ILA: DLR working at dawn of new technological era

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To describe 2014 as a high-profile year for Germany’s aeronautics and space research agency is to risk understatement. Next week, German astronaut Alexander Gerst will strap himself into a Soyuz rocket and begin a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station. And, as Gerst is preparing to come back home in November, engineers at the DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt) will be making final preparations for one of the most audacious events in the history of space exploration – to land on a comet (see box).

But while DLR chairman Johann-Dietrich Wörner understandably lists these epochal missions as the focal points of the current year, he necessarily takes a much broader view of the agency’s activity. DLR’s remit covers aeronautics, space, transportation, energy and security. It is charged with planning and implementation of the German space programme, and is also Germany’s project management research and oversight agency.

This very wide remit makes DLR somewhat unusual among its peers. In France, ONERA embraces aeronautics, space and defence research, but the country has a separate space agency, CNES. NASA famously runs the US space programme and maintains an extensive aeronautics research programme, but shares some of that responsibility with the Defense Advanced Research Agency, DARPA.

To Wörner, though, DLR’s remit is not particularly wide when compared to that of a research university. Rather, he says, DLR’s channels of expertise are connected by the needs of any modern “transportation path”, and the agency is always looking to draw on all its areas of expertise to find the best outcome.

For example, he says, a high-speed train design draws on aerodynamics learned from aircraft. A solar energy project relies on satellite data to determine the best ground locations for its infrastructure. Any air journey involves ground transportation at either end, security, energy management, space assets (in weather forecasting or tracking) and, of course, aeronautics.

This multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving is underpinned by Germany’s practice of “programme-oriented funding”, which in any case leads DLR to regularly work with other partners. “It would be a pity if we had one institution for each of these areas,” says Wörner. “We would lose synergies.”


But Wörner also has a more fundamental view of DLR’s work and his responsibilities as head of the agency. Indeed, he believes Germany, if not the entire world, is at the beginning of a new phase of industrialisation – which gives him a new mandate to actively engage with what may be the most important of DLR’s partners: Germany’s taxpayers.

As Wörner explains it, the early years of the Industrial Revolution, particularly as it began in the UK, were characterised by the excitement of new technologies and ideas, and new industrial possibilities. In this first phase, he says, the engineers were “king”.

That early revolution soon begat a second phase of industrialisation, as engineers started calling for new technological solutions which had dramatic effects on the physical and economic landscape. During this second phase, says Wörner, engineers took the attitude that society should follow their lead, because “we know best”.

About 20 or 30 years ago, however, a third phase of technological development was marked by a new interest in what Wörner calls the “acceptance of technology”. Where earlier generations of politicians and engineers would have imposed technological solutions, in this third phase the public was increasingly asked if a solution was acceptable. A good example is the lengthy public consultation on whether or not to expand London Heathrow airport.

Today, he believes, a fourth stage is underway. Now the public must not merely accept a technology or solution – it must support it. “From accepted to supported”, says Wörner, is “a big step” – but the implications are profound. This new age, he says, will require politicians, scientists, engineers, business people and organisations like DLR to recognise that the public is a driver of technological solutions, not just a receiver of them.

There are two subtly related elements at work in this new dynamic. First, a public that participates and interacts with projects on a near-constant basis through the internet expects to play a role in shaping its environment.

Second, says Wörner, people increasingly expect to be asked what they want, rather than told what is possible. He says it is necessary to find out what people want, and then consider the possible technical solutions – not the other way around.

Compared with most of industrial-technological history, this approach is backwards. Wörner admits it is also very hard to do; after all, he says, how does the public know what to demand if it doesn’t know what is possible?

It takes an educated public to participate in this process, so these days Wörner dedicates a great deal of his time to dialogue. He visits each of DLR’s 16 sites in Germany at least once a year, to give every one of its nearly 8,000 employees an opportunity to have a personal conversation with him. Wörner stresses the importance of this direct contact.

In the same way he also meets all of DLR’s advisers, partners and interested government officials.

But he also attends as many public events as he can to meet directly with ordinary people, discuss their concerns and desires, and talk about how technology can help them. Wörner describes this process as “my small contribution” to education – and the results are significant.

We must, he says, be ready for “disruptive demands”, be they technological or social, and these often come directly from an educated public. There is no single message coming from the people he meets outside of his own organisation but, he says, the message is much more expansive than what he hears from politicians: “Taxpayers are more open than the ministries.”

Not surprisingly, for example, people tend to approve of research done aboard the International Space Station that may support cancer research. But this receptivity also extends to deep space exploration missions: Wörner has found that people retain a “spirit of curiosity” about the Universe that might be easily be sacrificed to budget cuts were it left to politicians whose concerns tend to run in line with a four- or five-year electoral cycle.

Politicians, he adds, tend to shift their focus quickly from one news-driven interest to the next. The public, on the other hand, “are much more open to the long-term”.

DLR’s 2014 in space

One of six astronauts chosen in 2009 by the European Space Agency, Alexander Gerst will be the third German to visit the International Space Station. The geophysicist and volcanologist will spend six months on the ISS, conducting experiments and maintaining the station with five other crew.

Many of the experiments Gerst will carry out were designed by German school pupils, including one of Wörner’s favourites, which looks into the lifespan of soap bubbles. On Earth, soap bubbles don’t last long because material drifts towards the bottom of the bubble – but in microgravity will they last forever? Chemists back on the ground should be watching with interest: the results just might help them make better foams.

DLR’s other heart-in-mouth moment this year will come in November, when the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft gets close enough – after a 10-year mission – to the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko to eject a lander called Philae. DLR is the prime contractor for Philae, which will be released from a height of about 1km and, all going well, touch down at walking pace, anchor itself to the comet’s nucleus, and send back high-resolution pictures and other information about the nature of the comet’s ices and organic crust.