Dr. Thomas Reiter: Space flight – An indispensable element of the economy, science, politics and society

Landmark achievements in space exploration are often marked by spectacular events such as the first manned space flight in 1961 or – not even ten years later – the moon landing. Yet when we think of space exploration, other events of a more terrestrial nature in particular, do not naturally come to mind. Nevertheless, their after-effects are felt to the present day.

Cooperation in space started fifty years ago with the founding of the two predecessor organisations of the European Space Agency ESA. Today, ESA is Europe’s leading space agency and one of the few such organisations worldwide which covers the full array of space activities. These range from the classical space sciences and exploration, Earth observation, the fields of navigation and communication to the main issue of reliable access to outer space. In particular, this includes the task of de­­veloping the space technologies of tomorrow.

The Space Year 2014 is an excellent example of these various enterprises. In January, the space probe ROSETTA reawakened after a ten-year journey through our solar system on its voyage to the comet Churyumov-­Gerasimenko. Scientific investigations began when the probe reached close proximity to the comet in August 2014. In late May 2014, the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst started his six-month sojourn on the International Space Station ISS, the largest international joint scientific project of all time, which has been orbiting the Earth for over 15 years. His Italian colleague Samantha Cristoforetti will take over from him in November, meaning that European astronauts will have been living and working on the extra-terrestrial research laboratory for almost an entire year. Mid-August 2014 saw the space vehicle “Georges Lemaître”, the last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), dock to the ISS fully automatically and just as easily as its four prede­­cessors. ATV supplied the crew with essential provisions and new research equipment.

Also in August 2014 another GALILEO satellite was launched. Together with the European Commission, ESA is laying the foundations for a comprehensive European navigation system, which will secure Europe’s independence in a key area. The first of ten SENTINEL satel­lites was launched in April. These SENTINEL missions will observe the Earth’s atmosphere, its surface and oceans, thereby making an important contribution to the international effort to understand our planet, including the questions related to climate change. All the aforementioned unmanned missions were launched on Ariane or Soyuz rockets from the Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

In December 2014, the ESA Council at Ministerial level will decide on the next generation of Euro­pean launchers in order to ensure Europe’s future access to outer space. It is fair to say that these are examples of a European success story.

However, successes of this kind do not just happen by themselves. The great diversity of the missions shows the broad range of knowledge and expertise available not only at ESA but also with partners in science and industry. To attribute these successes solely to the outstand­ing work and the expertise and ability of today’s teams misses as important point: today’s successes were made possible only by the decisions taken ten and more years ago.

Ultimately, these polit­­ical guidelines were only made possible because the decision-­­makers had agreed on common goals and be­­cause Europe had a com­­petent scientific and industrial base guaranteeing realistic prospects of success of such sophisticated space mis­sions with justifiable risk. This means in turn that we can expect successes in the mid­term future only if we pave the way for them today, define our common goals and have the courage to make the necessary decisions.

In a high-technology field such as spaceflight, not progressing means in the long term going back­wards. From planning and preparing a space mission to its successful implementation often takes one or two decades. It is absolutely vital that the coming generation of engineers and technicians be given the opportunity to work in this field not only to retain expertise and skills over such a long period but also to develop these further. Today, Europe is well positioned to master the challenges of the near future. However, many far-reaching decisions will have to be taken today for this observation to still stand in ten or twenty years’ time.

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One particular example is the field of exploration. All nations active in the field of space exploration agree that, in the next ten years, humans will leave Earth’s orbit and set out for further destin­ations. Even today, there are a large number of robotic missions, which are exploring our moon and Mars – an essential prerequisite for human beings to be able to push for­­ward to these worlds at a later date. There are good reasons for this: space exploration creates knowledge and skills that help us not only to overcome problems connected with outer space but eventually also here on Earth. Man’s advance into space will be accomplished in broad international, if not even global cooperation – an eloquent  testimony to the fact that space exploration opens up or keeps open channels of communication in politics and unites people all around the world in the best sense of the word. For the “soft power” Europe in particular, involvement in a both challenging and visible enterprise will be vital in order to make itself heard at global level in the future. If nothing else, the necessary pressure to find innovative solutions will strengthen European industry not only in the space sector but in many other areas as well.

Thomas Reiter was an ESA astronaut from 1992 to 2007 and the eighth German in outer space. He completed the first long-term ESA flight ever on the Russian space station Mir in 1995/96. On the same mission, he was the first German to go on a spacewalk. In 2006, he was also the first European to embark on a long-term space flight to the ISS. Today he is the ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations and Head of the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt.