ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner interview on his proposal of a Moon Village, the quest for exploration and 3D printing in space.
The International Space Station brought spacefaring nations together in an impressive endeavour of international cooperation – what comes next?
The future of space travel needs a new vision. Right now we have the Space Station as a common international project, but it won't last forever. Based on all the experience we are gaining with the Station, good and bad, we should look for a common international exploration activity for the future.
You already envisage the ‘Moon Village’. What exactly do you mean by this term?
If I say Moon Village, it does not mean single houses, a church, a town hall and so on. No, that would be misleading. My idea only deals with the core of the concept of a village: people working and living together in the same place. And this place would be on the Moon.
In the Moon Village we would like to combine the capabilities of different spacefaring nations, with the help of robots and astronauts. The participants can work in different fields, perhaps they will conduct pure science and perhaps there will even be business ventures like mining or tourism.
How do you respond to the “been there, done that” view of the Moon?
No human has ever visited the far side of the Moon. Astronomers want to set up radio telescopes there because it is shaded from Earth’s radio pollution. Building a telescope with innovative techniques like 3Dprinting, perhaps using lunar soil, would enable us to look much deeper into the Universe.
No human has ever visited the lunar pole regions, where unmanned missions found water ice. Water is an important resource, because you can produce rocket propellant and oxygen from it. Both lunar regions are scientifically very promising places. The Moon Village would also act as a ‘pit stop’ for the further exploration of the Universe.
Why is it important to continue on the path of space exploration?
This is the central question. We do it not just for science and for technology, but also for inspiration and international cooperation. And going to the Moon – this time in a totally different manner – meets all these criteria. Additionally, it helps with planetary defence, which means protecting Earth from the hazards of impacting asteroids or comets. To venture into the unknown is in our genes, curiosity has always been a very strong driver for humankind. And exploration is especially part of the European heritage.
Where did the Moon Village idea come from?
We were sitting with a number of space experts during the April 2015 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, USA, discussing the future of space exploration. And I said: “Let’s put up a list of requirements for future space activities.” As it turned out, the list was very long: human and robotic space travel, science, technology, medicine and microgravity research, and so on. My finding on that day was: we need at least two different large-scale projects for all these requirements.
First we need the means to reach low Earth orbit – take experiments up there, back and forth, faster than we do it today to the Space Station. This is the requirement for microgravity research. And for the many other topics we need something like the Moon Village.
What feedback do you receive from the US when you talk about aiming for the Moon again? NASA seems to have a clear focus on Mars.
ESA is eager to fly to Mars as well. For more than a decade, we have had a very successful spacecraft orbiting there. And now, with ExoMars, two unmanned missions are aiming at martian orbit and the surface. Yes, the Americans want to send astronauts to Mars one day, but today's technology isn't prepared for this trip yet. For example, we must develop countermeasures against the cosmic radiation that endangers the health of humans on long space trips. And we have to learn how to endure longer periods of time in space, not only in low orbit as on the Space Station.
This is where our Moon comes into play – it is the perfect stepping stone to Mars. Recently, I talked to Charlie Bolden, the administrator of NASA. He endorsed the idea of a Moon Village. He said to me, “We will go together.” NASA is considering ‘cislunar’ activities, which could mean space stations near the Moon. The idea of the Moon Village is like an envelope where different activities can fit in.
Could the Moon Village work as a purely robotic endeavour?
I can imagine astronauts on the Moon along with robots and unmanned rovers. Or the robots and rovers could be remotely controlled from a manned lunar space station. Yes, in principle the Moon Village could be robots only, but the idea is to bring together the whole diversity of spacefaring nations. Therefore, I am quite sure that some nations would send astronauts, cosmonauts or taikonauts as well.
Could the relationship between the US and China be a showstopper for China's participation in the Moon Village?
It is true that currently the US Congress doesn't want to cooperate with China in a common project like the International Space Station, but the situation with the Moon Village would be different. I think we should bridge these earthly problems, and I'm sure that it can be achieved in the end.