tagesschau.de: The "Artemis I" mission has already set a record – which one?
Walther Pelzer: Never before has a spaceship built for humans traveled so far from Earth, more than 430,000 kilometers. The "Apollo" missions didn't quite get that far. This is the first record, but not the only one, that will be achieved with "Artemis". If you look at the images of "Orion" in the NASA live stream, it's incredibly impressive. Especially the pictures close to the surface of the moon, with the earth in the background, are fascinating shots.
tagesschau.de: This first flight of "Artemis" is unmanned and has not yet landed on the moon. What insights do you hope to gain from the mission?
Pelzer: It's about much more than just taking off and landing. There are many new technologies being tested, such as sensors and a heat shield. Various tests are carried out and a lot of data is collected. "Artemis II" will not land on the moon yet. Incidentally, that was the same with the "Apollo" missions. You didn't land directly with the first flight that came to the moon. "Apollo 10" has flown into lunar orbit to test the systems. And that is absolutely necessary to see how the interaction between the astronauts works with the corresponding capsule, the propulsion systems, the control modules and the sensors.
tagesschau.de: On board the "Orion" spaceship are two plastic dolls, so-called phantoms. They are called "Helga" and "Zohar" and are equipped with radiation measuring devices. What are the scientists trying to find out?
Pelzer: This is a joint project of DLR, the Israeli space agency and NASA. One of these dolls is wearing a radiation protection vest, the other is unprotected. Radiation on the moon is 800 times stronger than on Earth's surface. With these puppets we can determine: How high is the actual radiation exposure of astronauts who make their way to the moon and eventually to Mars? Then the travel times become so long that we have to learn more about what actually happens to the human body.
After "Artemis" has landed, some data will still be read out in the USA. The dolls then come back to the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne, where they are read out and analyzed further. With the results from the thousands of sensors, we can better determine how to protect future astronauts and prepare them for long operations in space.
Reusable crew capsule
tagesschau.de: "Artemis II" is scheduled to fly into lunar orbit in 2024 with astronauts on board the "Orion" spaceship, but not yet land on the moon. What is being tested there?
Pelzer: You can imagine it like this: The entire "Orion" complex consists of two main parts that have to work together. First, the so-called European Service Module: It supplies the astronauts with electricity, air and water. It is the heart chamber, so to speak, the supply module of the entire spaceship.
And then there's the crew capsule where the astronauts sit. By the way, it is reusable and will return to Earth. Returning the service module, with its great weight, to be reusable would be a huge effort and very expensive. Therefore, only the capsule will return and the service module will be rebuilt and reassembled for each flight.
A week on the lunar surface
tagesschau.de: "Artemis III", the moon landing mission, should start in 2025 at the earliest. How exactly will the astronauts descend to the moon?
Pelzer: With "Artemis III" we need a moon lander in addition to the "Orion" spaceship. This lander will be put into lunar orbit before "Artemis III" takes off. Only then does the "Artemis III" mission start with "Orion" and the astronauts. "Orion" will then dock with the lander in space and two of the four astronauts will walk into the lander. This then decouples from the "Orion" module and goes to the lunar surface.
The astronauts are supposed to stay there for about a week and go on excursions, either on foot or with a rover in the direction of the South Pole, for example to examine water ice and similar things. After that, they return with the lander, dock with the "Orion" module, and then all four astronauts fly back to Earth.
tagesschau.de: So the so-called Lunar Gateway, this planned new intermediate station in lunar orbit, is not yet used for "Artemis III"?
Pelzer: The gateway will be used at a later date. The station has yet to be built. Until they exist, a lander will actually land on the moon. Gateway will then be a space station – comparable to the ISS around the earth orbit – but around the lunar orbit. However, the station will only be manned by astronauts at times.
Figurehead for the German industry
tagesschau.de: In November, the ESA member states set the budget for the coming years at their Ministerial Conference in Paris. Are you satisfied with the German commitment?
Pelzer: The German federal government has already sent a very strong signal. Of course, as head of the space agency, I can always imagine that I would like to do a few more projects. We always have far more good ideas than money. But the federal government, as the largest contributor to the entire ESA, has sent a very clear signal. Firstly for international cooperation, but also to show that we are doing space travel to combat climate change and support sustainability. We have a global problem and need a global view of the earth with our satellites.
With "Artemis", Germany plays the most important role in Europe with more than 50 percent of the added value on the service module. This is a figurehead for European and especially German industry. It is the first time that the Americans have not manufactured a mission-critical component in the USA. This has never happened before and has led to many discussions, including in the US Congress. But Europe and Germany in particular are competitive, reliable and well on schedule.
Moon as a research object
tagesschau.de: If you compare the "Artemis" missions with the "Apollo" missions, what is the main difference?
Pelzer: After more than 50 years we are returning to the moon – that is a giant step for mankind. This time, not one nation returns in the race of political systems. This time Europe is also there, and Germany is at the forefront. With "Apollo" the moon was not so much a scientific object as it was about which system is technologically superior.
This time we return because we found that the moon is insanely interesting to learn about the earth. There is no erosion and no atmosphere. So we can determine: what has actually happened on earth over millions of years? We can examine this very well on the moon. There is water ice, not only at the South Pole, by the way. And because water ice also contains oxygen, it has the potential to produce oxygen for astronauts. And there is hydrogen. With this there is the possibility of producing rocket fuel in order to then travel on from the moon, for example to Mars.