ESA’s Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain discusses the significance of the Apollo anniversary and of continuing lunar exploration.
Forty years ago, man first set foot on the Moon. What did that signify?
Back then, it meant that US technology was stronger than Soviet technology, because it was the US flag that was planted on the Moon. But today, I think we can see this in a totally different light. The fact that it was a US flag is no longer what matters most.
I think the most important thing, and what will be remembered far longer, is that astronauts discovered planet Earth; they saw Earth resembling a small ‘blue marble’ floating in the Universe. They were able to bring back to Earth the notion that our future is a global one and that we have to think about the future of Earth globally, and not individually. So this is what it means today, which is very different from what it meant 40 years ago.
Will mankind go back to the Moon? If so, when and how?
Yes, I am sure mankind will go back to the Moon. The Moon is just three days away from Earth, and it used to take three days to go from Paris to Marseille a little over a hundred years ago, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t go back to the Moon. However, the aim would no longer be to plant a flag there.
The idea would be to use the Moon as just another part of our environment, in order to make scientific progress, or to establish a warning system against asteroids or anything else threatening Earth, or as a source of resources to take back to Earth. It seems to me that the Moon is simply a part of our environment and I am sure humans will return to the Moon; but they will go to the Moon together and not in the context of two competing countries.
Will Europe go to the Moon?
I think Europe will play a part in the international exploration of the Moon; but with what means, we don’t yet know. That is a choice to be made at a political level, not at agency level. Because the fact is that Europe today is dependent on others to go to the Moon with astronauts. And since we are dependent, we cannot take any initiatives. We can only contribute to a US-led exploration programme.
Europe can certainly bring some interesting technologies to areas where I would say we are the best in the world, but no initiative-taking would be involved. So that is the first scenario: a European contribution to a US-led exploration programme.
However, there is a second scenario, which would be for Europe to build up the capabilities to take initiatives. But that is a very different scenario, because it would first of all require developing new capabilities, in particular a crew transportation system. This would call for a high-level political decision, as well as discussions at political level about Europe’s position in a lunar exploration programme.
When? In my view, this mainly depends on the current US plan. For the time being, the US plan is to have a crew on the Moon by 2020. I would say, though, that the date is not the most important factor. We’re not talking about a race anymore, which means that we have time. If it’s not in 2020, it will be in 2025 – it doesn’t really matter.
In a hundred years from now, nobody will worry whether we returned to the Moon in 2020 or 2025, and that is why we at ESA are giving far more priority to science and short-term services to citizens. However, I am absolutely convinced that mankind will go back to the Moon – in 10 years’ time, or maybe 20 years, but that is not the important point.
But where it is difficult to find the money, why spend it on the Moon?
For several reasons, first because the long-term future of Earth cannot be considered without taking into account our environment, and the Moon and Mars are part of our environment. Planet Earth is not isolated and we cannot think about its future in total isolation. So the first reason is to prepare for the long term.
The second reason is to develop innovative technologies: to go to the Moon, we shall have to develop a lot of technologies that are not yet available, for example, the recycling of resources. We cannot take to the Moon every litre of water, every litre of oxygen and every kilogram of food that the astronauts will need to live there.
This means that we will have to recycle resources on the Moon as much as possible to produce water and oxygen and grow plants. And these types of technology, which we are working on right now and which are necessary for a lunar base, will have a lot of consequences in terms of the way we use resources on Earth.
And the third reason: we need to provide younger generations with challenging projects to make sure we attract the best talents to science and engineering. Unfortunately, in most developed countries, gifted young people are showing a lack of interest in these fields, but I am convinced that this type of project can help attract them to science and engineering.
Where were you when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and what were your thoughts?
I remember very clearly where I was, I spent the night in front of my TV. I also recall getting my engineering degree on 20 July at noon. I was an engineer, and to celebrate, I went on vacation. That night I was in the southwest of France in a very small village watching TV.
At the time it seemed like a dream to me, a technological achievement, and I am not too sure that I appreciated all the implications of what I was living through. I think I just enjoyed the event without learning too many lessons from it. But at the very same time I became an engineer able to work in the space field, and here I now am, still in space!