In an interview with Tec Review, the director of the European Space Agency hopes to cooperate with Mexico to find traces of life on Mars.
Josef Aschbacher’s plans not only include conquering other planets but also attracting more female talent to space missions, as well as working together with Mexico on some projects.
The task of achieving these targets began on March 1, when Josef was appointed Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA) for a period of four years.
In an interview with Tec Review, the 58-year-old Austrian scientist talks about these and other plans that, due to the nature of his office, transcend the confines of Earth.
Inclusion is high on the ESA’s agenda in terms of getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers from an early age, as well as inspiring more women to pursue careers in the space sector.
“The goal is to encourage more women to apply for jobs at the ESA, and once hired, support them at all levels of the organization. In recent years, the ESA has taken steps to promote balanced gender representation, particularly in the fields of engineering, science, and management. Proactive and measurable targets have been taken to increase the recruitment and representation of women, and significant progress has been made as a result of these efforts,” says Aschbacher.
At the moment, 28.6% of ESA staff are women, and at the management level, only 1 in 6 managers are female. The Agency plans to ensure that by 2025 at least 1 in 3 new hires, including in STEM positions, are women.
“In addition, the ESA will soon begin recruiting a new class of astronauts, and women are strongly being encouraged in hopes of increasing female representation in the ESA Astronaut Corps, which currently has only one woman, Samantha Cristoforetti,” he adds.
Latin American countries hardly even appear in these types of projects. However, Aschbacher warmly welcomes the Mexican Space Agency (AEM, for its initials in Spanish) as a new member of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) and points out a great area of opportunity:
“The priorities identified by the AEM include capacity building and the promotion of cooperation in space exploration ‘for the scientific and technological strengthening of the country.’ More specifically, a first step in demonstrating scientific and technological capabilities could be developing experiments for the International Space Station, which could pave the way for missions to the Moon and Mars.”
Aschbacher says that Europe, as it continues to cooperate with its historical partners, is looking for new models of partnership in space exploration, which encourages the fulfillment of general objectives that a single country cannot expect to achieve on its own.
In tune with the universal principle of complementarity, which can be shown in the harmony between opposing forces that maintain the Solar System in balance, Aschbacher hopes to have women collaborate more intensively in Terrae Novae, a program exploring the orbits of Earth, the Moon, and Mars. This is especially important in the lunar inspection area, with the prospect of the first European footprint on Earth’s natural satellite by 2030.
“In the medium term, human presence around the Moon will be facilitated by a Gateway (lunar station), to which the ESA is contributing a habitation module (I-Hab) and a module (ESPRIT) to provide communications and refueling infrastructure. An international robotic mission, Mars Sample Return (MSR), will also bring back samples from the surface of Mars for the first time,” says the ESA Director General.
The ESA’s exploration program includes facilitating European service modules for Orion, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) lunar landing project made in coordination with the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), and for surface drilling on Mars with the ESA’s ExoMars rover.
This expert also intends to continue collaborating, after 20 years of continuous human occupation, on the International Space Station (ISS), as low-Earth orbit remains an interesting destination for the ESA, which will hopefully extend its involvement beyond 2024.
? Only two weeks to go!
— ESA (@esa) March 17, 2021
This specialist’s opinions are supported by a career of more than 30 years in space affairs at the ESA, the European Commission, the Austrian Space Agency, the Asian Institute of Technology, and the University of Innsbruck in his native Austria, where he received his doctorate in Natural Sciences.
Based on his solid experience, Aschbacher believes that the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars on February 18 was an achievement of great importance.
“This success is a strong positive sign of what science, technology, and innovation can achieve even in the difficult times we’re all going through, and it gives us hope. It’s also a promising sign for the future of exploration and for our cooperation on Mars Sample Return (a project to collect rock and dust samples from Mars and return them to Earth).”
Perseverance is paving the way for the joint NASA-ESA strategy that will return collected and stored Martian material to Earth, after the US agency’s rover places a couple dozen samples drilled from rocks into small tubes on Mars.
“NASA and the ESA’s joint campaign for Mars sample return missions will look for these cylinders through the end of the decade. It’ll be a complex effort involving a second rover, a rocket to Mars, and a huge satellite to send Martian materials back to Earth.”
Tec Review asks Josef Aschbacher the obligatory question about space exploration: Do you think extraterrestrial life will be discovered soon? And his answer is as follows:
“Certainly, there are traces of life, and this is exactly one of the key scientific goals of our ExoMars 2022 mission: to look for signs of past and present life on Mars!”