Friday

5th Mar 2021

Interview

Moon village is still best idea, says EU space boss

  • Concept art for a space colony as envisioned by artist Rick Guidice in the 1970s. The ESA chief's idea for a Moon village is not yet in the phase where such art is commissioned. (Photo: NASA Ames Research Center)

The idea to build a village on the Moon is still not more than that, an idea. But already the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) is receiving drawings from concept artists on how such a village should look.

“I always say: 'Nice, thank you very much, it's impressive, but first of all we have to see if there is the European spirit of exploration and pioneering strong enough to finance European access',” said Johann-Dietrich Woerner in an interview with EUobserver.

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Woerner, who spoke to this website on the phone from his headquarters in Paris, became director-general of the ESA on 1 July 2015. Since then, he has become only more convinced that his proposal for a permanent base on the Moon is a necessary and feasible plan.

“When I mentioned it for the first time, it was also something like a test balloon, to see whether there is some interest in doing some international collaboration in the future in space exploration,” said Woerner.

“Right now I can say: yes, this part of the question is solved positively. There is a very big interest worldwide to do global exploration together in an international context, which I believe is very important.”

The idea is that a permanent base on the Moon would be the successor to the International Space Station (ISS), which is currently planned for use until 2024.

“What should we do after the ISS? ... The ISS is really nice, we can do experiments in microgravity, we have international collaboration, so it's different types of activities”, said Woerner.

He added that in addition to the Moon village, there should also be a programme that ensures continued frequent low Earth orbit access to do experiments in microgravity.

But on the whole, Woerner's Moon village is, he said, best equipped to fulfil the “long list of requirements for the future for a post-ISS scenario”.

“So far nobody gave me a better idea yet to fulfil the requirements,” he added.

That station should be built on the side of the Moon that is never seen directly from Earth, called the far side.

“The far side is not the 'dark side' of the Moon … [it] is as bright and dark as the near side,” Woerner stressed.

“Some people think that it is the dark side of the moon: this is Pink Floyd,” he said, referring to the title of the 1973 album by the English rock band.

The benefit of building on the far side is that “we don't have the interference of all the radiation coming from Earth, from all our antennas, radios”.

“So you can have a very nice view into the universe with a radio telescope in the shadow of the Moon.”

Moon churches?

People have asked the ESA chief whether the Moon village will have churches, and whether astronauts will live in single houses or compounds, but that is not quite the type of village Woerner is talking about.

“I did not say that it is a village as on Earth. The word Moon village should mean that we are putting together the capabilities of different actors, be it private companies or public,” he said.

“It should be an open environment for multiple users and multiple uses.”

The inhabitants can be both human and robotic. There is still a lot of scientific research to be done. “[The Moon] is very interesting because it is something like an archive of history of the Earth.”

But it can also be a test ground for further space exploration.

Pit stop Moon

“If we go further in our solar system – and I'm quite sure that humans will go to Mars, and beyond – the Moon is a perfect stepping stone,” said Woerner.

He sees the Moon as a possible learning facility for space exploration and that could function as a “pit stop”.

The Moon is on average 384,400 kilometres from the Earth, while the distance to Mars is almost 600 times greater. Travelling to the Moon and back can be done in a week, while Woerner estimates a return journey to Mars at between a year and a half and two years.

“From a point of view of health, of radiation, the Moon is much easier, so we can learn on the Moon. … The Moon is really a nice place to go.”

Talks in the past seven months have bolstered Woerner's confidence that the proposal will become reality.

“I got the information that several space-faring nations are saying: 'okay we are planning a mission to the Moon anyhow, so we can combine it with the idea of Moon village,'” he noted, adding the Americans have expressed interest because of their planned journey to Mars.

The German official said he has not yet asked any of ESA's member states for political or financial commitments, but he will propose the plan at the body's upcoming ministerial council at the end of this year.

“If there is not a better idea by then, then the Moon village will be discussed. ... It will not be the question whether it will be financed, because we are right now discussing the financing of ISS, but to see what the member states have in mind, what type of international activity they would like to see after the ISS.”

ESA and the EU

The European Space Agency, an intergovernmental body, is separate from the European Union, although many European countries are a member of both. But plans from several years ago to make the ESA part of the EU have been put on hold.

“It's not possible today,” Woerner said about the idea to make ESA an EU agency.

He noted that member states seem to like the fact that ESA is an intergovernmental body, and not a supranational one.

“This one-country-one-vote, that the countries are directly the programme authorities for our programmes - they would lose this capability if we are an EU agency.”

“It's not on the table today to merge the European Space Agency with the European Commission, but I would never say never,” he noted, adding that it would “probably make sense” to make the body an EU agency when the bloc becomes a true federation that also includes countries like Norway and Switzerland.

“But we don't have that situation. We are farther away from a United States of Europe. If you look at the political situation, we are not close to that.”

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