Josef Aschbacher (Ellmau, Austria, 61 years old) is a doctor of natural sciences and director general of the European Space Agency. At its controls it has a giant formed by 22 countries that performs amazing missions of observation of the Earth, exploration of other worlds and also stars beyond ours. The organization faces one of its most decisive moments due to the global geopolitical situation and the new race to reach the Moon and exploit all its resources. In this interview, granted last week at the headquarters of EL PAÍS, Aschbacher details what he expects Europe's role to be in that race and encourages governments to become a space power of the first order.
China finds a huge water reserve on the Moon
Question. What are its origins?
Answer. My parents are farmers in a small mountain village, about an hour from Innsbruck. I was born and raised on the farm and since I was a child I had to work. I was walking to school, almost an hour's walk, down the mountain back and about. It was a good walk, at seven years old, with the backpack. When I got home I worked in the fields, cleaning the stables. I was the first of six siblings and as such my destiny was to inherit the farm and stay there. Then there was not much entertainment, the only thing was reading books. Every day he borrowed one from the village priest, who had a small library, and the next day he returned for another. They were fine books. One day he said to me, "It's impossible for you to be reading a book a day." But it was true. I stayed up very late reading with a flashlight. I was very curious and kept reading and absorbing everything. The farm did not interest me, what I wanted was to discover the world. At the age of 12, the time came. Either I went to Innsbruck to continue studying or I stayed and in two years I took over the farm. My parents didn't want me to study. It took me quite an effort to convince them, at age 12!
Q. What do you think now about you being the head of ESA?
A. I think they do not understand very well what it is or what it entails. But they're happy [laughs]. My third brother has turned out to be an excellent farmer and he is the one who takes everything now much better than me. I am the first and only one in my family who went to college.
Q. The war in Ukraine has divided the world into two blocks and it seems that the confrontation between the two also reaches space with the new race to the Moon.
A. It's the first time in history that something like this has happened, probably. In the past, on most occasions, the space was an area of encounter and cooperation between countries of very different political signs; even in times of the Cold War, with all its conflicts and tensions. This has changed drastically due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ESA had a large joint project with Russia, Exomars, which had been underway for 12 years and in which we had invested more than 1,000 million euros and Russia another many, approximately. After the invasion it became clear that this could not continue. What I did as Director-General was to consult the Member States and recommend an action plan to them. The decision was to cancel all cooperation with Russia. The same has happened with the rest of the joint projects. And I can tell you it's not an easy decision. Over the years we had built a strong industrial partnership and now we have to find a way to start from scratch and do it all on our own, with new allies.
Q. Do you think the situation will change in the future?
A. I don't see how cooperation can go back to what it was before the war. It is impossible to know what will happen in 20 years, but certainly in the medium term, this division of blocks will last for quite some time.
Q. What is going to happen to the main area of cooperation that remains between the two blocs, the International Space Station?
A. Europe has a firm commitment to continue operating the station until the end of this decade, in 2030. United States, Canada, Japan, too. Russia has recently stated that it will support operations at least until 2028. We do not know if that date will continue their collaboration. But I think there's a good chance the facility will operate until the end of the decade. What is also clear is that this is the limit. In its 2024 budget proposal, the White House has already set aside funds to deorbit the station in 2031, so that will be the date of its end.
Q. You have said that no nation can be a superpower if it is not a space power. Is Europe a space power?
A. Europe shows great excellence in space in areas such as Earth observation, science, telecommunications, satellite navigation. In those fields we are at the first level next to the United States or China. In other respects, however, we do not reach this level at all. One of them is rockets. We were leaders in this sector 10 years ago, but the launcher market has completely changed. [ESA faces a problem because its largest rocket, Ariane 5, has ceased operations and the successor, Ariane 6, is considerably behind schedule. Meanwhile, rockets developed by private companies such as Space X increasingly have more market share and promise to even be able to carry cargo and astronauts to the Moon for a much lower price, since they are reusable].
Nor are we up to the task in human and robotic space exploration, where we are far from the United States, China and India, which will soon have the capacity to launch their astronauts into space. Our economic power is almost comparable to that of the United States or China. This isn't just about launching astronauts into space, there's so much more. Human exploration of space has enormous geopolitical potential. Imagine if we could be like the United States, which launches its astronauts and also invites other nations to collaborate, now on the space station and in the coming years, also on the Moon. This is a clear show of power and it is something that Europe does not have.
