Astronaut Matthias Maurer witnessed the start of the Ukraine War on the ISS space station. In this interview, Maurer explains how the collaboration there subsequently worked, why space travel is an important component for global peace and why new missions to the moon offer huge opportunities.

The moon is becoming increasingly important for space travel – as a location for a station and as a supplier of raw materials. The US space agency NASA is planning manned flights to Earth’s satellite again in the coming years. German astronaut Matthias Maurer has a good chance of being there. The 54-year-old was most recently in space on the International Space Station ISS from November 2021 to May 2022. He answers the questions as part of the Ludwig Erhard Summit.

Matthias Maurer: When selecting astronauts, attention is paid to socially competent people. You know what the future working environment will look like. In training courses we also learn that every person is different and has different needs and that it is best to talk when there are problems. We practiced this together, sat down before the flight and clarified: What bothers you about me now? Then I’ll tell you what bothers me about you. We did the same thing in space. Little things come out.

Maurer: For example, I thought I had tried really hard to tidy up my Columbus module. And the others tell me it could be a bit neater. These are the little details that everyone knows from home. Anyone who has ever lived in a shared apartment knows that it bothers some people when their toothbrush is in the wrong place. This is no different in space. If you talk about it, you can quickly defuse these points of friction. This was very successful in our case. NASA said to us after the flight: You were the happiest crew we have ever seen in space.

Maurer: I was up in space when the Ukraine war broke out. That was very, very sad. A very bitter moment for us. The ISS, the astronauts, received the Great Westphalian Peace Prize a few years ago because of their contribution to international understanding, which is awarded in memory of the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The ISS started as a peace project.

Maurer: At the end of the Cold War, the Americans had plans for their own space station. The Russians had the Mir station at the time and wanted to build a successor. They said: The Iron Curtain has fallen, the Soviet Union no longer exists, let’s do this together, get closer and stabilize peace in Europe. This worked excellently for years.

The value of this space program for stabilizing the political situation in Europe cannot be overestimated. The fact that another war has broken out on Earth was therefore doubly bitter. We astronauts always wanted to be role models. That we show: If you worked together as well on Earth as we do up in space, we would have many more resources and significant progress in the fight against all of the challenges that our planet is facing – especially climate change.

Maurer: On the space station we are people who know that we can only work together and keep everything running if we trust each other. That’s why we addressed the situation immediately after the start of the Ukraine war. The cosmonauts and my American colleagues had the same opinion as me. War is not a solution. It was very reassuring to see that we were all on the same level. That’s why the collaboration continued excellently. The relationship of trust was there – even today. I think that when the Ukraine war ends, we will need channels for conversation again. One is the space program.

Maurer: Well, the earth is of course a much better place than a space station. It starts with the fact that you have fresh air here and you can open the door, go outside, enjoy the sun, breathe in the fresh air of nature. The food is much better and every minute is more pleasant for the body. Humans are not made for weightlessness. We notice that. Up there we have fluid, shifts and sometimes a slight feeling of pressure in the head. Life on earth is much more pleasant. So you look forward to all the beautiful things that await you here on earth. But floating in weightlessness is something special. And I miss that too.

Maurer: The moon is an object that appears in the sky every evening and that everyone knows. Everyone has probably dreamed about what it would be like if you could fly there and walk over it and what the Earth would look like from out there. The moon is a place of longing, always visible but never reachable. That’s why it has such a magical effect on us humans. It also has real meaning.

Maurer: We can do science from the moon to better understand our Earth or the Earth-Moon interaction. How the early phase of the universe unfolded. These are all important insights that allow us to get a little closer to the big philosophical questions that have preoccupied people since time immemorial: How did this all come about? How did life come to earth? And is there life outside of this earth?

Maurer: There are also many opportunities for technological progress on the moon – for example water ice in the polar regions. We know that now, but not at the time of the US Apollo missions.

Maurer: Exactly. Water ice is an important resource. This can be split into hydrogen and oxygen. This is rocket fuel. That means the moon could become a gas station for travel beyond the moon. You need a lot of fuel to get away from Earth because it has a strong gravitational pull. You could fill up on the moon and take off to Mars or wherever else you want to go. The moon will then be humanity’s new outpost.

Maurer: There are also resources on the moon that could be exploited, various metals. Helium-3 for nuclear fusion. The moon is also an exciting place for space observation to pick up signals from the universe and gain insights into the early phase of the universe. These radio waves are swallowed by the earth’s atmosphere; we cannot receive them on earth.

Maurer: The trip to the moon will hopefully take place in the next few years. Europe is a very strong partner of NASA in the Artemis program. We have already secured three tickets for European astronauts who can then fly to the moon. I hope I’m one of them. In any case, I prepare accordingly. We have a new moon training center in Cologne. It’s called Luna. There we prepare the technology for lunar exploration as well as the astronauts and the scientists who plan it all.

Maurer: I think the Nebra Sky Disk would be a great object. This is the oldest object that realistically depicts the night sky. It was found in Germany and is proof that people two and a half thousand years ago had the same questions as us. They wanted to understand how the universe works and built this disc to use as a calendar, as a technical aid. If you fly to the moon, it would be nice to take this thought with you. We are continuing the work of our ancestors, perhaps taking with us a modern version of such a sky disk, which could also serve as a reflector, for example. We need such reflectors on the moon so that we can use laser measurements from Earth to determine the distance between the Earth and the moon with millimeter precision.

Bricklayer: A 3D printer to build a house. We can’t fly in concrete or water. And that’s why we have to learn how to build a house out of the moon sand. We also need to be able to make other things from the lunar resources. The water ice can be used as drinking water. We can make oxygen from it. And you can use it as an energy source, converting hydrogen and oxygen into electricity in a fuel cell. And we’ll probably have to take a lot of other things with us because we can’t make all the high technology and electronics on the moon ourselves yet.

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