For decades in history space was the giant playground – but only for NASA and the USSR. Now, many nations strive to reach and explore the last frontier. With the enormous costs for the venture, will cooperation prevail over national interests? Are there benefits in the near future – for all of us – in spending so much to get to the orbit? We touch upon all these questions with Director-General of the European Space Agency, Jean Jacques Dordain, on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevarnadze: Jean Jacques Dordain, the director-general of the European Space agency, it’s great to have you with us today.
Jean Jacques Dordain: Thank you.
SS: Europe is changing. With economic slowdown, with political scandals, with European countries being involved in wars – do you think society is paying less attention to space exploration?
JJD: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so, and, especially, because all citizens are taking more and more benefits from space development. There is not anymore one single European citizen not taking benefit from space infrastructures, be that weather forecast, communications, TV-broadcast, navigation. I think that nobody could live anymore without space systems, and that is certainly the change in space. When I was young, space was mostly a race to go far away from planet Earth. Now, space is used more and more to improve the quality of life on planet Earth and to develop economy and growth. So there was a change in the way space is perceived, but I think that space is just at the beginning of its development, so I am very confident that we shall benefit more and more from space.
SS: But tell me about your agency, the ESA, how stable is it financially, and if you compare it to NASA, or the Chinese…
JJD: In terms of budget, we are very small agency. Our budget is ¼, ⅕ of the one of NASA, for example.
SS: But how competitive do you feel?
JJD: We are very competitive, we are very competitive. We are not…for example, in human spaceflight we are dependent on U.S. and on Russia. We cannot launch our astronauts by ourselves. There are parts where we are not competitive, we are even dependent, but there are fields where we are certainly, the leaders and this is particularly true for Earth observation. The member states of ESA have put priority No. 1 in Earth observation, be it to understand climate change or to have weather forecasts and security and also in science in general. I think we have fantastic missions like Herschel, Planck, Gaia which have no equivalent, beating NASA, or Russia, or China. We have some part of activity where I can say that we are the leaders.
SS: Where you’re at with your cooperation with NASA? DO you still share a lot of projects together?
JJD: Oh yes, we have a lot of cooperation with NASA. ESA started almost 50 years ago in full cooperation with NASA, we have learned from NASA how to make satellites and since then we are cooperating with NASA, it is our oldest partner and we are still cooperating with them, and, especially in science onboard the ISS; but we have diversified a lot of our international cooperation. We have more and more cooperation with Russia, but we are cooperating also with China, with Japan, with India, with almost all space-powers in the world. We are even cooperating with countries which have no space systems, because we are sharing our data with a lot of African countries, or South Americans. If there’s one to pick in which ESA can teach the world is that of international cooperation. Very simple – it’s because ESA is an international cooperation venture.
SS: You have 20 countries.
JJD: We have 20 countries, I am working with my colleagues that are coming from 21 nationalities, we are cooperating every day – this is the reason why I think that we have good experience of international cooperation.
SS: Let me ask you something: does ESA just spend-spend-spend the money, or do you make up for it? Do you ever think that you should become more commercial?
JJD: First of all, we are not making space crafts by ourselves – we are contracting the activities to industries. We are governmental agency, and clearly, we are using industry to make the spacecraft, so the expertise is with the industry. Our role is also not only to ask European industry to make our missions, but our role is also to develop competitiveness of European industry on the world market. I think that the result is not so bad, meaning that European industry is benefiting not only from money of government, but also they are very competitive on the world market and they are developing, they have business on the world market.
SS:You have said recently that ESA doesn’t exclude defense work, despite the general mission statement being for peaceful purposes only. What exactly does that mean, and why take that way?
JJD: At least in Europe, the European defense policies are very peaceful. I have not read any line in the European defense policy which was aggressive; and the peaceful purpose of the ESA convention is just the peaceful purpose of the Treaty of Space. There is a lot of signatures of the Treaty of Space which are using space for defense purposes – provided its for peaceful purposes. We are not a civilian agency, we are not a defense agency – but we are an agency for peaceful purposes. We are authorized to work for any activity which is peaceful, and that can include some defense activities, provided that they are for peace.
SS: I want to just specify a little bit about that, because some people, when you say “defense policy” – you think, automatically, “NATO”. Do you know what I mean? So, you could use space for positioning and see how you troops are positioned, for example – could something like that be part of defense policy in ESA?
