Josef Aschbacher remembers how, at the age of seven, he looked up at the night sky above his parents’ farm and tried to understand what he had just seen on the family’s black-and-white television: the landing of NASA’s Apollo 11 on the moon.
More than half a century later, Aschbacher heads the European Space Agency, a formidable force when it comes to scientific exploration, telecommunications and earth observation. But so far, the agency is still unable to put its own astronauts into orbit, and relies on Russia and the United States for manned spaceflight and some other high-profile missions.
The 59-year-old wants to change that and hopes the recent turmoil caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will prompt European leaders to act.
“I think the war in Ukraine made politicians realize that we’re a bit vulnerable and need to make sure we have our own secure access to space and our space infrastructure,” Aschbacher said in an interview at the ILA on Wednesday in Berlin with The Associated Press Air Show.
Within days of the Russian attack on February 24, the European Space Agency abandoned longstanding plans for a joint mission with Russia to land a rover on Mars.
“The ExoMars situation is a wake-up call for how Europe needs to position itself,” said Aschbacher. He recently held talks with NASA chief Bill Nelson to find a way to salvage the mission without Russia and is “very hopeful” that the lander will make it to the red planet.
But in the longer term, says Aschbacher, “What’s clear is that on critical components, on critical missions, we need to make sure that we can (ourself) do it.” Earlier this year, he hinted that this could include manned launches.
He praised a recent speech by Emmanuel Macron – delivered days before Russia invaded Ukraine – in which the French president called for a bolder European space policy.
“That was a bit of a Kennedy moment, but we need to hear that in other countries, too,” Aschbacher said, referring to US President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech in which he outlined plans to land a announced people on the moon. “I would hope that the same Kennedy moment would happen in Germany and Italy, in the UK and Belgium and so on.”
Such ambition is also needed if Europe is to capitalize on the growing space economy fueled by private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, he said.
European astronauts at the ILA spoke of a changed tone in dealing with commercial ventures, which are more focused on the financial gains that can be made in orbit than on the lofty ideals of international cooperation that underpinned collaborations between major space agencies.
“Enormous growth is forecast for space travel over the next few years,” said Aschbacher. “That’s why private companies are cheering them on and investing in them. Europe has to be there.”
“If we don’t increase our investments, we will be thrown out of this race,” he said.
As European nations are now pumping billions into defense in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, governments should keep an eye on other areas where their countries are dependent on others and therefore vulnerable, Aschbacher said.
“If there’s a war on our doorstep, we need to be sure that you can get your phone working and you can get your navigation system working,” he said. “It’s part of security in a broader sense.”