A column by Marco Fuchs: thoughts about time and space

The Twenties will be a decade of increased human activity in space

humankind will have been able to find traces of extraterrestrial life

January 6, 2020. In the past few weeks you have without a doubt heard, seen and read a lot about the “Twenties”. Many media reports are comparing the 1920s with the now dawning 2020s. The 1920s were known as a “Golden Age”, especially in Germany. I'm pretty sure that we tend to romanticize at least some of the events of that decade, but nevertheless: the 1920s were a time of general economic upswing as well as being a heyday of art, culture and science.

Whether or not this development will repeat itself in the coming ten years is something I do not dare to predict. The future of the global economy, for example, depends on the outcome of the US elections in November 2020, the effects of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, now firmly planned for the end of January, and the further development of the trade conflict between America and China. On the other hand, however, the past decade has shown us that the German economy in particular is extremely robust and can adapt to major challenges. For this reason, I am fundamentally optimistic despite the confusing situation in the world. My experience as an entrepreneur has taught me that things always tend to work out in the end. Frequently, too much attention is paid to the risks at the expense of the opportunities.

Space industry has succeeded in demonstrating the benefits of their technologies

It is also in the light of this experience that I feel able to make a concrete prediction about the area in which I feel most at home – the space industry - for the 1920s. It is this: The 2020s will be a decade of increased human activity in space! As I see it, the companies in our industry have succeeded in recent years in demonstrating the benefits of their technologies to the general public. Today, hardly anyone would seriously deny that space technology makes a significant contribution to the functioning of the economy and society: Weather forecasting, navigation, environmental and climate observation - all this would be inconceivable without the infrastructure that has been installed in space. So, extrapolating from earlier decades, it is obvious that the importance of space-based infrastructures has increased - and I am also very sure that this trend will continue in the coming decade.

A number of things have changed in the structure of the industry. While the previous four decades were characterized by a space industry heavily dominated by governments and public-sector institutions, we are currently experiencing a fundamental reorientation of the entire industry. New market participants are appearing on the scene, with new business models emerging. The market is changing rapidly. This calls for new technologies, new processes and new production methods. It is true that governments will always play a central role in space activities, particularly as supervisors, as initiators of projects and as operators of public infrastructures such as the Galileo navigation system. Yet, new markets will develop around these classic forms of space flight, offering private investors great opportunities. In short: the old borders will increasingly dissolve in the coming years. This will create not only completely new business models but also opportunities for private/public partnerships.

However, these new mixed models will also require a new form of regulation. Despite the tempting prospects of a new economic area in a new dimension, a “Wild West” situation in space must be prevented. For this reason, regulations for the central traffic monitoring of satellites and starships will be implemented over the next few years. When privately financed satellite constellations comprising tens of thousands of satellites are operating in low Earth orbits, such regulations will basically ensure that - as is the case with air traffic control - a certain order is maintained, define clear rights and obligations towards other users and make sure that these are respected.

OHB is no longer a small satellite manufacturer

Obviously, we want to and will be part of this new large industry that is currently emerging. I am very optimistic in this respect. This is because OHB is no longer a small satellite manufacturer among several large ones. On the contrary: we are the German space technology company. There will be lots of opportunities for growth in the entire industry especially in the field of Earth observation. Relevant parameters will be permanently measured from orbit and monitored online. And there will be more and more parameters to be measured. There will be a time in the not too distant future when Internet service providers will offer live satellite images online. A map service will be available allowing a delivery service or real estate agent to check the status of a given area on a realtime basis. Data from Earth observation satellites will therefore yield a number of new business models as we move forward - not least because the data collected by the Copernicus European Earth observation system will be freely available to the general public.

By 2030 there will also be a lunar infrastructure and a new lunar program. Astronauts will have landed on the Moon again, and the first stations may already have been installed on its surface. What I don’t really believe is that you can do anything else other than engage in research and scientific pursuits on the Moon. In my view, this is also true for Mars. Given that these places do not exactly offer hospitable conditions for humans, what else are you supposed to do there? One aspect is always seriously underestimated in all the discussions about space exploration: the scope for activity in space is much more limited than many people think! Why? Because of the laws of biology and physics!

At present, humans only live for a maximum of 100 years. At some point in the future we may extend that life expectancy to 200 years, but the technologies available at that point will most likely still only allow us to move through space at a snail’s pace. As long as the rules of physics apply this fact will not change fundamentally. This means that probes will still be limited to our solar system and crewed missions will not venture much further than the Moon, Mars, potentially Venus and Mercury, and in the distant future maybe the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The accessible destinations will not be dramatically different in the year 3000, that is the plain and simple truth. But who knows? I could be completely off track! I admit that I would be thrilled to be proved wrong!

Still, 2020 will be a year of exploration. In the summer, the European ExoMars 2020 mission will be launched. However, this is a robotic mission. From my point of view, a crewed mission to Mars will remain a vision for a long time to come. It would entail a very high risk because of the exposure to cosmic and solar radiation - not to mention the conditions on Mars itself. Even the Moon is not easy. The simple fact of the matter is that the American Apollo missions simply had a lot of luck. Ultimately, quite aside from the immense costs, this was certainly also the reason why Apollo was discontinued in 1972: the Americans realized how high the risk of these missions was and that they should not push their luck any further. That’s why I think we should master the Moon first before we go on to Mars.
The purpose of the European ExoMars 2020 mission to Mars is not to establish human settlements. It is a scientific mission that hopes to find traces of life on Mars or, to be more precise, under the surface of the planet. In this context, however, I always like to point out that Venus is also a worthwhile destination. Venus is an Earth-like planet and at least as interesting as Mars, also with regard to the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. I am becoming more and more convinced that the emergence of life is not so extraordinary. It is incredible to see all the places where life can develop. That's why I can imagine that by the end of this decade humankind will have been able to find concrete traces of extraterrestrial life and I am sure that the space industry with its technologies will make a relevant contribution to the natural sciences in this respect.

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.

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