Space is Politics

Nieuws | de redactie
12 maart 2014 | “The ultimate goal is Mars, but not for another 30 years,” predicts Jan Wörner, President of the German Aerospace Center DLR. Politics might be the bottleneck. “Understanding the past of our universe is not very interesting for politicians in the middle of a 4-year election period.”

“Space is not just about science, it is also about politics. Whatever we do in space has to be legitimate, since everything we do is funded by tax money. Therefore the first and most important question we always ask is the ‘why-question’”, Wörner explains at the Planetary Exploration Symposium in Delft, organized by VSV ‘Leonardo da Vinci’. 

Bottom-up space

“In the past other motivations played a major role. Why did we go to the dark side of the moon? The answer used to be: ‘because we could’, but that’s no longer enough. Since we use the taxpayer’s money we want to legitimize all our space activities. People understand we need communication satellites, but you have to convince people to see the advantages of space exploration. Or even better, you have to convince people to such an extent that they come to you and ask you to please go to Mars to look for water.” 

“We have to accept that there are a lot of different players in the field of space science, that they have a lot of different goals and want different actions. If you ask a taxpayer, a scientist and a politician what should be done, you get three different answers. Our goal as DLR and also as ESA is to take all these different views into consideration and look for common ground,” says the current chair of the ESA-Council. 

Space research is organized in a top-down way. “That has to change, in the future we should ask what the end users want, whether it be the general public or scientists, and need and the executive should make a strategy around that,” Wörner states. 

Space Race 

During the Cold War it was pretty clear that space was politics. It was the arena of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” President Kennedy stated on May 25, 1961. “Politically this is no longer correct, nowadays we would have definitely included ‘and a woman’,” Wörner jokes. 

“Don’t believe that Kennedy was really excited about the moon, he was excited by creating a common goal for America. It was a political approach and the Race to Space was very dramatic. Yuri Gagarin was in space on April 12, 1961 and his American colleague Alan Shephard followed only three weeks later. It was a race we can hardly imagine today,” Wörner says. 


Today the political reality is slightly different. This has large implications on how a mission is planned. “The ‘why-question’ in space should always be based on grand challenges. In the past we often did something and explained only after the mission why we did it. It’s good that we reversed this.” 

People see a lot of benefits to space missions when you explain what space-technology enables: weather predictions, global communication and more effective therapy for illnesses. Some motivations have less concrete results. “We go to space to understand the past, the present and the future of the universe. This is a motivation that politicians don’t share, because within the four years of an election period, the change in the universe won’t be that big.” 

Not waiting for Bruce Willis 

There is more to space than just the moon. The European Rosetta mission goes to the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and will – hopefully – land on the 11th of November this year. 

Another aspect of space that is very important but often forgotten is that the Earth’s orbit is getting crowded and not only with small particles. In 2009 two satellites, Iridium and Cosmos collided. “We have to do something about this. In addition, there is also the probability that meteorites will strike, like in Tsjeljabinsk last year. We can’t wait for Bruce Willis to solve the problem, we need to have technological systems. In Germany we’re currently building a system that will be able to catch an uncooperative satellite or particle and either maintain it in orbit, or securely bring it to Earth,” Wörner explains. 

An international endeavor 

“We should not forget to keep space collaboration international. It started with the cooperation between the American Apollo and the Soviet Soyuz. We have 43 years of human spaceflights and it is a success story, but it remains risky. The global cooperation that was a vision in the sixties has now been realized, with the International Space Station,” Wörner states.  

“The ISS is a big investment and we need to utilize it and that should go beyond housekeeping. It is not the proof of mankind in space, it is there for experiments and technology development.” A mission to Mars is a whole different ballgame. 

Go West, young man 

“If you have a problem in the ISS or on the moon, you can just call Houston. On Mars that is quite different, the signal takes already twenty minutes, one way. The other thing is, if you have a problem on Mars and you need to go back to Earth, it will take more than two years. Just think of all the dangerous health problems.” 

“Not only medically and technologically, but also psychologically a trip to Mars has very clear limits that we can’t just forget about. I don’t know how many thousands of young people are fascinated about a one-way trip to Mars. It is something quite different than the American story of ‘Go West young man’, where at least you had oxygen.” 

“When you go to Mars your daily life is finished. The first couple of months will be an adventure, but then it is just a question of survival. In my point of view human health and human dignity don’t allow a one-way trip to Mars.” However, Mars is the ultimate goal, but not for the next 30 years and not without a synergy between humans and robots, Wörner predicts.

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