Stuttgart Dialog: Former astronaut Thomas Reiter fascinated the audience with his first-hand tales of space exploration.
Does someone who, as the only European to have gone on two long-term missions to space, find life on earth to be boring? "No, I wouldn’t say that at all," responds former astronaut Thomas Reiter on that Tuesday evening to the opening question from Joachim Dorfs, editor in chief of the Stuttgarter Zeitung. At the second Stuttgart Dialog, 700 guests listened to the stories of Europe’s most experienced astronaut – thanks to the invitation of the newspaper and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. "On the one hand, you’re fascinated by the unbelievable beauty of the view of the earth from high above, but something always brings you back to reality," Reiter explains. For example, one night on one of his missions, he was looking at Europe and the lights along the coastline – and then he suddenly saw a pitch-black area. The effects of the war in the Balkans could be seen even from space.
As an astronaut in space, do you feel all of the political tension of international collaboration? "No, we’re all united up there," says Reiter. "We have been working together for decades and are pursuing a common goal." Even in times of the greatest contention, there is a family-like atmosphere on the International Space Station (ISS).
"The next logical goal is the moon"
Mars was of course also on the agenda – including the possibility of life on the Red Planet. Reiter thinks that, realistically, humans will land on Mars in around 20 years. "But the next logical goal is the moon," emphasized the current official of the European Space Agency (ESA). After all, the outbound trip alone to Mars would last seven months, which means that a manned mission would take two to three years. "For that, we would need to work much more autonomously than we do today." The moon would be suitable not only as a testing ground for a Mars mission, but also as a station for a deeper look into the cosmos.
Why do the Americans want to go to Mars? Reiter chooses his words carefully when speaking on the topic. There have been whispers that even NASA’s budget is too small for such an undertaking. And, in light of the new administration, "We’ll have to see," he says, imitating Donald Trump. He is intrigued by the question of how Mars became what it is today. After all, everyone is in agreement that there was once water on Mars. How did that water disappear? Might the earth be facing a similar fate? And the second question: was there ever life on Mars – and might there still be?
Complex space exploration projects
One cannot think of space exploration projects as simple says Reiter as Joachim Dorfs asks him about the crash of the lander in the ExoMars mission. "That was a big disappointment," Reiter admits. "It didn’t work out the way we thought it would." In contrast, the European Space Agency (ESA) has had many successes – so much so that people might have the wrong impression that everything is easy.
Surely there are a few aerospace engineering students today with similar dreams – and ESA astronauts never get tired of encouraging those students to keep their dreams alive. Stuttgart offers the only civilian aerospace engineering program in Germany.
Aerospace students ask their role model
Of the 1,700 students, 30 were also invited to the event, and they had questions for their role model. One student was curious about the difference between the Russian Mir space station and today’s ISS. "The meals have become more varied," says Reiter, earning a few laughs from the audience. In the past, he picked up his soldering iron and made repairs to the Mir space station. "Today, you won’t get very far on the ISS with a soldering iron," Reiter muses. But when it comes to the moon and Mars, that will have to change in his opinion – due to the logistics of the situation, which make delivery of replacement parts quite difficult. So perhaps the soldering iron will make a lunar comeback, if you will.
(November 2016, Eva Wolfangel, Stuttgarter Zeitung)