Gerhard Thiele: "Space travel is changing fundamentally."

Gerhard Thiele is used to taking different perspectives. The physicist and astronaut knows the view from a space shuttle just as well as the one from the capsule communicator desk on earth at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. We had the opportunity to sit down with the former head of the European Astronaut Corps at a meeting of the Bechtle Project Management Community.

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Dr Thiele, in his final years, the renowned astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, talked of the urgency to access other planets. Can this exit option be a driving force in manned space travel?


I hold Stephen Hawking in high esteem due to his huge life’s achievement, but I can’t agree with him on this point. The main motivation for space travel, in my opinion, is simply the fact that we, as people, are all fundamentally curious. We’re always looking to expand our knowledge and understand things that we don’t as yet. Little children learn by literally grasping objects and perceiving them with all their senses. The universe, on the other hand, is so vast that it’s not possible to explore it all at once. It’s only logical that we try and break through the next boundary.


In this regard, what is the significance of endeavours to better exploit space economically?


Of course, this also has a role to play. The more we learn, the better we can imagine how to put our knowledge to use. Take the space shuttle mission I was an astronaut on. The aim was to take new measurements of the earth—with exceptional detail and precision. The starting point for it was the simple question: What does the surface of our planet really look like? And if you think about the vast number of people who use these data today, it’s astonishing. The topographical data we acquired enabled a solar power company in South Carolina to optimally position their solar panels in hilly areas. But they’re also used in aeroplane approach maps—and even today they’re still used as reference data for scientists all over the world.


You have a high opinion of the technology and space entrepreneur, Elon Musk. What is it about him that fascinates you?


What impresses me about Elon Musk is that he sets very ambitious goals, which in turn spur his employees on to achieve extraordinary feats. The best example of this in space travel, is that his company—SpaceX—succeeded in bringing the first stage rocket safely back down to earth from space—and not just once, but many times. Transport costs constitute up to a third of a mission’s budget. It would make a huge difference, if these costs were reduced tenfold, which is what he’s going for.


Elon Musk isn’t just making space accessible, but he’s also a visionary who sees settlement on Mars in a similar way to Stephen Hawking. Do you think this is farther away than he thinks?


I think his timeline is certainly very optimistic. The younger generation will undoubtedly see man land on Mars, but not, as with the Apollo moon landings, to explore. We’ll go to Mars to stay. That doesn’t mean, however, that people will fly there and spend the rest of their lives there. The infrastructure will develop bit by bit, and I think we can be excited to see how it will progress.

It’s indisputable that, in the face of advancements in IT and connectivity, together with components getting increasingly smaller and computing power steadily growing, there will be more and more tasks that technical solutions can perform better than people. I strongly believe, however, that people won’t let themselves be completely replaced.

AI and robotics are much-debated topics. Can you foresee artificial intelligence systems assuming the functions of astronauts?


It’s indisputable that, in the face of advancements in IT and connectivity, together with components getting increasingly smaller and computing power steadily growing, there will be more and more tasks that technical solutions can perform better than people. I strongly believe, however, that people won’t let themselves be completely replaced. I personally like hiking—one of my favourite mountains is the Watzmann. If a ground station was built in the valley, and I was provided with the opportunity to sit back and enjoy a sandwich there and take photos of the view via a robot positioned on the top, instead of undertaking the arduous climb, what do you think I would choose?


The answer seems obvious. But thinking about the long journey to Mars, could systems that imitate the cognitive abilities of people be an option here?


They could certainly be useful for support and additional resources, but people won’t let themselves forgo this step. A robot telling you what it has observed can’t come close to a person sharing their experience, there’s a fundamental difference.



No matter how perfectly we prepare for something, we should always expect the unexpected. How does one train for creative problem solving in manned space travel?


If you think back to Apollo 13, that was really rather creative, how they handled the critical situation. If they’d done everything by the book, they wouldn’t have been able to bring Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise back down to Earth. But I’m not sure that's something you can really train for. We can create conditions that are more likely to lead to successful reactions. This includes building on people’s strengths and using them accordingly.


Are you thinking of talent management?


This is what it comes down to. Reaching a goal depends on the right mix of people in a team. An example from space travel: During EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) outside of the spaceship, you need to deal with certain conditions. Someone large and strong will have it easier. That’s not to say that others can’t do it, but for a mission where EVAs are absolutely key, it wouldn’t be a smart move to not take that into account. It’s a matter of bringing together people with different qualities and skills that complement each other for the benefit of the group as a whole.


Your daughter Insa Thiele-Eich is one of the first women in Germany to be nominated for a space flight. How are you supporting her in this?


When she has questions, then of course I answer them with pleasure, but I’m not coaching her. Above all, I try to promote her initiative “Die Astronautin” (“The female astronaut”), for one simple reason: I think that we’re currently experiencing a radical change in space travel. Visionaries like Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow, and others from the private sector are advancing their projects on the basis of their own entrepreneurial risks faster than state facilities are able to. We’re now seeing the first successes and, like in other sectors, the environment is growing very quickly as a result. I expect private space travel to develop a dominating role in the next ten to 20 years. Jan Wörner, General Director of the European Space Organisation, ESA, surely thinks along these lines when he speaks of a “Moon Village”. This is not the vision of a settlement on the moon with churches, bakeries and schools, but rather a way that parties—both governmental and private—can express their interest and identify possibilities for collaboration. “Die Astronautin” is the first conspicuous private initiative in Germany—and indeed Europe—whose goal is to send a female astronaut into space. This is a worthwhile aim, not least because all eleven German astronauts to go into space so far have been men. I think it’s important to get more of the private sector on board for space travel in Europe, and we can’t afford to lose out on half of our potential supporters. Women have enormous potential for space travel and technical professions in general.


The space hype around the activities of ISS astronaut Alexander Gerst must surely be helping to boost space travel in Germany?


It’s very helpful to space travel. I feel a little bit honoured, too, because I was the programme manager for the last round of ESA astronaut recruitments. Alexander, along with others who made the cut in 2009, is doing an excellent job in communication. Through social media, they’re having a much larger reach than was possible in the past. I welcome this, because it makes space travel seem less divorced from reality and out of the ordinary, and brings it more into the public’s consciousness.

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Gerhard Thiele was a member of the ESA Astronaut Corps from 1998 to 2005 and took part in the shuttle radar topography mission (SRTM) as a mission specialist, becoming the tenth German in space. The aim of the mission was to collect data for the first three-dimensional digital map of the entire surface of the globe. He was subsequently the first European astronaut in NASA to be appointed as Shuttle Capsule Communicator (CapCom). In this role, he was responsible for the radio communication between the ground station and the astronauts onboard the space shuttle for several flights. In August 2005, he laid to rest his active flight service and became head of the European astronaut team. Since 2013, he has been head of the Strategic Planning and Outreach Office in the manned spaceflight and flight operations department.

Published on Oct 2, 2018.