Without the cold war, Apollo 11 never would have happened. The urge to beat the Soviets to the moon and prove U.S. technological superiority motivated Congress to devote almost 4.5 percent of the U.S. national budget to NASA at the peak of the space race in 1966. Yet after the first moon landing three years later, the agency never again received more than 2 percent of the budget, and it has gotten around half a percent every year since 2010.
These days national prestige is not enough of an incentive for most countries to go it alone in space. If we are to travel again to another planetary body, it will have to be together. This idea has perhaps been expressed most vociferously by Johann-Dietrich (“Jan”) Wörner, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA). In 2015 Wörner introduced his vision for the “Moon Village,” a cooperative campsite of sorts on the lunar surface. Countries, private companies, universities, nonprofits and individuals are welcome to send people, robots, and all manner of scientific, exploratory and commercial ventures to take part. And to back up the Moon Village’s international and collaborative bona fides, the project is officially being organized not by ESA but by a Vienna-based nongovernmental organization called the Moon Village Association, which is open for groups and individuals to join. Scientific American spoke to Wörner about the Moon Village’s goals, the debate over the moon versus Mars, and why now is the right time to go.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Tell me about your plan for going back to the moon.
We don’t want to go back to the moon.
What do you mean?
We want to go forward to the moon. I’m serious. We do not want a space race, with the question of prestige. The moon is the perfect place to really collaborate on a global scale. In the past, space activities were realized by direct procurement of the agencies, as in the Apollo moon missions. We have similar projects right now at ESA. And we have projects where the agency is the broker, the enabler, the facilitator. This is the Moon Village.
The Moon Village is a multipartner open concept. Each and every word in this phrase is important. “Multipartner” means not only one—it can be as many as possible. “Open” means there is no special formality to be a partner of it. And it is a “concept”: it is not one project. Different partners should put in what they would like to deliver, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s mining, whether it’s tourism, whether it’s science, whether it’s technology development for in situ resource utilization—for instance, using the water on the moon for production of fuel. It is totally open for different purposes.
Do you see the Moon Village as part of the legacy of Apollo or a deliberate departure?
Apollo was done in a totally different environment. Then, competition was the driver. Now I believe cooperation is the enabler. But of course, without Apollo, we would maybe not think about it.
Did you watch the Apollo 11 landing? How did it affect you?
Yes. I was 15 years old. In Germany, it was during the night, and I did not sleep at all. I remember very well: I was looking at the TV; I saw the first steps of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. The transmission ended, and I went out of my home, into the fresh air. I was breathing deeply and thinking, “We are doing the future.” It was really a big day for me. I would never have thought at that time that I would be part of space activities. Now I am the director general of ESA.
Why are you targeting the moon and not, say, new destinations, such as Mars?
I’m in favor of also thinking about Mars, but I believe the moon is the right way to go forward. We cannot talk today about human missions to the surface of Mars because of [the dangers of] radiation and other challenges. Can we dare to send humans for a two-year trip in an environment where survival is really difficult, and if they have some disease, we have no way to get them back? We have to develop better technology.
But the moon is a good playground for technology development. For instance, we can use the resources of the surface of the moon to build structures to shelter the astronauts, to build observatories or to produce fuels of hydrogen and oxygen. Therefore, the moon is a stepping-stone to go farther: to Mars. But this is far in the future—it will take decades. Even though some are announcing goals of shorter periods, we will see that this is not possible.
It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11. Why has it taken us so long to send astronauts back?
Forward, sorry. But why do you think now is the right time?
I see, worldwide, the readiness to work together. I had discussions with the Chinese, with the Americans, with the Japanese, with the Russians, and all of them are looking to work together in the exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond.
I hope it will not be like in the old time, going West and staking our claim. I hope that we will not have fences on the surface of the moon. In Germany, we have some experience with fences and walls. I hope this can be done in a much better way.
What do you see as the biggest hurdle for the Moon Village to succeed?
There is a kind of paper you can hold in your hand, where I think George Washington is on one side. [Laughs.] So, money.
If we were launching the Moon Village today, would you go?
I have an appointment for dinner, but I would skip that if somebody said I could go right now. Yes, I would call my family, and I would do it—I would go immediately. I’m a curious person, and this curiosity would be the driver for me. But I would only go with a return ticket.
Originally posted by: Clara Moskowitz