Professor Johann-Dietrich Wörner, DG European Space Agency (ESA)

Professor Johann-Dietrich Wörner Director General European Space Agency (ESA)
Professor Johann-Dietrich Wörner © ESA

The public is increasingly seeing space as a very important part of everyday life and this demonstrates a growing awareness of the practical role that space plays in the lives of every citizen.

Space is, for instance, evident in the weather forecasts that we rely on, the satellite navigation we use in our cars, and the telecommunications which are an increasingly integral part of modern life.

But space also plays a role in society in much less obvious ways. For example, in large financial transactions timing is crucial; you have to know exactly when to send and receive the monies, because if there is a mistake of even just a fraction of a second, then the difference in terms of interest rate is enormous. The correct timing for sending and receiving the data is achieved by satellites, and banks around the world make utilise this as a part of their daily infrastructure. And this is just one example.

This also brings into play the discussion around fundamental and applied science. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity explains that time is slowed down by both velocity and gravity. At the time, this theory was an exercise in blue sky thinking with no real application. And yet 100 years later, each of us is dependant on this theory: satellite navigation is reliant on satellites positioned far away from the Earth where the gravity is less and which are moving very quickly. If Einstein’s theory wasn’t applied, the error would be 500m in just a single hour, rendering the entire concept worthless.

It is not just the practical role of space that is now being recognised by the public, but the curiosity-driven interest in space is also seeing something of a renaissance.

The Rosetta mission captured the public imagination in a way not seen before. This saw the orbiter rendezvoused with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August 2014 and remain in close proximity to the nucleus as it plunged towards the warmer inner reaches of the Sun’s domain. In November 2014, a small lander was released onto the surface of this mysterious world. Rosetta continued to study all aspects of the comet and its environment until mission end in September 2016.

Public interest in this mission was significant; and many people may have first been surprised by the endeavour when they understand that the mission took 20 years – 10 years of preparation and 10 years of flight. And they may well have asked how it is possible to land on a tiny comet after such a long journey. Then, hopefully, they were fascinated. And then if their fascination had been ignited, they may have reached the next step: being inspired; inspired by what they had seen and, moreover, by the fact that someone had a dream of flying a satellite to and landing on a comet, and that this dream had been realised. Once a person has been inspired, they are then close to the final and most important stage: motivation. Once motivated, they will work to have their own dreams brought to life in whatever area that may be.

We hope that such public interest will continue with the ExoMars mission and, indeed, with BepiColombo which will arrive at Mercury at the end of this year. And, of course, the activities taking place elsewhere – not least Elon Musk’s launch of the Falcon Heavy, which is also serving to engage the public interest.

It should also be highlighted that space is a sector which is above borders – both literally and figuratively. Despite political tensions, co-operation in space continues. The International Space Station, a project between the USA, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada is a perfect example of this.

A photograph of Europe from space shown no borders. And while I would not call for a ‘United States of Europe’, I would like to see ‘United Space in Europe’. This embodies the European spirit of co-operation and will enable Europe to lead the way on the global stage.

Every euro invested in space sees a six euro return. And with continued investment in space we can ensure that it remains a global enabler expanding the frontiers of human knowledge while simultaneously inspiring others to follow their own dreams.

This article will appear in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 27, which will be published in June, 2018.

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