Josef Aschbacher, Director General of ESA. at the headquarters of EL PAÍS on May 9. Luis Sevillano
Q. Are we falling behind?
A. There is another important variable. The low orbit of the Earth and the Moon are going to become new economic zones. There are resources to exploit on the Moon and it will be the largest center of human exploration in the coming years. When I say future economic zone it is not for next year, but for the next decade onwards. This is going to happen, whether we are on board or not. The United States, China, India and to a lesser extent Japan lead the way. How can Europe, with so much space excellence, so much economic power and so many brilliant engineers and scientists, stay out? If we want to remain an economic power, we have to become a space power.
China is applying this argument perfectly: it uses space as a symbol to confirm itself as a superpower. China has declared that by 2049 they want to be a superpower, if not the biggest of all, and use space as one more way to achieve it. The United States has followed this strategy since the sixties of the last century. Russia also continues to do so.
Q. Is it realistic to think that Europe can do it too?
A. Of course. We can do this if we put all the necessary elements together and make the right political decisions. Is Europe prepared to make this determination? We have the technology to do that.
Q. Is there already a detailed plan?
A. We do not have an agreed plan of action. What we are going to do is build on this report to start negotiations with ESA Member States and prepare a decision to be taken later this year, at the space summit in Seville. We are preparing all the necessary documents and cost estimates so that the representatives of each country can make a decision. This does not have to be an exclusive activity of the European Union, it can be much broader. We have an open architecture involving all ESA members, including the UK, Switzerland and Norway. And I think we can invite other countries outside our environment. I think of Japan or the United Arab Emirates or others. You have to press their interest. All this in cooperation with the United States, of course.
Q. The UAE is advancing very fast in space thanks to a huge investment and the hiring of Western scientists. Saudi Arabia is also making great progress, sending two astronauts on a private mission to the space station in a few weeks. These non-democratic countries have a long history of violating human rights, women's rights and use space to whitewash their international image.
A. It is a very important question. This is something that we have to take into account and that the ESA countries must discuss. I believe that as a starting point we must be open about the architecture of the project and then, of course, analyze in detail each of the elements. It is not a matter that can be answered with a resounding yes or no.
Q. ESA has just selected its new astronauts When will we see the first European to step on the Moon?
A. We have five new European astronauts who have now started training, including Pablo [Alvarez]. Last week I met him. He is very motivated. These five astronauts are candidates to travel to the International Space Station, not the Moon. The European astronauts who go to the Moon within the Artemis program [led by the United States] will leave the class of 2009, professionals who have already flown to the space station. This until 2030. From then on, these new astronauts could go to the satellite.
A. It is not yet decided. What we do know is that we have three seats in Artemis missions. One in Artemis 4, another in the 5, and one more place that is not yet fixed and that right now we are negotiating with NASA.
Q. Will the astronauts of any of them step on the Moon?
A. Depends on. The plan is for Artemis 3 to land on the Moon. Most likely, there will be only Americans. The 4 and 5 will likely be to build Gateway, the new orbital space station on the Moon. And future missions depend on how everything progresses. Now the United States is focused on launching the Artemis 2 by the end of 2024. Based on it, the final design of the next three will be decided.
Q. On science, may the next big horizon for ESA be to bring samples of an icy moon to Earth for the first time that could contain traces of life?
A. We have just launched Juice and it still has a way to go, in 2031. We will be studying the moons of Jupiter for two years and we will get very interesting information about their habitability. In July, we launched Euclid, a completely different mission that will study fundamental questions in astrophysics, dark energy, and dark matter. This mission is going to give us new data impossible to obtain otherwise. Then there are other scientific missions already decided: Ariel, Plato, Smile, Lisa, Athena. You mention a mission to collect samples from an icy moon. This is something that has not yet been decided. It is a proposal. From a scientific point of view it would be very interesting to go to a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, land and analyze if there are traces of life. This is crucial, but realistically, it will take time. You have to decide whether to carry out the mission, design it and then another 10 years of travel to these planets with current technology. Therefore, we are talking about something that if it happens, it will be within several decades, but it is in our plans, of course.
Q. What role does ESA play in the fight against climate change?
A. Climate change is going to be humanity's greatest challenge for many decades. Space can contribute a lot in this field. It helps us to observe the planet, take its pulse literally thanks to satellites, have extremely valuable information and use it to take urgent measures, such as decarbonizing the economy and measuring emissions... We are critical to decarbonizing the economy and better understanding climate change.
Q. You are more or less halfway through your term, what would you like to see be your greatest achievement when this period ends, in 2025?
A. Raise Europe one or two more levels in the world of space powers to be at the level of NASA.
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