The “Artemis” mission opens a new chapter in space travel, says astronaut Alexander Gerst. Because it lays the foundation for a future moon station. In the interview he talks about research on the moon and his personal hopes.
tagesschau.de: Mr. Gerst, in addition to bad weather conditions, the “Artemis” launch has been postponed several times due to technical problems. How do you rate that?
Alexander Gerst: If you develop a complex system like the Space Launch System now, with numerous new components and a new spaceship, then it has to be tested well. There are of course technical problems at the beginning, as with any project, and you want to solve them conservatively. For example, if you have a problem with the fuel hose – like last time – you don’t want to risk an explosion because of gas escaping from a leaky connection in the hose. So you’re going to be extremely cautious and postpone the launch for as long as it is necessary than risk a false start instead.
After all, no human lives depend on the start date. The launch will not be released until we are sure that all problems have been resolved. This is exactly the right decision-making philosophy and therefore didn’t surprise any of my colleagues. On the contrary, we see it positively.
The astronaut has been a member of the ESA Astronaut Corps since 2009. In 2014 and 2018 he flew on board a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station ISS, where he stayed for several months and carried out numerous experiments. During his second stay, he was also the commander of the ISS. Gerst was born in Künzelsau in 1976 and is a geophysicist and volcanologist.
“Artemis” is just as important as the ISS
tagesschau.de: The return to the moon has become a mammoth project. The Americans announced this 20 years ago – why is it taking so long? And what’s different this time?
barley: That’s correct. When I started at ESA 13 years ago, there was already a national lunar program in the USA, the Constellation program, which aroused great hopes. However, like many programs before it, it was scrapped again. Now the wind is different because “Artemis” is an international lunar program. This time the Americans are not doing it alone, but Europe, Japan and Canada are also involved.
Half of the Orion spacecraft was built in Europe, in Bremen, with components from all over Germany. The attitude control engines came from Lampoldshausen – that’s a place that’s only 20 kilometers away from my hometown Künzelsau. That means we’re all there when this rocket launches.
tagesschau.de: How important is this program for space travel as a whole?
barley: The “Artemis” program is huge and as important as the successful ISS program that began in the 1990s. That is why it is so important that we Europeans are involved. International cooperation always means stability for a project. A new government on one side alone can no longer break it off so easily without losing face. That is the beauty of international cooperation, which has also helped the ISS through many crises and now ensures that we get so many valuable results back from the ISS. The moon program will be similar.
Three “Artemis” missions
tagesschau.de: The first flight of “Artemis I” is unmanned and is initially intended to orbit the moon. What’s next after that?
barley: The Artemis II mission will have a crew aboard the Orion spacecraft that will orbit the moon and conduct tests in lunar orbit. The astronauts on board will travel farther from Earth than any human has ever done before. With the also astronautical “Artemis III” and the following missions, people are supposed to land on the moon again, but this time scientifically sustainable.
In addition, we are currently building the gateway, which is the “springboard space station”, the gateway to the moon. This is a space station orbiting the moon, for which Europe will provide two key modules. The first parts are just being welded.
“It’s not about us”
tagesschau.de: ESA has assembled a team of astronauts for the moon. How do you see your chance to walk on the moon? You’re a geophysicist and volcanologist by training, so that would be a good fit…
barley: We are seven experienced astronauts in the European Corps and we – that’s our job – are of course all preparing to fly such a mission. This means that even colleagues who are not geophysicists or geologists like me learn rock science and how to take rock samples on the moon.
Personally, I would of course be very happy about such a mission. But it’s not about us. It shouldn’t matter which of us goes to the moon. The point is that we as humanity as a whole finally fly to the moon to do science and sustainable research there. And that we, as Europeans, are part of it.
tagesschau.de: Will all seven Europeans fly to the moon?
barley: We are pleased that there are already agreements with our international partners that three European astronauts can fly on the “Gateway”https://www.tagesschau.de/”Artemis” mission and maybe one or two soon be able to walk on the lunar surface.
That depends on how willing we Europeans are to continue to participate in this international cooperation in the future, for example by building the European robotic lander that we have dubbed the Argonaut. She lands on the moon to do science there and bring in cargo for astronaut landings or even a lunar base. If we participate and if our industry continues to be involved, there will be even more flights to the moon. That means: Three astronauts are just the beginning.
“We can learn a lot from the moon about our own history”
tagesschau.de: After the Apollo missions, why do we actually want to fly back to the moon at all?
barley: In the 1960s and 1970s it was all about putting up a flag on the moon and taking a few rocks with you. There were only six short landings in total. In addition, the missions all landed in roughly the same region back then. However, the moon is four times the size of Europa. So we know very little about the moon because we haven’t had much time to do science. This was mainly due to the technical limitations.
We can learn a lot from the moon about our own history – for example how the atmosphere on earth was formed. There we can find clues to the origin of life and better assess the dangers that threaten us from space – asteroids and solar storms, for example.
That is why we as humanity will now fly internationally with many partners to the moon to do science. Much longer than before. Roughly how things went after the first discovery expeditions in Antarctica 100 years ago. The main purpose of the first expedition to the South Pole was to put up a flag. But after that – and we are now in this phase with the moon – came the research stations and the really important findings.
I’m sure: In 50 or 100 years there will be many research stations on the moon that are extremely important for our self-understanding and the survival of mankind on earth. We are now laying the foundation for it.
This is what the research of the “Artemis” astronauts on the moon could look like.