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The Future of Space Exploration

It was 1957 when Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite and inspired a 3 years-old little kid. In 2015, he became the Director of the European Space Agency (ESA).

The university hosted an interview with Johann-Dietrich Wörner, the Director of the European Space Agency on Tuesday, February 21. He addressed various aspects of the current situation of the Agency and a probable panorama of the human discovering the universe.

The European Space Agency

The European Space Agency is an intergovernmental organization of 22 member states, not part of the European Union. The ESA agency is a unique multinational space agency globally.

ESA main activities are focused on science and exploration. The agency organizes space flights and research on board in the International Space Station, for example, the project BepiColombo aiming to reach Mercury, a journey that will take 7 years and 9 billion km of trajectory. Correspondingly, the ESA, as an exclusive peace-purpose agency, works on save and security applications supervising the meteorological changes, navigation and telecommunication and the development of technologies.

Despite being away from the transportation of astronauts, it is not considered as a weakness but an advantage. The ESA is an agency of international cooperation thought directing the financial and intellectual resources of its members, it can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country.

A paradigm shift

The director mentions the presence of a paradigm shift in the space field. Exploring space went through various phases at the beginning, Space 1.0 comprehended astronomy. Then, the race to space in the 60s came up with Space 2.0.

Dr Johann-Dietrich Wörner-Director General of the European Space Agency.

The present panorama of human in space is some global activities in the international global station alongside with new applications, known as Space 3.0. However, there is a new movement towards a total gestalt switch in the space activity, captured by the term Space 4.0.

Disruptive forces are changing the nature of space exploration. The participation of more than 70 countries and the incorporation of new actors like the private sector, represents new fields of investigation with no limitation. Apart from the system change, commercialization of space, the use of artificial intelligence and participation. The last was emphasised by the director, pointing out the importance of more and diverse human capital input in order to build up the future.

Often subject of misconceptions, Moon Village is comprehended as a programme, or project, or a sole national idea. Nevertheless, these ideas are far from what Moon Village really is. The idea of Moon Village came across with the International Space Station (ISS), a jointly intergovernmental project between five participating space agencies. As an integral part of Space 4.0, the Moon Village is a multiparter open concept. In a few words, it is that the moon has no borders, it should not have geopolitical hedges as the Earth. Having hedges set limitation to allow or not people to enter to a certain space. Therefore, the factual idea of  Moon Village is the open and free access to the moon to any and all interested parties and nations. The role of ESA in that respect is moving from a development emissions agency towards the enabler, welcoming actors, who are eager to participate.


ESA and NASA have a long history of collaborating and cooperating with each other in space, from the Hubble telescope to the development of the new Orion spacecraft.

Johann-Dietrich Wörner gave reasons to call up for a joint work among nations. A single nation in Europe could not fulfil the ongoing activities that ESA is caring out. If this cooperation goes beyond, to a global scale greater and better activities and projects can be achieved with financial support for example. In a geopolitical aspect, collaborating worldwide would break the earth crises. Cooperation is an enabler.

Nonetheless, nations are facing an increasing tendency of self-isolationism and self-interests which, unable an effective joint work. NASA, for example, has preventing laws for cooperating with China. In the case of ESA, the situation does not affect its teamwork, according to Johann-Dietrich Wörner. He highlighted the free decision and action characteristic of ESA. In political conflicts as in the case of China and the USA, ESA works as the canal of negotiation among nations. Still, the director of ESA does not see competition as a negative value in several aspects like the price of technology.

Kessler syndrome: The problem of trash satellites

On the other hand, the overgrowing trend of launching small satellites to space is a worrying matter. There is some regulation, but those are not followed correctly or just ignored. It is said the once a satellite is over with its mission, should be brought back in a period no longer than 25 years. According to Dietrich, this time lapse is too long and dangerous, there are cases of collusions among inactive satellites. In 2016, satellite collisions have generated space garbage. Now, there are more than 4000 satellites in orbit and just 1500  of them are active, meaning that approximately 3000 are inactive satellites. Even more, the earth orbit counts with over 750 000 particles, called the space trash.

Companies like Google has launched many of them, and 10% of them are unreliable. Dietrich proposes three solutions to this problematic circumstance. First, the implementation of a parallel system that automatically deorbits the satellite, in cases of malfunctioning. Second, the existence of specialized firms to remove satellites would be a solution. Third, if a satellite is not brought down, the launcher should pay a fee to a space agency and this, in turn, should transport back the satellite.

The private sector

Previously, the private sector was in charge of the production of equipment, while the management of these was in charge of the space agencies. Now, private companies are increasingly seeing space as a new market outside of our planetary boundaries. With the emergence of astropreneurship, the market structure in the space industry has changed drastically. Industry, academia, and business outline the realities of sending new technologies, research methodologies, and business models into orbit. Companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have been able to cut costs through technological advancement and are challenging old space monopolies.

How are space agencies adapting to this changing reality? Dietrich talked about the service offer request. Where space agencies ask the industry for innovative ideas and the price tech. The price is only accepted if the project is backed up with justification and a business plan. According to him, it is not a privatization of the space exploration market, but rather commercialization.  Yet, he does not discard privatization to occur.

At the beginning of the year, The European Space Agency signed a one-year contract with ArianGroup to prepare for a mission to the moon and study the regolith which could enable an independent human presence in the moon. The contract implies more active participation and responsibility for the private company.

However, this drive for privatisation has been largely led by US-based companies, with Europe falling behind. The director of ESA held the reality of captive markets in the space industry. ESA face a severely limited number of competitive suppliers; their only choices are to purchase what is available or to make no purchase at all. As well, captive markets result in higher prices and less diversity.

Once again, there is competition in the industry and ESA is in the middle of it. Yet, competition for the best price would benefit everyone, enable access to cheaper equipment and more access to information and investigation.

To the future

To the estimation of Elon Musk of humans landing on Mars by 2026, ESA director responded as difficult and beyond humans scope, today.  He sees Musk statement as inspiring, it should be carefully and profoundly analyse the notion, however. Thinking about round-trips to Mars sounds odd with the current technology. Trips to Mars may take months and through the course, the probability of being hit by unexpected phenomena, such as solar flares or cosmic radiation, is greater than going to the moon. Additionally, people need assistance when they land on Mars, which is something extremely problematic. Modern aircrafts do not permit a feasible to do such trips. Conclusively, Johann Dietrich Worner is convinced that human will land on Mars, but it will take time and lots of development before it.

“Space should be a neutral area.” – Director of the European Space Agency.


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