“Space exploration drives innovation”

Thomas Reiter


Thomas Reiter has spent 350 days in space: in 1995 he flew to the Russian space station Mir in a Soyuz capsule, and in 2006 he flew to the International Space Station (ISS) on board a NASA shuttle. He was the first German ever to perform a spacewalk. Today, Reiter is Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations at the European Space Agency (ESA). In his new job, he is responsible for astronaut training and microgravity research as well as operations of space-based infrastructure and European satellite missions. In our interview, he explains why he would like to live on Mars, what continues to fascinate him about his field even today and which research projects ESA is working on.

Rosetta space probe

Mr Reiter, you were the eighth German in space and the first German to perform a spacewalk. How formative an experience was your time in space and how have your “trips” changed your view of the Earth?

Taking both space missions together, I lived in space for nearly a year. During this time, I saw the Earth from a fantastic perspective. Within a single day, I could watch the sun set 16 times and view continents like Europe in their entirety. The sight was overwhelming. On the one hand, you have the beauty of our planet before your eyes. And on the other, you see that some of the many things that are taking place on the Earth’s surface are in contrast to this – take environmental destruction, for example. From space, I looked down on the vast areas of rainforest and was horrified to see how they are being cut down. All that sharpens your awareness of the need to protect the Earth, not only in terms of the environment but also as regards armed conflicts worldwide. Interestingly, these impressions are intensified by the feeling of weightlessness. You see these pictures and are aware of them without feeling your own weight. It’s a profound experience that stays with you for the rest of your life.

People are hugely fascinated by space exploration – nearly every week brings new spectacular findings. Where does this fascination come from and what contribution can space research make to research on Earth?

I’m convinced that this fascination with what is new is in our genes. Humankind has always been interested in what lies beyond the horizon and has always wanted to get to the bottom of things. This urge to explore literally extends beyond our earthly horizon. In space, there are an infinite number of things to discover – and these in turn allow conclusions to be drawn about the evolution of our own planet. This approach is comparable to many areas of research where, ultimately, we are trying to properly understand the processes and mechanisms that determine our lives and our environment. But space research is not always just about the ability to directly transform spectacular findings into new products. Space travel pushes the boundaries of what is technically feasible, thus driving innovation. And there is also a social element to the equation: viewing our planet from space shows that there is actually enough room on Earth for all human beings. In a way, then, space travel also contributes to international understanding.

The Rosetta probe and also the New Horizons space probe, which researchers are using to measure the temperature of Pluto, are currently causing a stir worldwide. How closely do you follow projects like these? And what fascinates you about them?

Naturally, we at ESA also follow very closely the missions of our international partners. We cooperate on many projects, even though we are not directly involved in the New Horizons mission. Overall, the research community that is studying the evolution of our solar system is keenly interested in all findings. 

Take ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt. It’s responsible for control of the spectacular Rosetta mission, but we’re also strongly pursuing private initiatives. A few months ago, for example, we launched a call for ideas, requesting business companies, organisations and research institutions to propose ideas that might be used to develop joint strategic goals. A major role is also played here by companies that have so far had no direct connection with space travel. For it’s precisely those sort of companies that might be developing a product of possible interest to space travel. 

What I personally find most fascinating are the images produced during the missions. The New Horizons space probe, for example, made it possible for the first time to view the dwarf planet Pluto from incredibly close proximity. Similarly, ESA’s Rosetta probe showed a comet from close range for the first time. It’s always fascinating to witness the power of such images that people are able to see for the first time.

You have lived in space for a period of several months. Can you imagine living on Mars one day, or on another planet?

I was eleven years old when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon and said those famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That fascinated me at the time and it still does today. I could well have imagined living for a lengthy period on another celestial body. At present, there are only two realistic destinations: the moon – and perhaps Mars in another two decades or so. I hope that in the next decade we’ll see human beings land on the moon again. It offers extremely interesting research topics for science, for further developing technology, for settling questions about the evolution of our own planet. Besides, the moon could serve as a base for exploring other planets – Mars in particular. Today, I believe the idea of living for a lengthy period on a moon or Mars station is quite realistic.

You are now Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations at ESA. What visions is ESA working on in this area? What current space exploration projects from Germany do you find particularly exciting and what are you personally working on at present or will be in the future?

ESA and its member states are one of the partners of the ISS. Up to 2020 and beyond, we want to use the ISS for scientific research and for improving the technologies needed to put human beings back on the moon or launch a manned Mars mission. We are NASA’s partners on the Orion project. Based on industrial capabilities developed in Europe, we will be building the service module for this NASA capsule. The aim is to use this transportation system to take astronauts further away from Earth again. Orion is scheduled to fly around the moon for the first time in 2018, on an unmanned mission. Its first manned mission will follow in 2020. That would be an important step in getting human beings back on the moon, besides serving as a preparation for flying to Mars. All these projects are also about technology issues, about improving life support systems, radiation protection for the crews, medical research. Such medical research in space can be of great benefit to research on Earth – for example, on issues relating to our immune system, bone physiology, a better understanding of diseases like osteoporosis, cardiovascular problems, and many others. Incidentally, ESA Director General Professor Wörner recently proposed building a moon village: a permanent base could be set up on the moon to conduct research and further explore space. But that can only be done with international cooperation.

Mr Reiter, thank you very much for the interview.

European Space Agency (ESA)

The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to coordinate and promote the development of European space travel. The organisation currently has 22 member states.