When Jan Woerner took his seat at European Space Agency headquarters in Paris for his first-ever January press conference as director general, the former head of Germany’s DLR aerospace agency had plenty of good news to talk about.
In 2015, ESA’s technically stunning Rosetta comet-chasing mission was a highlight by any standard, while a string of European astronauts strutted their stuff on the International Space Station. The year closed with the latest of them – Britain’s Tim Peake – underscoring his country’s intention of playing a leading role in ESA, and with delivery to NASA of a test version of the service module ESA is supplying for the USA’s in-development deep space crew capsule, Orion.
This year, the first of a pair of ESA-Roscosmos landing missions to Mars will launch in March. And 2016 will also see landmark progress in the ESA-European Commission Copernicus Earth observation and Galileo satellite navigation programmes, and in ongoing development of the closely-aligned Ariane 6 and Vega C launchers.
Critically, ESA members will make a yes-or-no decision about whether to stick with the ISS to 2024 when the outpost, originally slated for deorbiting in 2018, will definitely be retired. The other ISS partners – NASA, Roscosmos and Japan’s JAXA – have already signed up for 2024; Woerner certainly recognises the possibility Europe could walk away in 2020, but he doesn’t betray any anxiety, probably because he understands all too well that reaching deals in Europe is a slow process. After all, he notes, good science is done on board and the big investments in building the station have already been made.
Instead, what really motivates Woerner is a bigger question: what comes after the ISS?
He has a two-part answer. One is to carry out more frequent missions to low Earth orbit and, he adds, we still “need a microgravity laboratory”. The other is to replace the ISS with an even more international collaboration. There are, notes Woerner, 60 spacefaring nations; participation should be much wider.
Woerner’s answer is a “Moon village”. Calling it a village has raised images of cafes and a church, and Woerner even says he has had to field questions about who might be the lord mayor. But the term is chosen carefully, he says, to suggest a place where people come together with ideas, “a single place but with multiple uses and multiple users”. By establishing some sort of permanent base, he says, different countries could participate however they wish, in line with their particular capabilities and objectives. In any case, he says there is now “worldwide discussion” of the idea, a good thing given that, while the end of the ISS may be 10 years away, that is “the near future in space”.
The Moon has been a Woerner theme for some years now; he raised the idea when head of DLR. At the 2015 Paris air show, where on the eve of his taking up ESA’s reins he appeared alongside his retiring predecessor, Jean-Jacques Dordain, to field press questions, the pair were asked whether ESA would like to participate if NASA advanced plans for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Woerner played loose with the body’s name to declare: “We won’t let NASA land on Europe without us! If they do, we’ll go to the Moon and bring home the American flag.”
For now, Woerner’s Moon plan is mostly vision; there are no specifics in terms of missions and hardware, and no money. None of the big-budget ESA member states have perked up, at least publicly. In December 2015, the US Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space transportation committee, which oversees US private sector launches, decided it wants to talk to ESA. But NASA is very specifically not interested in returning to the Moon, which it considers to be a distraction from its long-term objective of sending a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s.
THE MOON IS FULL
So is Woerner barking at the Moon? Not necessarily. Mars is a distant planet with no air, food or water: possibly reachable but also, very possibly, not – at least in anything like the mooted mid-2030s timeframe. The challenge of sending human crew to Mars should not be likened to Apollo; when President Kennedy called for Moon-and-back by the end of the decade, what ensued was a massive – and expensive – engineering challenge. But the scientific underpinnings were in place.
As for the International Space Station, it may be extendable beyond 2024 from an engineering point of view. But reaching agreement by the partners to persist with the programme beyond its original 2018 end date has been no small task. The value of the science done up there has no doubt been significant, but it isn’t clear that it stands up so well against the value of foregone Earth-bound alternatives whose putative budgets have been eaten by the station. And, no doubt, all partners’ politicians need something new to sell to their taxpayers. Flying to the space station, doing a spacewalk or two to fix things, messing about with laboratory equipment and making a video about how the toilets work have all, if we’re honest (and to the great credit of the engineers, scientists and astronauts), become part of the news wallpaper.
The scientific value of a Moon base, on the other hand, may capture public imaginations. As ESA outlines its January 2016 “Destination Moon” video, a base on the lunar south pole opens some genuine new horizons. All of the lunar landing sites to date – by US, Soviet and now Chinese missions – have been broadly equatorial and on the near side. But some south polar sites are in permanent darkness, which means they are very, very cold and believed to harbour vast quantities of water ice. That ice could, in situ, be made into rocket fuel for journeys to deeper space. And, from the lunar south pole there is easy access to far-side sites just over the horizon – perfect for telescope observation of the cosmos, free of the Earth’s light and radio interference.
The Moon is not as interesting to science as Mars, but it is reachable today and has merit – even if Mars is never a practical destination.
Whether or not the community of spacefaring nations ultimately embraces the Moon village idea, it must be recognised that ESA is actually in good shape with hardware and technology. The Orion service module is based on ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle ISS robotic resupply ships. ATV’s thrusters have been shown to be ideal for gently dropping a lander on the Moon.
And for at least five years now, ESA and Airbus Defence & Space have been working out details of a south pole Moon landing. At one point penciled in for 2018, that mission is no more, but ESA is collaborating with Roscomos on the Russians' Luna 27 and 28 robotic missions, which could lift off this decade.
Separately, NASA gave ESA a boost in January with its selection of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s in-development Dreamchaser small spaceplane as an ISS resupply vehicle from 2019. Dreamchaser looked doomed when NASA didn’t choose its manned version for low Earth orbit crew missions from 2018, but SNC reached agreement with ESA to combine forces on re-entry technology, and to work to launch the craft atop Ariane 5 rockets from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana.
And, adds Woerner, a new folding wings design has erased concerns Dreamchaser wouldn’t fit inside an Ariane faring – and the configuration will work for crewed or uncrewed launches. Dreamchaser can’t reach the Moon. But Ariane 6 development plans include capability for distributed launch operations. Here crews and spacecraft, payloads and fuel, would be separately delivered to LEO for assembly and launch to deep space.
Vision, persistence and its natural European instinct for collaboration, it seems, have put ESA in prime position – wherever humankind chooses next to boldly go.