'Going to the moon in space is far from the final frontier'
France has a university which is unique in the world, the International Space University based at Strasbourg, which trains future leaders of the growing space industry in all its aspects across the globe. It was founded in the USA in 1987.
In 1994, the university moved to Strasbourg after it was chosen out of stiff competition from towns in Canada, Italy, Japan and others. 5,000 former students from over 110 countries now hold influential posts in the international Space world. Previous Chancellors have included famous science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Three astronauts have studied there, the Americans Jessica Meir and Jim Newman and first Korean in Space, Soyeon Yi. But as present University Chancellor Juan de Dalmau told us, there is far more to Space than flying to the moon.
The ISU is different because it was born to be multi-disciplinary, born to be international and born to be a space university. We welcome people who have graduated from several disciplines with a minimum bachelor’s degree and who have decided to choose space as their professional occupation.
If you spent a day with us you would sit in a classroom where about half would be scientists, and the other half would be a mixture of lawyers, computer scientists, biologists, doctors and those with a background in humanities.
What is really unique and which no other university has is a professional network developed by former students all over the globe who are active in the space world whether it is in exploration or applications down on earth.
We recently counted more than 100 space start-ups where the founder or co-founder studied at ISU. From studying here, students build up a really strong international professional network which is really useful throughout their career.
How did it start?
The three founders were young PHD students. They set up a conference bringing space leaders together from around the world, including Russia and China in 1987 and they agreed to launch an itinerant summer school. It started at MIT in Boston in 1988 and then it toured the world. They had a three step vision. Step number one, a nomadic summer school. Step number two, an earth based campus with a network of collaborations with other universities, which came to be based at Strasbourg, and step three, to have a campus in space. We are currently conducting steps one and two and modestly preparing for step three.
They wanted to prepare the decision makers of future Space Programmes so that humanity could expand in a peaceful way. That is embedded in our university culture. In Strasbourg, this summer, there is a two-month International summer space studies programme with 120 enthusiasts from more than 30 countries from all continents.
It opens the eyes to everyone that space is a global endeavour, and that we will be better off if we co-operate.
Can you learn to be an astronaut at ISU?
Yes, and no. We do not carry out that specific training, but it will give them a broad education in space so that once they complete their studies here they will feel self- confident working in any project in space because they will have practised with other specialists in completely different horizons and they will feel completely at ease joining any team, however complex or multi-cultural it is. They will have cultural sensitivity and the basic knowledge of the legal, the medical and the engineering principals of Space.
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet has not yet been to your university, but is he an inspiration to your students?
Of course. We have very close links with his current mission at the International Space Station. When you talk to people on the street in France, they all admire Thomas. Children follow him on all sorts of social media and we believe that is a great thing. He is a good role model and gives a bit of welcome optimism, particularly in these difficult times. And we also hope he inspires some young people towards science and technology.
In class we usually ask how many are there because they would like to be an astronaut, and typically you get one third of hands raised.
What is the importance of exploring Space?
We can compare space with the oceans. We used to have the expression, Space Race where countries tried to prove they were better than the others and even spied on each other. Those times are over. Space is now becoming like the oceans in the sense that it is a place and not just a government programme. It is a space which is full of resources that we need to learn how to use responsibly and that is part of what we teach at ISU.
What are those resources?
Some of the first discoverers sailing round the world on the oceans were scientists and space is like that. A huge opportunity for research.
Thanks to space science we can learn more about our origins, our fate, about how life came into being, about whether there is life elsewhere and many natural phenomena that are influenced by what comes from out there, whether it is solar radiation, or a long list of scientific discoveries on the origins and the evolution of the universe.
We are discovering more and more planets in other solar systems and depending on the distance from the star, there could be life on them. From a statistical point of view, the likelihood of finding life out there is growing every single day.
But space is also a place where you can do commerce, like on the oceans. With telecommunications, you can reach almost half of the planet with one spacecraft. You can connect people who may be in rural areas and underserved by other communications and that is a commercial opportunity.
