European Space Agency Director General Johann Dietrich Woerner

Space agencies must change or become extinct says ESA head

The European Space Agency will have to evolve and adjust to the changing and increasingly commercialised international space industry or there may not be room for it in future, the agency’s director general Johann Dietriech Woerner has told E&T.

Speaking to   at the Space for Inspiration conference in London, Woerner said the international space sector is currently transitioning to what he described as Space 4.0, a space counterpart to the Industry 4.0 concept, the drive towards automation and increasing reliance on data that is changing the current manufacturing sector.

“Space 4.0 is not only about opening up more to the commercial sector and an increasing number of space-faring nations,” Woerner said. “It’s also about an increasing public engagement and involvement. The public is using space infrastructure much more than in the past and is actually trying to be engaged in space.”

This engagement and understanding is crucial for the public to support its governments to invest into space, the benefits of which, Woerner said, will only be fully appreciated in the future.

“It’s not only about technology spin-offs – technologies originally developed for space that later found commercial use on Earth,” Woerner explained. “We are now also increasingly looking at technologies that were originally developed for the Earth that could benefit us.”

However, the public may be less inclined to support costly development programmes of government-funded space agencies if private companies, such as American SpaceX, can offer the same for less. SpaceX has not only shaken up the satellite launch market but the firm’s CEO Elon Musk has already announced an ambition to land on Mars, an endeavour previously associated only with Nasa and other state-funded space agencies.

Public support for space may also waver in the face of other palpable problems on Earth such as migration, terrorism and economic difficulties in large parts of Europe.

How the space sector will evolve, however, is not clear and flexible thinking is more important than ever.

“If we are not flexible, we may follow in the footsteps of some of those companies that did not understand the shift from traditional to digital photography, or the move from telefax machines to emails,” Woerner said. ”Some of these dinosaurs died out and now it’s the space agencies that have to understand that there is a shift of paradigm. There is not one solution for the challenges of the future; we have to be flexible and we have to always try to somewhat anticipate the change and provide some answers about how we could go forward.”

In the Space 4.0 era, international collaboration goes beyond what’s happening on Earth, Woerner said. He pointed out that the operations of the International Space Station have not suffered from the worsening relationships between Russia and the western world. The same applies, he says, also for cooperation between the UK and the rest of Europe, which will continue despite Brexit.

“My dream has always been as Winston Churchill proposed, to have the United States of Europe one day,” Woerner said. “This is clearly not happening but what we can have is United Space of Europe. And by that I don’t mean a simple merger, that means to take the national assets that we have, the space agencies, the human capital, all the different entities and join forces for the sake of the world.”

The concept of a lunar village, which Woerner introduced shortly after taking up duty as director general of ESA last year, could be a future hallmark of this ‘space collaboration without boundaries'.

“The Moon is interesting not only from the scientific point of view but also from the technological point of view because it is close enough to Earth to be a testbed. There are different uses for the Moon for science, for technology development, maybe even for mining,” Woerner explained.

“The idea of the lunar village is similar to a village on Earth. It’s about people coming together and starting a community, where they take advantage of each other’s capabilities.”

Woerner hopes the concept may resonate with space agencies of other nations – Nasa is thinking about the Moon or the so called cis-lunar space as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. Ideas have even been around proposing to use a depot somewhere in the lunar orbit to make a stop before shooting off to Mars and refuel the spacecraft. China too has announced ambitions to put a person on the Moon.

“What I suggest is that everyone who is interested in the Moon should join forces. That does not mean that we should build one spacecraft together or that we have to make a plan where to put the houses, where to have the city hall and where to have the church. It is just saying, let’s join forces to the Moon and look at what we can do in a complementary way.”

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