A column by Marco Fuchs: thoughts about time and space

Space missions are a question of existence for humanity

Why we must substantially step up our efforts to reach new living spaces in the universe

January 16, 2019. On July 20 of this year we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of an event that I think was one of the most significant achievements in the history of humanity. In 1969, humans landed on the moon for the first time, departing from their home planet and leaving their footprints on a another celestial body. This event was so significant as it showed that manned missions to planets were no longer merely science fiction phantasies. All of a sudden, the prospect of humans embarking on exploration missions through the universe and even landing on a distant planet had become a distinct possibility.

I admire Elon Musk for his courage

Today, we are discussing the scope for setting up outposts on the moon or Mars as if this were an entirely natural thing to do. Elon Musk, the visionary founder of SpaceX, recently announced that he wants to move to Mars in 2025. I am fortunate enough to personally know Elon a little and therefore believe that he is entirely serious! That said, I cannot really say just how realistic his plan is in the timeframe stated. However, I must admit that I admire him for his courage.

But if you look at the idea of an interstellar change of residence at a meta-level, you can see that there are indeed good reasons for “moving” to another planet. In addition to the primordial human urge to discover new habitats, the pure instinct to conserve the species leads to the indispensable necessity for mankind to leave the planet sooner or later. There are many dangers looming which will render life on the earth almost impossible, be that in a few hundred years or not for a few billion years. And so, in the interest of future generations, we must now think about how we will continue to exist as a species in the distant future. And above all, where we can do this.

There is real, existence-threatening danger

Very few people are aware that there are dangers that could make our planet an inhospitable place in a worryingly short period of time. One example is the enormous increase in the world population in the next decades. At present, the number of people on earth - currently 7.7 billion - is growing by 1.9 percent per year. If this growth continues at the same rate, we will literally be standing shoulder to shoulder in the year 2100. This is being accompanied by environmental problems, food issues, climate change and the resulting rise in global temperatures and sea levels, which will further exacerbate the problems.

A real, existence-threatening danger also emanates from asteroids that are on a collision course with the earth. This is also a threat known to only a handful of people. There are millions of boulders in the universe which, if they were to collide with the earth, would extinguish every form of life on our planet. Fortunately, such an event occurs only once every 100 million years on average. The last time such an object hit the earth was 66 million years ago, when 75 percent of all living creatures on the earth, including the dinosaurs, died out. However, as the optimist I consider myself to be, I assume that people’s inventiveness will ensure that solutions will be found to address all these threats in good time.

But at some point, in the far distant future, all our optimism will no longer help. For at some point the earth will no longer be viable as a place for us to live. This will occur at the latest when the sun inflates to become a red giant in a few billion years’ time, swallowing all the planets orbiting around it. Or when the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda Nebula. In short, the question of our species’ continued existence will - as I mentioned above - will inevitably arise sooner or later. This is also the reason why the major space agencies are spending billions on science missions.

Are there exoplanets in the universe

Take ESA’s “Plato” project, for example. The aim of this mission is to use a satellite developed and built by OHB from 2026 onwards to search for exoplanets that move around their sun in what is known as a “habitable zone”. Plato will significantly improve this search through the use of a new imaging technology. So far, we are aware of only a limited number of such planets, most of which are hundreds or even thousands of light years away from the earth. Plato could help us to discover planets that are capable of sustaining life, and perhaps even ones that humans could realistically reach from the earth.

In recent years, physicist Stephen Hawking, who recently passed away, urged mankind to look for alternatives to the earth as a habitat. He was of the opinion that the earth would already become uninhabitable in a good 1,000 years’ time. It is not least for this reason that Hawking was one of the drivers behind the “Breakthrough Starshot” project, which is being primarily financed by Russian Internet billionaire Yuri Milner. The idea is to use a huge laser beam from the earth to accelerate a swarm of tiny satellites to a speed of one fifth of the speed of light. This would allow them to reach the nearest star system Alpha Centauri, which is about four light years away from Earth, in a good 20 years. I am very proud that OHB can contribute to this project. The first four minisatellites, each the size of a postage stamp, were launched into space on board our Max Valier science satellite in 2017 for technological testing.

The possibility of travelling into space will become a question of human existence

Admittedly, “Starshot” is still only a vision for the future. The construction of this super laser poses a tremendous technological challenge, not to mention the financial resources that would have to be raised. But one thing is certain: for all the reasons mentioned above, there is an existential necessity for humanity to give priority to space exploration. This is why the public funds being invested in advancing technological developments in space is money well spent. What is more, it is nothing more than common sense in view of the challenges described to significantly step up efforts in this regard. Incidentally, I am in very good company in making this appeal considering that Stephen Hawking in particular urged for greater efforts and speed in making interstellar journeys possible. I am convinced that in 2019, the year in which we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, a new awareness will emerge of how important and, above all else, how vital it will be for us humans to intensify the search for alternative living spaces in space. The possibility of travelling into space will thus become a question of human existence.

The initial important steps are being prepared to this end. Looking forward, a lunar base will serve as an outpost for many simple spaceships on their onward journey into space. Mars is the next target. But we also need to explore how humans can survive the long interstellar journeys and how they can be protected from radiation exposure.

And so we humans will possibly venture further and further into outer space step by step over the next hundreds of years - just as the Vikings did more than 1,000 years ago, when they sailed to America by ship. They first reached Greenland, where they gathered strength and provisions before sailing on to Newfoundland.


Personal details:

Born in 1962, Marco Fuchs studied law in Berlin, Hamburg and New York. He worked as an attorney in New York and Frankfurt am Main from 1992 to 1995. In 1995, he joined OHB, the company that his parents had built up. He has been Chief Executive Officer of OHB SE since 2000 and of OHB System AG since 2011. Marco Fuchs is married and has two children.