He is the new guy. Sporting blue overalls – the traditional work garb of European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts – and a broad smile, Matthias Maurer strides confidently through the lobby of the European Astronaut Center (EAC), where so many of his predecessors trained before him. He is currently completing his basic astronaut training, which involves commuting between Cologne, Houston and Moscow. Beijing will be added to his travel itinerary in summer, as Maurer was already responsible for maintaining Sino-European relationships at ESA before joining the astronaut programme. Now, for the first time, astronauts and taikonauts will train together in the Far East. He would find a trip to the 'Heavenly Palace' – China's space station – as wonderful an experience as a flight to the International Space Station ISS. But there is one destination that attracts him even more – the Moon. The qualified materials scientist is of course interested in all material to be found on Earth’s satellite and above all in what can be produced from it. That is why he sees the Moon as the most important preparatory stage for a voyage to Mars. Nevertheless, looking back down at Earth to protect and preserve our planet is just as important to Maurer as the inquisitive gaze beyond and into the future. In this interview with DLR editor Martin Fleischmann, Maurer describes his dreams, goals and responsibilities.
Interview by Martin Fleischmann
Mr Maurer, it is a little unusual for an astronaut to first work in administration rather than directly joining the corps. Is being familiar with the inner workings of ESA an advantage?
Having the opportunity to work behind the scenes for seven years has been a blessing. It makes my work at this level significantly easier. In all these years, I have learned a great deal that will be beneficial for future missions. I supported European astronauts at the European Astronaut Center (EAC) and communicated with them on board the International Space Station (ISS) in my time as EUROCOM ISS flight controller at the Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen. I was then in charge of other projects, for instance to prepare the Astronaut Center for a life after the ISS.
Speaking of the ISS, if we were to draw up a quick bucket list, which would be your favourite destination?
A trip into space would be top of the list, obviously. But if I did get to choose, then it would be the Moon. I have been preparing relevant exploration scenarios for some years now at the EAC. Our planet's satellite has more than enough to offer. I know exactly what it takes to build a lunar base. The Moon will always be my favourite destination. The International Space Station and the Chinese Heavenly Palace would then come in second place.
Why are you so attracted to the Moon?
The Moon is incredibly fascinating. There is so much it can teach us about science and technology. Mars is our long-term goal, of course, but if we went there now we would only be able to stay for a very short time, as we do not have rockets big enough to transport a large number of scientific experiments alongside the supplies, equipment and fuel for the return journey. That is why we definitely need to use the Moon as an intermediate stop. We can learn so much about the ideal use of available resources to prolong the mission, manufacture fuel for our return journey and build a base. All of this would make space travel more efficient, affordable and sustainable. Moreover, the Moon has plenty in store for the scientific community as well. Although it is 4.5 billion years old, its surface has not changed throughout this immense period – apart from meteorite impacts on the surface. So the Moon is a history book for geologists. We should fly there to take samples and learn about its formation. By doing this, we will gain insight about the origin of the Moon/Earth system and the Solar System as a whole. This knowledge would help us find an Earth-like planet in the Universe. So the Moon is key in our search for extraterrestrial life. We could also operate a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon to analyse a frequency range which cannot be scanned from Earth as it gets 'swallowed' by Earth's atmosphere. There is so much we could learn about the nascent phase of the universe by proceeding in this way.
From the Moon, back to near-Earth orbit: what attracts you about a trip to the Chinese 'Heavenly Palace'?
The language and the culture. I have been learning Chinese for several years now and find the cultural difference fascinating. It is a whole new level compared to Russia or North America. At the Astronaut Center, I was responsible for coordinating cooperation with our Chinese counterpart. It was part of my future projects at ESA before I became an astronaut. So I know the foundations of collaboration as well as the local partners. With the Chinese, building long-term trust is imperative. It is a new way of working together, but fundamentally important nonetheless. I was able to lay a strong foundation for new cooperation – one that is just beginning. This summer I will join the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in maritime survival training – the first module organised for European astronauts in China. First we will fly to China in August. Then we will travel to the north of Beijing to learn how to exit a Chinese space capsule that has landed at sea. I am sure it will be an amazing adventure and a huge challenge all the same. Chinese taikonauts cannot be taller than 1.75 metres. But I am a solid 1.83 metres tall. So at the moment there is not even a spacesuit over there that would fit me. Nevertheless, I am certain that a tailor can be found and that future Chinese space capsules will be modified to allow taller astronauts to travel as well.
You are already speaking like an ambassador – an important role for astronauts. What message would you give the world on your first mission?
It is important for me to be a European ambassador. Space exploration will only be successful if we embrace it together. Venturing out beyond the boundaries of Earth will only be possible if all inhabitants of our home planet work hand in hand. The ISS has shown that we can manage a project together, one that builds common bonds and fosters trust. And trust is always the basis for peace. I hope that this collaboration will continue, that we will travel to the Moon and build a village together, one that will involve all ISS partners as well as our new friends from China and India.
Alexander Gerst focused on Earth and sustainability during his 'Blue Dot' mission. His new mission 'Horizons' will gaze into the Universe from 2018. Which aspect do you believe is more important?
They are both important. Every human being is an astronaut travelling on 'spaceship Earth'. But there is still so much we need to learn about the Universe. We will slam the door on this journey of discovery if we destroy our spaceship. So looking back at Earth, protecting and preserving her, is just as important as the gaze beyond and into our future.
Read the full (German) interview in Issue 33 of the DLR newsletter COUNTDOWN.