In 1992, the first Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier flew into space aboard the American shuttle Atlantis as part of a collaboration between the European (ESA) and American (NASA) space agencies. It took exactly thirty years for a new Swiss astronaut candidate – Marco Sieber, a 33-year-old young emergency doctor from Bern – to be selected by the ESA.
This is good news for Switzerland which, not having its own space agency, relies heavily on ESA programs for the development of its scientific and technological skills related to space. Like the ClearSpace-1 mission to clean up debris in Earth orbit, a Swiss specialty. Marco Sieber “gives a face” to this expertise, according to Secretary of State Martina Hirayama. His aura will undoubtedly motivate the country’s space activities, as was the case after the selection of Claude Nicollier.
But the geopolitical contexts of space are very different between the two generations of Swiss astronauts. Claude Nicollier did not know the ISS, the result of a global partnership between five space agencies: United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. And his successor Marco Sieber will no doubt see his end, scheduled for 2030. With the launch capabilities of the private sector, NASA seems to prefer to eventually abandon any low-orbit space station to the commercial one to focus on human exploration towards the Moon then Mars. On the other side of the globe, China has established itself as a serious competitor in the conquest of space, capable, with its own launchers, of sending robots to the Moon.
To ensure its autonomy towards space, Europe feels that it must get its hands dirty. This Wednesday in Paris, the European agency secured 16.9 billion euros distributed among the 22 member countries after tough negotiations during its Ministerial Council, which takes place every three years. That’s an increase of around 15% compared to 2019. The meeting ended just before the spotlight fell on Marco Sieber and his four colleagues. “Europe is at the rendezvous of these space ambitions, it is giving itself the means to strengthen its sovereignty against the United States and China”, hammered the French Minister Bruno Le Maire by way of conclusion. The new generation of astronauts is stepping into a changing space conquest.