FR0812-Thiele AstronauteninterviewESA needs new astronatus for future ambitions

By Matthias Gründer ESA is currently looking for new astronauts to go to the ISS over the next few years and later on to even fly to the moon. Gerhard Thiele, Head of the European Astronaut Corps, reveals more in an interview.

By Matthias Gründer

ESA is currently looking for new astronauts to go to the ISS over the next few years and later on to even fly to the moon. Gerhard Thiele, Head of the European Astronaut Corps, reveals more in an interview.

On his business card it says "Gerhard Thiele, Astronaut". In one sense that is correct, but at the same time it is also confusing, for although the wiry physicist is still an active member of the European Astronaut Corps in Cologne, he is also its head. He describes the management functions in these words: "Astronauts have quite specific experiences, not just as a result of the flight itself but also through their special perspective. I regard it as vital that anyone inclined to a management role should bring with them this knowledge. It could be a career decision, but I would definitely prefer that one should do that just for a certain length of time and then return to the operational area."

He himself is bound under the terms of his employment contract to maintain his minimum qualification and undergo a medical every year. As a result, he pays attention to his fitness so that, if required, he could quickly return to training and hence "to the operational area", if the call were to come. "It goes without saying that I would say yes and be delighted. But for that to come about, we need a political decision as to whether Germany should fly another astronaut. On the other hand, I am not the only candidate, we also have Hans Schlegel, Thomas Reiter and Reinhold Ewald."

But the four Germans in the European Astronaut Corps and their colleagues from other member states can only cover requirements for the immediate future. At the same time one needs to bear in mind that not everyone who theoretically would still be allowed to fly will still want to or be capable of doing so after a long waiting time. Thomas Reiter, for example, would love to fly, but meanwhile his family is at the top of his list of priorities.

Commenting on this, Gerhard Thiele says, "An astronaut's life is spent predominantly on the earth. Even Claude Nicollier, who has flown four times, is always saying that he has only spent one three-hundredth of his working time in orbit as an astronaut. Just that figure is enough to give a clear idea of what one is letting oneself in for, and of course the profession is anything other than a picnic. As far as I am concerned, I still find the long absences tolerable." Another factor in the astronaut's life is the uncertainty of never knowing exactly whether the thing that one has let oneself in for will finally materialise. When Thomas Reiter was preparing for his mission, he was expecting to fly within a year. But because of the Colombia disaster, this turned into three years.

"You embark on a very intensive training plan and reach an agreement with your family. Then you train really hard and the family recedes, relatively speaking, into the background, and then suddenly everything has changed. The end date of the summer 2003 that you were all psyched up for comes and goes and things carry on for another two years, and then the intensity perhaps becomes a bit less. When there is more preparation time available, the space managers naturally pack more into it. That is what ultimately can make things difficult."

At least one of the new astronauts will definitely fly to the moon

Now the search is on for the next generation of astronauts in Europe. The immediate priority is to find candidates for the ISS programme who need to be able and willing to work on board the space station for six months without any problems. "We are working on the assumption that the space station will remain in operation beyond the year 2015 and that the first of the new candidates, I would really hope, will fly before 2015. Beyond that, I believe that one of them will be the first European on the moon."

But it is not possible today to predict when and how often the candidates will actually fly, not least because Europe does not have a space transport system of its own and is therefore dependent on opportunities to fly along with other partners. "On the other hand, the typical new astronaut will be about 35 years old and could definitely serve in this function for 20 years if he wanted to. When I think about where we will be in the year 2028, I have no doubt whatsoever that by then a European will have been on the moon."

It goes without saying that in his own interests and in the interest of "his" astronauts, he is in favour of creating a separate European space transport system. Further development of the ATV launch vehicle would be a step in the right direction.

Europe needs its own access to space. But does it also want this?

"Europe has to ask itself the question of whether in the long term it is only seeking access to space with partners – with the Russians, the Americans or in the future even with the Chinese – or whether it wants to be independent and develop a means of transport of its own. During the period of enforced idleness of the shuttle after the Colombia disaster, everyone saw that the Russians were keeping the space station alive, but beyond that it was not possible for any research to take place on board. If Europe had already had a reliable transport vehicle at that time, then the use of the station would not have had to endure such a moratorium." In Thiele's view, it is not a matter of developing a station of our own, but of the need to simply appreciate that a Europe which wants to play a role in world politics could fulfil this responsibility in space as well. "Whether that is desirable is another question, but in my view it would be fitting role for Europe."

The ATV study sounds particularly tempting, since after all the Europeans do have in this supply spacecraft what is probably the most advanced spaceship around. No other nation is able to dock at a station fully automatically and with redundancy, and we need such technology if we are thinking of exploring Mars. "We can't send people everywhere. It seems only logical to me to develop the ATV into a reusable capsule which could also transport humans."

But where would the money come from? Thiele has a firm opinion on this point. "Here I believe there is a huge divide between public and published opinion. In my experience, people view us astronauts with great empathy and great interest and they find everything that we are doing really exciting. I constantly find that people are surprised when I tell them how little the space programmes actually cost." It remains to the head of the EAC and his future new colleagues to hope that the politicians come round to this point of view.

From FLUG REVUE 12/2008

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