Science and Exploration

Interview: Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency

By Leonard David
April 24, 2023
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Interview: Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency
Man on a mission. Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General discusses new space agenda with SpaceRef’s Leonard David. Image credit: Barbara David

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado – Europe is establishing an ambitious space agenda, one designed to accelerate a broad portfolio of objectives while catching up in launchers, as well as robotic and human exploration beyond Earth orbit.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is steadfast in stepping up its presence over the next several years as a robust, global player in space activity engagement. Today, ESA is firmly partnered with NASA on deep space voyaging providing back-to-the-Moon hardware for the Artemis and the Gateway mini-space station programs.

ESA is outward looking, across a number of space fronts, some of them evolutionary…some revolutionary.

That’s the message from Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director General, leading the charge in transforming the agency to be more adaptive, agile and increasingly innovative. Multiverse Media’s SpaceRef sat down with Aschbacher in an exclusive interview during the Space Foundation’s 38th Space Symposium, held here April 17 – 20.

Getting to the launch pad

ESA is strong in space science, Earth observation, navigation and telecommunications, Aschbacher told SpaceRef. “However, in some domains we have to catch up…launchers in particular. And in exploration, we have to catch up. Europe does not have the capability of its own astronaut flights. Our astronauts fly in the past with Russia, now with NASA, and that is a fantastic partnership. But we don’t have our own capability,” he said, adding that India is about to launch its own astronauts while Europe does not have that capacity.

“So I ask myself why not? That’s where we need to catch up,” said Aschbacher.

ESA Astronaut Class of 2022 Image credit: ESA – P. Sebirot

ESA recently selected 17 new astronaut candidates from a pool of 23,000 applications, space travel hopefuls from across its now 22 Member States: five career astronauts, 11 members of an astronaut reserve and one astronaut with a disability. Half of those chosen are female.

In the launch arena, an ESA top priority for Europe’s access to space is the maiden takeoff of the delayed Ariane 6 booster. Adding to the concern is last December’s failure of the medium-lift Vega C rocket, now edging its way to a return to flight. “I want to make sure they get onto the launch pad as quick as possible,” he said, also underscoring Europe’s emerging and new generation of commercial microlaunchers.

“We see the new reality of SpaceX, Falcon 9, and now Starship,” Aschbacher said. “And then of course, design Europe’s access to space beyond Ariane 6 and Vega C for the 2030s. That is something that occupies me a lot these days.”

Space science domain

ESA is strong in the space science domain, exemplified by the Ariane 5 liftoff this month of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, longhand for JUICE. It’s now en route to make detailed observations of the giant gas planet and its three large moons – Ganymede, Callisto and Europa — once the craft enters the Jovian system in 2031.

Ariane 5 liftoff carrying ESA’s JUICE spacecraft, now en route to Jupiter.
Image credit: ESA – M. Pédoussaut

Aschbacher also singled out the Euclid spacecraft mission due for launch later this year to investigate dark matter and dark energy. It joins other missions such as ESA’s now-on-duty Gaia spacecraft and the agency’s strong participation in the James Webb Space Telescope. “So in this domain, I think ESA is really strong…the science is strong, the technology is good. I would consider us more or less in the same league of the best ones globally,” he said.

On the other hand, ESA’s ExoMars project has admittedly given the agency quite a bit of headache. That effort has been in development for some 13 years, to be derailed by Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Europe was left to find a way forward – not an easy exercise to rescue the ExoMars rover venture.

NASA is providing three major elements to get ExoMars and its dig-deep drilling gear to the Red Planet: a launcher, a radioisotope heater unit to survive the cold Martian nights, and the braking engine for landing the wheeled robot, “a technology that we have not as yet mastered in Europe,” said Aschbacher. “We are working on it, but it is not yet mature and NASA has a lot of experience.”

These are very important NASA contributions and the rest is all-European, Aschbacher added. In the NASA White House budget proposal for 2024, yet to be approved by the U.S. Congress, the ESA director said he understood that a few tens of millions of dollars are foreseen for this year, with similar amounts for the next year, and the year after.

The new ExoMars configuration would launch in 2028.

Change of mindset

In his earlier years at ESA, Aschbacher said he used to save the planet being in charge of Earth observing. Today, even with his larger portfolio of projects, “climate change will remain our biggest problem for hundreds of years to come,” he told SpaceRef. “Space can actually do a lot, not only to understand but also help mitigate climate change. We have to always keep this as one of our ‘must-do’ activities. We have to make sure that our planet is preserved.”

Turning to the ever-threatening topic of orbital debris, is there a solution to the pollution? Space has become littered with all manner of leftovers, from discarded rocket stages to other types of flotsam, some too small to track. “The most dangerous ones are the ones the size of a few centimeters,” Aschbacher observed.

To this end, ESA’s Clean Space initiative includes a Zero Debris goal not to generate any additional debris by 2030. Aschbacher said ESA wants to be a good champion for sustainability, much like going to a national park, committing yourself not to leave trash, taking out everything you take in.

“There’s no black and white answer,” Aschbacher explained. “On one side we need to put satellites into orbit to have all the services which we need, there’s no question. The other side I think has to be a clear change of mindset that is necessary. When we put up satellites, we have to guarantee to take them out. And so far, we haven’t done that. This is not only ESA…it’s all the global partners.”

Leonard David

Leonard is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race, Mars – Our Future on the Red Planet, and co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin of Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration - all published by the National Geographic Society.