Former astronaut Thomas Reiter told DW why he believes space travel is important and what's ahead for the European Space Agency in the coming years. Two big goals: putting man back on the moon and onto Mars.
DW: Why do you think events like the German Aerospace Day, which takes place in at the DLR in Cologne on Sunday, are important? Why do you participate?
Thomas Reiter: There's always an important aspect of sharing all these experiences of aviation and certainly of space flight with the broad public to fascinate them, to show them what past investments of public money and taxes have led to. And days like this are an excellent way to demonstrate that. I think the attendance in the past years, which has been increasing if I look back let's say over a time of ten years, indicates that there is a rising interest for such events.
People are really interested in the area of spaceflight in general and human spaceflight in particular. This is very rewarding for us.
You are now the director of ESA's Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations, but you've been to space twice as an astronaut. If the opportunity came up, would you like to go back to space? And where would you like to go?
Of course, having been in space, I wouldn't have to be asked twice if there were an opportunity. But it's purely hypothetical, of course. I have a different role now and we have an excellent, remarkable corps of young astronauts, some of whom have flown very recently: Andreas Mogensen returned, so did Samantha Cristoforetti. Timothy Peake is getting ready to fly to the space station in December and next year Thomas Pesquet from France. It's their turn to fly now.
What is next in terms of space travel, what can we expect in the upcoming years?
ESA has defined three destinations for exploration. One is the low Earth orbit, which at the moment means the International Space Station, where we are using this platform to do a wide field of scientific research, fundamental and applied research for the benefit of mankind in general, but also to develop our capabilities and technologies to do further human exploration.
The second destination is of course the moon. There, I really hope we will see the return of humans to the surface of the moon in the second half of the next decade. I think this is very realistic, but it's certainly something that can only be done and achieved if we do that in an international context.
The third destination is Mars. This is a little bit more longterm. We are currently in a phase of robotic exploration of our neighboring planet to understand more about this environment, to answer questions like "Has there been or is there still life on this planet?" That's also an important aspect of preparing a future human mission to Mars - but that, I would expect today, will take some time. For now, ESA is preparing the exo-Mars missions, which consist of flights that will be launched next year and, two years later, bringing a rover to the surface of Mars.
We also have a collaboration with our partners from the United States from NASA. We're building the so-called surface module for the Orion spacecraft. This spacecraft will bring humans beyond low-Earth orbit. The maiden flight, still unmanned, will take place in 2018. The first manned flight is currently planned for 2020. So we will see humans going beyond low Earth orbit again, going around the moon.
What is the exact time frame? When will we see man on Mars?
From the level of knowledge and the capabilities we are developing, getting man back to the moon and onto Mars could happen in the second half of the next decade. I would say from 2025 till 2030 - in this time frame, we could see humans returning to the moon. Always provided that the partners agree, together with Europe, to take this path.
Does Germany play an important role when it comes to ESA's various projects?
Definitely yes. Germany is one of the strongest supporters of the ISS program - about 37 percent of this budget is funded by Germany. So of course I count on the further support of Germany, but also of the all the other member states who are participating in this program. Eleven of ESA's 22 member states are participating in the ISS project. Germany has played a very important role in this and I hope this continues, not only for the ISS but also for further exploration activities in general.
Critics say that the billions spent on space programs should better be invested here on Earth. What do you say to people who ask "Shouldn't we use this money to deal with Earthly issues like the refugee crisis instead?"
This is indeed an important and certainly a valid question. Of course, we see that we have a critical situation at the moment with refugees. As for long-term issues, we have things to take care of like climate change. Those are problems humanity needs to deal with. But I think we are doing that.
Specifically, all this research, all the activities ESA and its partners are doing in space - they will not always bring a direct return tomorrow, but it is preparing the future. Therefore, I think it is a good investment. With all investments, we need to be focused on not only what will happen tomorrow or in a week, but on what will happen in ten or twenty years. That's why I think our investments are important.
Thomas Reiter was the first German astronaut to perform a space walk during his time at the MIR space station from September 1995 till February 1996. He returned to space in 2006 as part of ESA's first long-duration mission to the ISS. Today, he is the director of ESA's Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations