpaceX with Elon Musk. You have India. So, you have a lot of providers already.

Asteroid strike

Looking into the danger of some asteroid impacting the Earth, you need only a small impact to get it away from impacting the Earth. But this means that we need detection systems much earlier than we have today. The far side of the moon might be an interesting place for something like that. Today, one can say we would need years and we do not have that time if something comes, and last time, they found out only a few weeks before that there was some asteroid very close to Earth. Worldwide, we do not have the possibility, the means to counteract [an asteroid strike] in a short period of time.

Deep space travel

If you want to make deep space journeys in a quicker time, in a shorter time than in the past, you need disruptive solutions. I don’t know whether you saw the movie “Interstellar.” I mean, this is the way we should think about it but there’s no new concrete idea so far. So, using the curvature of space and time to get faster through the universe, it would be really nice. We need disruptive solutions for transportation in space if we want to go farther. I mean, Mars is already something, as I said, two years’ travel forth and back, but if we want to go for other areas, for other places in the universe, we need totally different technology.

Public or private space funding?

It depends very much on the subject. For instance, using Earth observation data and providing some special information for industry, where to build a new factory or whatever. So, they can sell information. They don’t need any public support. And there are others which need public support. Launcher sector, for instance, needs institutional launchers and, as you know, SpaceX also contracts with NASA for a long period of transportation to the station. The private investor wants a heavy return of investment. Whether it’s tourism or whether it’s some other activities, I think that science and exploration will in the future, mainly be paid by public money. But that’s not bad.

Related Topics

Human SpaceflightCommercial SpaceflightEarth SciencesInternational AffairsPublic PolicySpace ScienceUnmanned Spacecraft

Johann “Jan” Wörner

POSITIONS: Elected director general of the European Space Agency in 2015. Chairman of the executive board of the German Aerospace Center from 2007 to 2015; president of the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany from 1995 to 2007.

NOTABLE: During his civil engineering studies in 1982, Wörner lived in Japan for a year investigating the earthquake safety of nuclear power plants. As chairman of the executive board of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, he created the national security research department and coordinated with NASA to develop the telescope for the joint NASA-DLR Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA aircraft, a modified Boeing 747SP that studies the cosmos from a vantage point above most atmospheric moisture.

AGE: 63


EDUCATION: Civil engineering degree from the Technical University of Berlin and master’s level degree from the Technical University of Darmstadt.

Facilitator in chief