The astronauts return to the Moon. It's official. Last week, he arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, in the United States, the final component of the Orion ship, a leading service module built in Germany by Airbus and the European Space Agency (ESA). With it, NASA has gathered all the pieces to launch its deep space exploration program, the first to send astronauts out of Earth's orbit from the Apollo missions. But this time, they want to go further. Through the construction of a "moon portal" -a space station in the orbit of the Moon- the Americans and collaborating countries seek to establish a base of operations in space from which, finally, to travel to Mars.
Collaboration is the key factor that defines the imminent era of space exploration. Europe has demonstrated its capacity for technological development with the construction of the service module of the Orion spacecraft, but it does not have the budget to launch a program of the same magnitude as NASA. During the presentation event for the new spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, EL PAÍS speaks with David Parker, director of Human Exploration and Robotics at ESA.
Question: If the Americans had not asked for European collaboration, would ESA be conducting its own manned deep-space exploration mission?
Answer: International collaboration is one of the fundamental reasons why we do space exploration. I would say that there are four main reasons: the basic science that comes out of exploring, the development of new technologies, international collaboration and the inspiration of new generations. That is why we want to be part of the great international projects. The question is: what can we do collaborating and what can we do alone? Only NASA can afford to build something the size of the SLS [el cohete que lanzará Orion al espacio], which has cost billions already. That is not a project that the Member States of the ESA want to undertake alone, but if it is going to be built … how can we participate to use it?
Our service module for the Orion spacecraft is the first spacecraft built in Europe, and has allowed us to boost the technical capacity of our space industry. We have already built the ATVs [vehículos de transferencia automatizados] that brought unmanned supplies to the International Space Station and we built much of the physical volume of the Space Station, but now we are gathering that experience to develop the capacity to transport people to deep space.
The Moon is a museum of 4,500 million years of history of the Solar System
P: No one has left Earth's orbit since the Apollo program. Why has it been decided to resume the exploration of deep space now?
R: I think that ambition has always been there. I compare it with the exploration of Antarctica: at the beginning of the 20th century there was a race to reach the South Pole, but then we came back. 50 years passed before the possibility of living and working in Antarctica materialized. From that moment on it has been a fundamental place from which basic science is made, such as the investigations that discovered the hole in the ozone layer of the atmosphere. Now the same thing is happening in space: some 50 years have passed since the Apollo moon landings, which went back and forth. The Moon is a museum of 4,500 million years of history of the Solar System. For example, we know that it has water, but not where it came from, if it contains material from comets or from the Sun … we have to find out. When we went to the Moon in the 1960s, the longest manned mission was four days. If we can now achieve sustainable exploration – I mean to go for a period of days, weeks or months – then we can tackle scientific challenges and push the dreams of humanity, but it has to be an international collaboration.
P: Is there no longer rivalry in the field of space exploration?
NASA spends 10 times more than ESA in space exploration
R: Well … there is a matter of money. In 1960, NASA covered approximately 4% of the federal budget of the United States. Now it's more like 0.5% of that budget. NASA receives about 6,000 million dollars per year for exploration, about ten times more than what Europe spends. That attests why international collaboration is essential.
P: The motivation of the Cold War ended, but NASA continues to dominate the international space exploration panorama. What makes a country with less money to distinguish itself from the competition?
R: Each one seeks to make a strong individual contribution. At European level, the service module of the Orion spacecraft is a very visible element of the project. Canada, for example, could bet on making a robotic arm, because it is a technology that they are very good at; In the photos of the International Space Station, you always see an arm with the Canadian flag. Other smaller countries are also distinguished. For example, Denmark has led the construction of a scientific instrument that we just installed on the International Space Station to do entirely new research on the planet Earth, on the strange electrical phenomena in the upper part of the atmosphere, which were not even known. a few decades Working in the international framework, Denmark has made a leading instrument, on the frontier of science and knowledge. That's why everyone can find their role.
P: What are the current objectives of ESA in the exploration of deep space?
We already live and work in Earth orbit. Someday we will live and work on the Moon and Mars
R: Our vision is to reach three destinations: the low orbit of Earth, the Moon and Mars. In Earth orbit we are already living and working. Someday, I believe that we will live and work on the Moon and Mars, but we have not reached that point yet. Now we seek to continue our participation in the International Space Station, where we have already sent 26 European astronauts and hope to send more. The service module we have built for Orion is helping to pay for that, but we have other scientific and technological projects. We are working with Russia to land a robot on the Moon: it will fall near the lunar South pole and will search for water for the first time. Our unmanned exploration of Mars also continues [el programa ExoMars]. The largest spacecraft in the orbit of Mars right now is European; study the gas composition of the fine Martian atmosphere. And in 2020 we are going to drill under the surface of Mars for the first time with our rover. We have placed the necessary steps and we know what to do in the next 10 years. We also join NASA with its first unmanned mission to go to another planet and return: we will bring a sample of Mars on the first trip there and back. That is something that must be done with robots rather than with people.
P: What scientific research is planned to be carried out with the Orion spacecraft on the Moon and on Mars?
R: Orion is mainly a transport ship. There will be science that is done by studying the astronauts themselves who use it, especially science related to their health and the environment in which they will enter. For example, we are already contemplating putting small radiation sensors that will fly in the first Orion missions. What will be more interesting, when there is a lunar portal, will be to use it as a base camp to explore the satellite. As it is a completely new environment, it will generate a lot of scientific interest in areas such as particle physics or environmental and space sciences, for example with the capture of dust from the Solar System. The most relevant will then be, of course, the exploration of the surface of the Moon. ESA astronauts control robots on Earth from the International Space Station, and next year we will do it with a rover in the desert to demonstrate the kind of exploration that will be possible when we have the lunar portal.
P: He has not talked about the targets on Mars.
People think that the journey from the Moon to Mars is easy, but the Moon is a few days away and Mars, at least six months
R: I do not think people will step on Mars for a while yet. My vision is that we will return to the Moon in the next decade and to Mars in the next decade, that is, the end of the 2030s. It has to be sustainable to be able to return. On the other hand, there is the distance from Earth to the planet. People think that the Moon to Mars is easy, but the Moon is a few days away from Mars and at least six months away. There must be fuel, water, oxygen, protection against radiation … everything necessary to keep the astronauts during the trip. We are learning how to do that from the Space Station, and we will learn more from the lunar portal. When we can afford to fly to Mars, we'll know how to do it. Honestly, right now we do not know.
P: What will be the next destination of the manned exploration?
R: Well, here I have my dreams. Someday, it would be amazing if people could explore the frozen giants of Jupiter and Saturn. Enceladus is a moon of Saturn that has fissures that spit water. Can you imagine exploring that? Or Europe, which is completely covered with ice but we believe that it has liquid water below the surface. Imagine sending a submarine there, that would be fantastic.
P: Will we see it in our lives?
R: The biggest challenge is radiation in space. To get to Jupiter and Saturn, it is very difficult to imagine now how we would protect the astronauts.