Which is the largest space agency

European space travelWörner: Greater cooperation between the EU and ESA is necessary

The entries on Jan Wörner's official ESA blog already reveal that when he left early as Director General of the European Space Agency, things did not go quite smoothly. On December 17th In 2020 he wrote:
"I will be in office until June 2021 and have a lot more plans." At the beginning of January he announced that he would hand over the baton to Josef Aschbacher, the current ESA Director for Earth Observation, at the end of February. Who or what changed his mind?

Jan Woerner: It was a very calm and logical consideration. The fact is that the ESA's procedure provided for the successor to be appointed in December and then to take office on July 1st. That's six months, you can still finish some things, on the other hand you can give your new colleague the opportunity to get used to it, or to slowly leave your previous job. In this case it is a director of the ESA who has been appointed, i.e. an internal candidate who can be active immediately and is already active. So it was somehow a consideration, should you really do it for six months in parallel, or does it not make more sense to hand it over earlier, and after careful consideration I decided on the latter.

The Mars landing was only partially successful

Ralf Krauter: Let's try something like a balance sheet of your time as ESA Director General: You took office in July 2015, and shortly afterwards you said in an interview - I think here on Deutschlandfunk too - that we need space missions, the spirit of discovery demonstrate and promote. A prime example of this should be the ESA ExoMars mission, which first took off in 2018, then in 2020 and should actually have dropped a rover on Mars in March. How much does it hurt you that this Mars landing by ESA had to be postponed again from 2020 to 2022 due to problems with the parachutes and the software?

Woerner: ExoMars consists of several components. A major component started in 2016. This is a mission that is still orbiting Mars and that has two functions, namely to examine the Martian atmosphere on the one hand and also to function as a relay station for the rover that we then want to send there. This part worked, there was also an attempt at a trial landing in 2016 - and I specifically say try, test, I could now explain in detail why it is so difficult to land on Mars. In any case, except for the very last step, it worked well. Unfortunately, the computer shut down the engine shortly before landing, which wasn't good, but we have all the data and therefore we know how to do it.

ESA boss Johann-Dietrich Wörner (dpa / picture alliance / Geisler-Fotopress / Jens Krick)

The second part of the mission was supposed to start in 2018, it didn't work out due to lack of time, it was postponed to 2020, and then there were several points: We could have flown in 2020, but there would have been a greater risk, including a technical one. And since we spend taxpayers' money here, we said we'd better stay home two more years, Mars won't be lost, and we can make the mission safer that way. So it was a consideration of risk or rather safe, and we opted for the safe option.

A moon village for international understanding

Herbs: Let's look at another vision with which you made headlines even shortly before you officially took office: You said let's build a village on the moon, a moon village, as the logical successor to the international space station. How much closer have we come to this goal since 2015?

Woerner: Yes, it's very simple: the goal has been achieved. That certainly amazed me, but amazed me in a positive way. This Moon Village idea came about when I was still at DLR and was wondering what we should actually do if the international space station one day can no longer fly, and those were two points, in a nutshell, that were important to me: us We will continue to have to carry out experiments in weightlessness, which is simply too important for medicine, for materials research and other things, but this geopolitical effect of the international space station, international cooperation, we must also maintain, and the moon is simply a good choice for this. This resulted in a somewhat complicated expression, "multi-partner open concept", i.e. many partners, open concept.

Then a colleague of yours said that it's hard to explain, you will find a better term, and that became Moon Village. But it is exactly the same, namely a concept to bring together the various actors from East and West around the world and not to build new fences and raise flags on the moon, but to strengthen cooperation. That is actually what is happening now - partly with the Americans, with Artemis, the Lunar Gateway, where many partners are involved, but we are also working very specifically with the Russians and also with the Chinese. They all look to the moon, and there is really now cooperation on a basis of coordination between the different countries. So the Moon Village is a reality, it's there, this concept is there.

Greater cooperation between the EU and ESA

Herbs: What are the current, also with a view to your successor, the major challenges that Europe's space travel is now facing?

Woerner: The greatest challenge for ESA as such is the interaction with the European Union. We are not part of the European Union, we are an intergovernmental body based on an international treaty, namely the Convention. The Lisbon Treaty of the EU member states, which are not identical to the ESA member states, has existed since 2008/2009, and they have stipulated for the EU that they also want to become more active in space travel. The EU has now become very active in recent years. This is not just the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Copernicus earth observation system, but also other programs, and here it will be very important that the technical capabilities and contractual capabilities of ESA are really used in order to move Europe forward in space travel as a whole. In other words, it will be important here to achieve a political balance that will secure ESA and advance European space travel, and I believe that this will be the greatest task of my successor.

Finding a balance between commercial and public activities

Herbs: Now we have talked primarily about the challenges at the political level, which long-term strategic goals in space travel should the ESA pursue with power?

Woerner: From my point of view, commercialization in particular is the central issue. If we look at the various topics that ESA deals with, there are four big blocks: that is exploration and science in space, that is the topic of security in space and from space, it is the topic of application, earth observation, navigation, Telecommunications, and it's the areas that support space travel, like launchers and technology. I think all four areas are equally important. But when we look at what is going to happen in commercialization, we see that some of these areas can and should become more and more commercial. ESA has to position itself precisely here; I had already tried a lot in this area. It is clear that exploration, science and everything that has to do with security will continue to be a public task, but in the other areas you have to see how you can distinguish between commercial activities, the economy, and public activities, for example ESA or the member states can really find a solution that will bring Europe's space travel forward.

Herbs: You were also someone who repeatedly spoke out in favor of being open when choosing partners who, for example, can also transport European astronauts into space. The cooperation with Russia continues, with the Americans anyway, but the Chinese were also looked at. Is that still good advice to stay open in all directions from your point of view?

Woerner: My advice is to use space travel for what it can do like no other activity, which is to build bridges between East and West, bridges across political difficulties. We know that we saw the beginning of the Crimean crisis in 2014, and at the same time Alexander Gerst flew into space. That was such a very important point for me, where I noticed that space travel can do more than just space travel, space travel can bring together internationally. I therefore hope that ESA will continue to be open to cooperation in all directions.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.