JJD: Why not? When I compare European, and not even speaking just of ESA, when I compare space activities in Europe to space activities in U.S. – what are missing is the defense part… The biggest space agency of the world is not NASA, it’s the U.S. Department of Defense. The budget of space of the U.S. department of Defense is much larger than the budget of NASA. While in Europe most of what we are doing is coming from civilian budget sources. That is a choice. In U.S., GPS is a military program. In Europe, Galileo is civilian program. But as I said many times, the one is using the signal on ground, the satellite does not care if the user is civilian or military – he is just giving the time and position. Europe has made a choice to finance the biggest part of space from civilian budget sources, but it’s a choice. Today, there are European Defense programs, which are peaceful – there is no reason for ESA not to be instrument of that.
SS: We’re going to get to exploring Mars and technologies we need for that – but before, I would like to talk about the Chelyabinsk meteor, because once it happened, it fell down, all of us realized that technologies here on Earth to defend us certainly aren’t perfect. I mean, scientists have admitted that small space objects – they can cause damage, and as of today there are more than 20 million space stones orbiting around us. How come, with that amount of stones there are so little collisions that actually take place? Is that, what, like, divine providence?
JJD: Oh, I must I say that it’s a question of statistics, but do you refer to natural stones or…
SS: What is a meteor if it’s not a big stone?
JJD: Ok, so this is a natural stone, this is not debris or the human-made…
SS: No, no, we’re going to talk about debris later.
JJD: It’s more a question of statistics. As you know, there are stones which are coming down on planet Earth since centuries. These are small stones, but there were big collisions with big stones on planet Earth. That may happen and this is one of the threats that we have on planet Earth.
SS: Are we helpless? Could, theoretically, a meteor destroy life on Earth?
JJD: Certainly, yes.
SS: And are we helpless against them?
JJD: I hope not. I think there’s no perspective of such collision in foreseeable future that we know of. We can more and more detect the trajectories of these stones and I have no knowledge that in the foreseeable future there will be the risk of such collision – I am convinced that in, not even in terms of centuries, but in term of million years. Planet Earth is still there for 5 bn years, and it’s a long time. I cannot bet myself – I would not be there anymore to verify it. During this long time…maybe, there is some risk of big collision. What I hope is that at the time this type of risk will become important, we would have means to deviate the trajectory of such stone. As know NASA is looking at how they can go to an asteroid – and this is exactly for this type of a risk. It’s to see how you can reach an asteroid, how you can act on that asteroid, changing its trajectory and moving it from place to another – and this is a precursor of what could be shielded to protect planet Earth from this type of risk.
SS: You know, in your early days when you were thinking about exploration, it was so romanticized and every kid was dreaming to become an astronaut or cosmonaut. How you teach – you teach in colleges, you are an honorary professor – how has the interest in the space exploration changed? When you talk to your students, what do you tell them to aspire for?
JJD: I think that each child, because I meet children and up to students – I think that they are all interested in exploration and space. I think that space is still very inspiring.
SS:What do you tell them? Because, once human being went to the moon, it was obvious that we could actually walk on other planets. What do you tell them now, because the moon is done. What do you tell them? “We should conquer Mars”? Are you actually an advocate of Mars colonization?
JJD: Colonization – I don’t know, but we should certainly go to Mars with humans, and we should certainly stay on Mars – humans will stay on Mars, I think it is just a matter of calendar. I never said that it’s not “if” – it’s “when”. We have some time. If you go to Mars 10 years later – what’s the difference? It may make a difference for me, because I will not see it, but it will not make a difference for humanity. I must say, if we had gone to North Pole 50 years later than today – it would not change anything. I am convinced, yes, that humans will go to Mars, for me it’s not a question, it’s just a calendar.
SS: I’m just trying to understand what’s at the root of…you’re saying “exploration is inherent for mankind, exploration makes us human and it must involve a human presence” – so you are for human presence everywhere, but – is it exploration just for discovery or exploration to conquer?
