It is a first for the space agency NASA, some even say it is a milestone. If the weather cooperates – and it currently looks like it – then this evening, Central European time, a manned commercial space mission will start for the first time from Cape Canaveral, the American spaceport. Both the Falcon rocket and the manned Dragon capsule were developed by SpaceX – a company owned by eccentric Tesla founder Elon Musk. NASA is then only a paying customer. The assessment of the Director General of the European Space Agency ESA, Jan Wörner.
(SpaceX via ZUMA Wire)Mission Demo-2 to the ISS: NASA relies on commercial space travel
After NASA discontinued its shuttle program in 2011, the US relied on Russia for its astronauts to fly into space. This could soon be over – if the manned test flight of the private space company SpaceX succeeds.
Jörg Münchenberg: Mr. Wörner, the first manned space flight by a commercial company. How do you rate this scheduled SpaceX flight tonight?
“Even Apollo was not built by NASA officials”
Jan Woerner: First of all, I keep my fingers crossed that everything is going well. First of all, that is the most important thing. SpaceX sends two astronauts into space there, and that’s always a very difficult matter. I was there for several European astronauts taking off. First of all, the most important thing is: it has to go well.
The second is: Of course, the Apollo was not built by NASA officials either, to clarify that again. These were also companies that had orders. The special thing about SpaceX now is that Elon Musk actually pushed this development very strongly himself. He has also been well paid for this by NASA. It’s not that it’s a private company that has put private investment into it and is now offering a service, but that there were high orders from NASA. But all in all, it’s a great performance and I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that it’s going well.
Münchenberg: Now, as you just said, SpaceX is not a new player on the market. Musk’s company has been active in unmanned space travel since 2011. Likewise other competitors. Is the leap to a flight with astronauts really that big?
“You have to take completely different security precautions”
Woerner: Yes. We have often considered that in Europe. The Ariane five, which was the driving force behind European space travel for a long time, was originally built to also transport astronauts into space. I myself have tried again and again in the last 13 years in various discussions to suggest that let’s do it from Europe now – not to be independent of the others, but to be redundant, that is, to be in the event that a missile does not work, for example a Russian or an American one, to have a European counterpart. It was made clear to me again and again how much effort it would take. You really have to take completely different safety precautions to fly astronauts into space. It’s about human life and there are different safety standards to be observed than when I launch a satellite into space.
Münchenberg: Well, this is a brand new space capsule. It is also said by NASA that the whole thing is a test flight to see whether it works. How much risk is involved in such a mission?
“Hope that international cooperation does not suffer”
Woerner: I’ll tell you something else too. When Alexander Gerst flew from Baikonur for the first time, or when I accompanied other European astronauts to the start, it was a system that had 30 or 40 years of experience. And yet: you have to think about what happens there. It’s a controlled explosion, like a rocket launch, and that’s why my heart pounding every time. I’ve always been worried about the astronauts. That is why we have to be concerned today too.
With the Americans, of course, the pressure is particularly high that they want to do it particularly quickly and safely, that it really works safely, that they start now. There is already pressure on the boiler. I hope – as I said, the most important thing for me – that the two astronauts will survive this well.
But there is one other point that is important to me, if you will allow me to do so. For me the second point is: We have always had to work together in recent years, Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Russians and Europeans. This having to work together had its advantages. Imagine if we had a European or an American independent transport system during the Crimean crisis. Would we really have flown together then?
I just want to say: I hope that international cooperation will not suffer from today’s start, but that redundancy is the positive point that we have parallel systems. At the same time I repeat: special cross-fingers apply to the two astronauts this evening.
Münchenberg: Well, it is a privatization of space travel. The flight itself is controlled from SpaceX’s in-house control center in a suburb of Los Angeles. Doesn’t the state also give important know-how, a degree of control by relocating the whole thing to private companies?
Woerner: I’m not so sure about the shift of control because I know the entire construction of this capsule was under the eyes of NASA technicians. It’s not that NASA said, then send us the finished product, but you have to imagine that NASA technicians were really on site at every step of the planning and implementation.
Personally, I am of course very much in favor of the fact that we have more and more commercialization of space travel. I believe that this is the right step, as we have also seen in aviation. In this respect, we at ESA are also trying to transfer more responsibility to the companies and then buy more services than instead stipulating every point in the micromanagement in detail. I think that is exactly the right step and the public sector is not giving away any control, but buying services, and that is sensible.
Münchenberg: On the other hand, Mr. Wörner: It is said that NASA pays twice as much for a launch of the Falcon rocket as SpaceX charges another booker. From a purely cost perspective, commercialization is now probably of little use for NASA.
“NASA supports SpaceX with higher payments”
Woerner: NASA is a company or is an administration on behalf of the government. Ultimately, it can be said that it is supported by its higher payments, which is absolutely correct, as you said, that this industry can compete on the world market. SpaceX has become incredibly competitive in the world market with extremely cheap prices (and I’m not saying cost, but extremely cheap prices) and is also causing us difficulties in Europe. But that is partly because, as you rightly said, different prices are paid, whether it is the public purse or whether it is, let’s say, a European who buys a rocket there.
Münchenberg: What does commercialization mean for ESA itself? There is a German astronaut, Matthias Maurer, who will soon be flying to the ISS again. Will he then also use this private American technology?
Woerner: We have a contract with NASA that says we supply hardware, we supply various parts for the international space station or other things, and we get astronaut flights for that, so NASA is the one who decides what to fly with the European. NASA has said that while we no longer have a shuttle, you will fly with Soyuz. We Americans make the treaty with the Russians and you Europeans, you fly under our flag. So that’s not our decision, but I assume that both Matthias Maurer and others can actually fall back on these more privately organized companies.
Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.