With the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the American space program has come to a halt - at least for now. Deutsche Welle spoke to German astronaut Hans Schlegel about the future role for Europe in space.
The ISS is seen as a triumph in cooperation by Schlegel
Hans Schlegel flew into space with the second German Spacelab mission aboard the US Space Shuttle Columbia. In February 2008 he was aboard the Atlantis (STS-122) to fly the European space laboratory Columbus to the International Space Station.
Deutsche Welle: Herr Schlegel, would you like to take off on the Atlantis for one more mission?
Hans Schlegel: Of course. One of those taking part, Rex Wallheim, was also aboard out mission three years ago when we took the European research module Columbus up into space. But flying on missions is not the only role that an astronaut has. Astronauts are also there to help their colleagues in the preparation and implementation of missions. That is what I am doing, now as I have done previously in Houston, mainly for the European astronauts. Europe now has six new astronauts and is now flying an astronaut to the international space station almost every year, I am satisfied with my task of supporting them.
In your opinion, should the shuttle keep on flying?
It could have continued to fly, but this is a decision that became impossible to reverse a long time ago and something we have to live with. We are discontinuing something which had served its purpose and was admittedly too dangerous.
For this reason money is available to initiate development in the private sector, some of which is already taking place.
Atlantis is taking off for the final time, representing the end of an era
In the next year it will be decided which two, or perhaps even only one, of the possible options we will concentrate on for putting objects into orbit close to the Earth. Where all of this is leading and how we are going to be able to use this practically is something about which we still have no idea. The main thing is that we can provide the international spaced station with experimental equipment, personnel and supplies until the year 2020.
Is the commercialization of space the best step forward for America?
Most certainly. And it is also a huge opportunity for us Europeans. We must be clear that, in the end, the Americans and NASA are not left alone to take space travel forward. Cooperation is already taking place with links being forged across the Atlantic and help from European states, organized by the European Space Agency but also from national agencies such as the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
During this ambitious project we have become so inextricably linked that I have always stressed that we are a role model of how to approach and implement ambitious projects on a worldwide basis.
By "we" do you mean the European Space Agency?
I mean we as Europeans, we as people. We are seven billion astronauts on this, our mothership Earth. I think that the best experience of my 23 years as an astronaut has been the opportunity to help in shaping the cooperation between east and west and between north and south. It is wonderful to be able to see how trust in one another, and the dependence on each other grows and grows. That is fantastic.
So it would be no problem for you if the Americans lost their leading role in western space travel?
I think that it would be a bit extreme to say that. I think that the Americans, now as before, feel themselves to be the leading nation and to an extent that is true. However, with the end of the space shuttle there is only one nation that has access to low Earth orbit space flight and that is Russia. But as we said, that is not the deciding factor, the deciding factor is that we, in partnership, can go about reaching our goals. It is the benefit that comes from that which I think is most important.
Hans Schlegel is optimistic about Europe's future role
Is the legacy of both the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle that there has been a lot of international cooperation?
Yes. The International Space Station will continue to operate until 2020. It is also the legacy of the Russian space station Mir. Just think about it - 15 years ago we had the American-Russian Mir-Shuttle program. The shuttle flew to MIR, docked there and provided MIR with supplies as it has been doing more recently for the ISS. That was a fresh experience for the Americans and it all showed them that ambitious goals can be reached through international cooperation.
And do you see Europe remaining committed, despite the current atmosphere of austerity?
Tight budgets are always relative. It is of course an important task to keep them balanced - the stability of our world depends upon it. That's the first thing I would say but, and here comes the big 'but': The economic power of the Europeans taken together is significantly greater than the economic power of the Americans and we should not be faint-hearted.
If we want to and if we decide to, then we can help to shape almost every project that is being proposed, including those on earth. That task naturally is not the responsibility of a single European national government, rather something that depends on interaction between European countries.
Author: Christina Bergmann / rc
Editor: Andreas Illmer