JJD: I think it’s more for discovery and also to make the future on planet Earth possible. I must say that there is no alternative of planet Earth for humanity. This is maybe something that we have learned from space. There is no other place where this humanity can live. We cannot live on different planets in Solar System and going to an exoplanet will be much too far away, at least with the technologies that we know. So, we have no alternatives but to stay together on planet Earth. Now, does that mean that we should continue to find all resources that we need just on planet Earth, that it’s number one, and maybe we should find some raw sources in other planets or on the Moon, for example- I don’t know. That is number one, number two – going to the other planet is also to understand what is future of planet Earth. Couple of billions of years ago, Mars, Earth and Venus were sister planets – and we have evolved very differently. There was water on Mars, we know it, the was, certainly, an atmosphere around Mars. Where is the water? We still find some traces. Where is the atmosphere? Today, we are living on planet Earth because there is water and atmosphere, so understanding why Mars has changed so dramatically since its creation would be certainly very interesting, to understand where we are going to ourselves. So, planet Earth is not isolated. I remember, that I ever started a speech by saying “space does not belong to Earth”, it’s the Earth which belongs to space, and we don’t have a chance to understand planet Earth if we don’t understand the overall system where we are living in, so I think that the Moon is not anymore “something” – it belongs to our environment. Mars – also, Venus – also, so I think that we have to understand that and we have to explore, because exploring Mars is also exploring planet Earth. Our future is on planet Earth, and we have to make our future possible. I am sure that our future on planet Earth, for humanity – not for me, it’s too late – but, to make the future of humanity on planet Earth possible we’d better understand the system we are living in.
SS: For a while now, space actually has been a field of cooperation rather than competition – compared to what happens on Earth, so we do many things together – but I think there’s still, like, a little bit of politics in it, because China is growing and its space program is growing, and it’s very promising – and Americans don’t really seem too keen on that. How do you breach the gap?
JJD: For me, the future is made of global cooperation – we should not exclude any country from the global exploration of space. I am convinced that we have to explore space together. Within global cooperation we can find different clusters of cooperation. This is same at ESA, and I am just taking the model of ESA. We have 20 member states, but within these 20 member states we can have 10 member states working together on the launcher, 6 others to work on another satellite and so on – and this is the way I see the future of global cooperation, meaning that we are today cooperating with the U.S., Russia, Canada and Japan on ISS. When I was in China we have made trilateral meetings between Russia, China and ESA to see how we can cooperate together, and this is not against the others, this is just another cluster of cooperation.
SS: So you are not one of those who are like “oh, China is the future of the space exploration” – because it’s so huge economically, now – economic future is in China, and people are saying that space exploration future is also in China. You don’t think like that?
JJD: No, I wish to cooperate with China, but China is not the only one. We have to continue to cooperate with the U.S., it’s not choosing between China and U.S. We can cooperate with U.S., we can cooperate with Russia, we can cooperate with China on different types of programs…
SS: How about India? It also has ambitions to go to Mars. Are you cooperating with them?
JJD: We have some cooperation with India, and we have provided some payload on some lunar missions of India, so, yes, India is also an interesting partner.
SS: Now, you aren’t very enthusiastic about the future of the ISS. Why?
JJD: I think with the ISS we have crossed a fantastic step, which was to reconcile the Western world and Eastern world – for me the ISS is the symbol…we have broken the walls on ground, but we have broken the walls also in orbit, and the ISS is, again, the merge between Mir-2 and Space Station Freedom. When I came to ESA I was on Space Station Freedom and Space Station Freedom was the station of the Western world. There was Mir, and I am so glad that we could arrive in situation where instead of having two different space stations we have only one – it took time, it took efforts, it took energy. We even have crossed drama with space shuttle accident, but at the end, we have built a partnership; I am quoting my previous colleague, Mike Griffin – “We have built a partnership which will last much longer than the hardware” – so I am more enthusiastic about the partnership of the ISS that by the hardware itself. I think that the hardware will come to an end. Today, our plan is to be part of the space station until 2020 – I know that the U.S., Russia, they are considering to extend the space station till 2028. We shall see if we, ourselves, would join them until 2028, it’s not yet decided, we are working to see if its worthwhile. So, I am much more enthusiastic on the work which has been done to build up this partnership than by the hardware itself.
SS:But, when you have that amount of partnership and that amount of common space exploration done, it becomes more than just a piece of metal and just more than a hardware – how hard it is to say “goodbye” to the project?
JJD: It’s always a pity to stop mission, but I am always glad that when I stop a mission, there is another mission coming. So, what I would like is to stop the ISS, but to have already something even better to do after the ISS, and that is the important thing. So, yes, I am always sad to close house, but if it is to have even better house following that – it’s not so difficult.
SS: Well, we wish you all the best in your endeavors. Jean Jacques Dordain, the president and the head of the ESA, thank you so much for this interview.
JJD: Thank you.
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