Space exploration depends on political will

It has just been 50 years since the launch of ‘Sputnik’ and, with it, the start of the space race. What was the use of all the money invested in it?

Space is an investment. Often we don’t know what we’re investing in, that’s true. In the 1960s, when the first trip to the Moon was planned, we had no idea what we were going to achieve. That tape recorder you use, for example. Everything that is digital, and everything that is miniaturized, comes out of the space race. In addition to the exploration of the unknown, which is characteristic of the human being, the space race provides us with things that we cannot foresee but that end up changing the world in which we live.

And are manned missions still necessary? Robots have evolved so much that some people argue about it.

I recently agreed with the principal investigator of the rovers mission on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity. They had a three-month mission planned and have been there for years. As he explained to me, what those robots should have done in three months could have been done by one person in one day. I’m not saying that human exploration is more important than robotics. I think both have to be done because we don’t yet have the technology to get humans to Mars. But the day will come when we have it.

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When will that be?

In 30 or 40 years we will reach Mars. And we will go back to the Moon, before then, in 2020. It’s not science fiction, vehicles are already being designed for it. The next U.S. space vehicle will be called Orion, and the first manned launch will be in 2014 for the International Space Station (ISS). We’ll get to the moon in 2020, or maybe 2025; big money programs always fall behind. But if there aren’t big changes in U.S. space policy, we’ll be there in 10 or 15 years. It’s about establishing an exploration base for the Mars voyage.

What will be the future of the ISS if the Moon becomes the base for space exploration?

All the documentation says it will be finished by the end of 2015, but I’m sure the modules will last longer. The station can survive that date. Like all space exploration, manned and unmanned, it is a matter of political will.

NASA has decided to stop using shuttle ships to use soyuz ones. But they are less technologically advanced…

Shuttles are much more sophisticated, but the decision was more of a budget. We have three programmes, the IEE programme, the shuttle programme and the Orion programme, and funding all three is very expensive.

Does NASA need more money?

As a customer I will always say yes, but today we have a budget above what we have had in recent years. You can’t compare it to the Apollo era, but it’s more than we had lately.

In recent months, countries like China, Japan or India have announced missions to the Moon. Is this new space race positive?

The director general of NASA says, and I don’t know if he really says it, that when we get to the Moon there is still a Chinese flag there. He does believe it can be a catalyst for our political will. I think it’s a good thing.

How do you see European industry?

Europe has been prepared to launch a manned ship for quite a few years now. What is lacking is that political and public will which, in other words, is money.

The possibility of life on Mars is being discussed these days, but is that the aim of space exploration? Isn’t this obsession with extraterrestrial life a way of promoting missions?

That’s an interesting question. It should not be obsession, but we return to the same subject: all this depends on money, which, in turn, depends on political will and this, in the end, depends on public will. If we can encourage people thinking that we are going to find extraterrestrials, or at least a sign that there has been life, the public is more interested. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it is.

So it’s a marketing tool…

It’s like sensationalism. He sells newspapers, but ideally that’s not the case.

ESA (European Space Agency) has just opened a selection process to look for new astronauts. What qualities do you think they should have?

I think three things are needed. One is to know how to work in a team, another is to have experience and operational ability (to know how to use machines and tools) and the third is to learn quickly. And to react quickly, too.

And is the work as fascinating as you might think?

Yes, travelling into space is incredible, but apart from that, having the opportunity to participate in an event like this, and to sit at a table with five Nobel Prize winners, would never have happened if I had not been an astronaut. I’m sure every astronaut would say the same thing, that we’ve been very lucky to get this job. We have won the lottery.