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Why to the moon?

Matthias Maurer spent 175 days on the International Space Station ISS. He is one of the candidates for the next manned moon mission. Image: ESA / NASA

In an interview, ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer explains why the moon is so interesting for science, and what his chances are of being on board the next manned flight to Earth's satellite.

NASA has a lot of plans for the future: It wants to fly back to the moon and, in the long term, even to Mars. Will we even be able to fly to Mars?

Theoretically, yes. However, the rocket would be crammed with food, drink and fuel, but without any experiments in the luggage. Maybe there will be room for a flag, and then we can do what we did on Apollo: We plant the flag in the Martian soil, say "we've been here, we can do it. And bye." But that's definitely not what our interest is.

Why is the Moon so exciting for research again?

There are two reasons: First, we can find answers to important research questions on the moon, and second, we can try out technology that we also need for the planned Mars mission.

What research questions are these?

After the Apollo missions, people still thought that the moon was a dusty blob of rock, there was nothing to get there. As a result of satellite missions, we now know that the moon has many resources. The most important is the water ice in the polar regions. To recover and study this ice alone is very valuable. Because the water ice probably came to the moon in the same way as it came to the earth back then: Through meteorites, asteroids and comets from outer space. On the moon this water ice still exists and it probably contains the same organic components as the water on earth many years ago. So we may be getting closer to answering the question, "How did life evolve on Earth?"

What else can the moon tell us?

The ESA-DLR LUNA facility is a cooperative project between the European Space Agency ESA and the German Aerospace Center DLR. It will be a training ground for astronauts and a test center for technology, providing partners and users with the knowledge they need to get to the moon. Image: ESA/DLR-F. Rometsch

The moon is almost as old as the earth, but has not changed on the surface. It is like a history book that we can study. Solar rays are also "frozen", so to speak, in the geology of the moon. That's why we're collecting rock samples there. We also want to set up an observatory on the moon that will receive radio waves that come from the early phase of the universe, before even the very first suns shone. It is known that these signals exist, but the Earth's atmosphere swallows them. With a telescope on the Moon, preferably on the far side, we could receive these radio waves undisturbed and look back even farther than we can now with the James Webb telescope.

What has happened since the moon landing 50 years ago? What are the conditions today?

Flight has become easier and safer. We have much more powerful computers today to control and monitor everything. The safety standards are also different. The risk of something going wrong during the moon landing used to be about 50 percent. I prefer my 99 percent safety today! Our knowledge about the moon and about space travel has grown enormously, and we have much more technology across the board. You don't just need a spacecraft, but also navigation, telecommunications and radio systems. Today, we also have commercial players who are really steaming ahead. Think of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. If those two didn't want to outdo each other, we'd have very different prices.

What has changed for astronauts?

On the moon we face much greater challenges than in the Apollo days. Then, it was important to land safely, collect samples, re-launch safely and come back–and to do it faster than the Soviets. The science program was more of an accessory. Today science and research are the focus. The scientific training of astronauts is much more extensive. For field operations on the moon, spacewalkers today need sturdier and more flexible suits. These will be critical to what astronauts can accomplish up there. Lunar dust is very aggressive and sharp-edged. It settles everywhere and should not get into the suit.

What is the current status of NASA's lunar mission?

The launch of Artemis 1 has been postponed for the time being. In 2024, Artemis 2 is scheduled to take place, the first manned flight to the moon, but without landing. For Artemis 3, the manned lunar landing, my guess is late 2025 or early 2026.

The Lunar Gateway is part of the Artemis mission. Why will it play such a big role in the future?

The gateway is a space station that will orbit the moon and serve as a kind of gateway to the moon, but also to Mars. From Artemis 7–around the year 2030–European astronauts will also be able to fly to this station and land on the moon from there. The station will also be used to conduct research in a different environment., and to test propulsion technologies in order to possibly use parts afterwards on spacecraft that will fly towards Mars.

What are ESA and Germany contributing to the lunar mission?

The European contribution is a service module, the propulsion unit (ESM) for the Orion capsule. It is being built in Bremen. If the Americans had produced the ESM in the USA, it would have been much more expensive–a real bargain for them!

What are your chances of getting to the moon?

We seven active ESA astronauts could all be selected for Artemis missions. Three flights are planned for Europeans heading to the Moon in the next few years. From there, my chance is three sevenths. Let's see.

Have you already thought of a clever phrase for your first step on the moon?

Not yet. But I'll have to come up with something snappy. Neil Armstrong already came up with a good one.

You are not only an astronaut, but also the project manager of the planned lunar simulation facility LUNA in Cologne with the beautiful slogan "We practice moon".

LUNA is a joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The total area is about 1000 square meters. There will be a relief-like lunar surface in the hall. And controllable lighting that mimics different light situations from the moon, especially in the polar regions. Then we'll fill the facility with extremely fine lava sand from the volcanic Eifel. The sand will certainly damage the technology a bit, but better to happen on Earth than on the Moon. We also want to have areas with frozen sand. If we have to drill into rock-hard soil at -250 degrees on the moon, we'll need the right technology. Then there's the "gravity offloading system." On the moon, the weight of a body or object is reduced to one-sixth. The system can adjust the weight to one-sixth for everyone individually. We will have pulleys where we can hang on and move around. A hammer blow, for example, will also have a lot less oomph. We have to test all that.

Who will use LUNA?

Astronauts, scientists, representatives from industry, students, etc. will all meet here. Anyone who has lunar technology can come and try it out with us. It's like a picnic: Everyone brings something and gets to use everyone else's stuff. This way the technology can mature much faster and astronauts can give feedback directly. There will also be public tours. Even NASA is interested in our facility and will work on it.

What do you think makes a good astronaut?

Being an astronaut is easy. But becoming an astronaut is incredibly hard. In short, for me a good astronaut is healthy, fit, cheerful, a very good team player and excellently trained. And a good communicator to share the excitement of space. "Moon Tok" would be an idea for a new social media channel....

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