ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner and ESA colleagues Frederic Nordlund and Karl Bergquist in front of the Lunar Palace 1 closed ecosystem habitat at Beihang University in Beijing. (Photo: Jiang Di, Beihang University)
Johann-Dietrich Woerner, Director-General of the European Space Agency, has completed his first visit to China, where he called for greater and open international cooperation in space.
The trip to China, one of ESA’s three strategic partners, along with NASA and Roscosmos of Russia, was described by ESA as a courtesy meeting and chance to meet and update on respective activities took place in late March and early April.
Mr Woerner, who took over as ESA Director-General from Jean-Jacques Dordain in July last year, is understood to have met key players in China’s aerospace industry, as well as visiting the National Space Science Centre (NSSC) and Beihang University, both in Beijing.
At events in the capital he spent time presenting his idea of Space 4.0, and promoting the ‘Moon Village’ vision for the next step in international space exploration.
Space without borders
The NSSC, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is responsible for China’s space science missions such as the Wukong dark matter probe, science payloads for human spaceflight missions, and a long-term vision for Chinese space science.
There, Mr Woerner was hosted by China’s chief space scientist and NSSC Director-General, Dr Wu Ji, and delivered a presentation on his vision for the future of space.
Space 1.0, Woerner says, was astronomy, which was bound up with astrology. Next the Space Race driven Apollo era, or Soyuz, depending on your perspective. Following this, 3.0 was the more open time of the International Space Station (ISS).
Woerner’s ‘Space 4.0’ would be a new era, in which all areas of space – new, old, private – combine, internationally, enabling knowledge, jobs, growth, decision and policymaking, interaction with society, and inspiring the next generations.
Above: Johann-Dietrich Woerner at the NSSC on March 31, 2016 (NSSC).
Woerner, former head of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), then fielded related questions from journalists and researchers. First, he was asked what kind of cooperation he would like to see between ESA and China in the future.
Referencing ongoing ‘bilateral’ ESA-China collaborations of a space-weather observatory mission and the Shijian-10 retrievable space satellite, Woerner said he wants greater ties.
"First of all, we have very nice cooperation with SMILE. We have some more with…[a] recovery mission, so we have already set up some cooperations [sic]. I would like to enlarge it, really, on a global scale. Not again some competition between partners here and there, but let’s open it up. Let’s open space. Space is beyond all borders so let’s also have the cooperation beyond borders."
"When you ask astronauts, and I’m sure also the Chinese astronauts will tell you the same: they cannot see any border from space. So this is a very nice vision. We should use this and cooperate worldwide on different schemes, and I think Moon Village has its value for that."
Later, when asked how China could become part of Moon Village, he replied that it was as simple as declaring so.
Woerner explained that the project would not be like a space station where everything would need to be decided, agreed and connected, but simply needed a commitment to be together on the Moon.
"We just have to define the location, and I recommend we go to the South Pole. That’s the most interesting part of the Moon."
The US and space mining
Asked for his observations of the latest US legislation on space mining activities, the answer underlined Mr Woerner’s philosophy of an inclusive, universal approach to space exploration.
"Space does not belong to one country or one nation, so space is really universal. If you are looking to space, this picture of Voyager shows the real situation: the Earth within the universe is such a small part of it…And therefore we have no rights in the universe at all. What we should have is, in space law, from my understanding of that point of view, we should make sure that the different countries, the space-faring countries of the Earth having the same rights in the universe, and not individual rights to one or the other nation by putting a flag here or there.
"I sometimes make the joke: ‘Okay, let’s have a European mission to go to the Moon and bring back the American flag’", he added, drawing laughter.
Woerner also later gave his Space 4.0 talk at Beihang University, formerly known as the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, alumni of which include chief engineer of the Shenzhou space project Qi Faren.
Future of international exploration
Gaining support for Moon Village from China, a country which will soon be in a position to be a major player in an international lunar project, would be a major coup.
Yet on the surface, with few public details, this does not appear to be a game-changing visit which clinches such backing.
China has developed many capabilities needed to send astronauts to the Moon, having already achieved human spaceflight and extravehicular activity with Shenzhou missions, lunar soft-landing capabilities and operating on the Moon with Chang’e-3, and rendezvous and docking with Tiangong-1. Future relevant steps include a lunar sample return, Chang’e-5, scheduled for 2017, and a Saturn V-class rocket, which is under development as Long March 9.
But having been locked out of the ISS, China has also committed to establishing its own 60-tonne modular space station by around 2020.
Ye Peijian, chief designer of the ongoing Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, told gbtimes in March that, “There is no substantive progress regarding participation in the ‘Moon Village’”.
Back home, Woerner still needs backing from the ESA Ministerial Council in December to even begin a study into how to realise Moon Village.
But this is a time of doubt over the viability of a Nasa ‘Journey to Mars’, compounded by a lack of political, financial or public support, and the absence of a clear plan for the future of American human spaceflight.
And with growing private interest and investment in space, the future and vision of international space exploration appears open. (GBtimes)
52 Sanlihe Rd., Xicheng District,
Beijing, China (100864)