Observational data are delivered in immense quantities today from hundreds of earth observation satellites. Most of these data are freely available but need to be transformed into useful information for citizens, public bodies or companies. Sometimes you can combine these data with other information from the ground and provide value added services and this is a big part of what we today call the New Space. This treatment of satellite data is one of the fastest growing areas of the Space industry today.
In what way is that developing?
In the so called new New Space movement there are entrepreneurs who have a new idea on how to use GPS, meteorological data, or how to build a cheaper satellite or a cheaper launch vehicle and they find investors. Ten years ago you could only get government contracts if you wanted to do any of this, but today you also find private investors who are ready to take risks in these projects. This is a growing movement all over the world, including in China, Russia, India and of course Europe.
What other aspects are there?
Space is a place like the oceans where you can have leisure pursuits. We will see space tourism becoming a reality very soon, though it will be a while until the everyday tourist will be able to afford a flight like this.
There is one initiative that might be affordable called Zero to Infinity, which was set up by an ISU alumni. It consists of a balloon flight that can take a capsule with people or research instruments to about 30-35 kms altitude and from there you can already see the outline of planet earth and the blackness of space. This is an example of the innovative ideas that come from ISU students.
Space is also a place with great possibilities for transport. So-called sub-orbital airplanes are under development to reach trans-continental destinations in much shorter flight times.
Unfortunately, space is also a place for military activity like the oceans. This is something where governments and the United Nations really need to take a very active role to decide all the rules of the road and the conditions and the limitations for the proliferation of military action in Space.
Is it a good time for the Space Industry? Another trip is planned to put man on the moon, there is talk of journeys to Mars and there is the ongoing use of the International Space Station.
Yes. There is an increase in interest through the missions you have mentioned and also growing interest from government and other players around the world, especially in the developing world. Decision makers in many African, South-East Asian and Latin American countries see that being part of these developments will benefit their countries. They understand that data from space can give them a better knowledge of the environment, weather forecasting, and create opportunities for local companies to be part of this growing sector and so help them with their economic development.
We feel our university has a role to play bringing space development to underprivileged communities, and we are working with the United Nations to have a scholarship programme which would help these emerging Space countries with financial aid so they can send their promising professionals to our courses, who can then go back to their countries with a package of tools and connections that they can use for the local development. It is a slow process, but we believe it is very important.
Visible human missions to the moon are inspiring, but the real benefits of Space are down here on earth, where we can take advantage of all the resources I mentioned earlier.
Are you saying space has massive resources that the general public do not really appreciate yet, and that counters criticisms that money is wasted on trips to the moon?
It is easy to say that money should be spent on hospitals or schools and obviously that is a fair thing to say, but one must also consider that every euro spent on space programmes is spent on salaries down on earth.
No-one is sending euros to space. So that’s what needs probably to be explained more clearly and more loudly.
Space technology means you can travel with GPS systems and this has made our lives easier. Precise weather forecasting is based on computer models that are fed with data, and most of this data comes from weather satellites, that are taking pictures all the time.
Businesses benefit economically in the billions from this, to enable more efficient shipping, fishing, off shore operations or construction or agriculture.
There is a possibility that solar energy can be captured in Space and beamed down to Earth which would probably provide an infinite source of energy that would solve many problems here.
These are things less visible than an astronaut or photos of the moon but which are impacting the quality of our lives and our economy on Earth in an important way.
Do your students have to be amongst the very best in each country to get a place?
My wife says there are all these bright people and on top of that they are good in sport and languages and they look good. She sometimes wonders what to say to them! But what I think they really have in common are two things.
One is a passion for space, because they see a career for themselves, and secondly, they also see the benefits for society in what they will be able to do in the future. We can see those shared values in all our students. Of course, academically they have to bring in good marks, especially if they want to get a scholarship through us.
Students here all say they find it a great experience, and that the value of the learning here expands over their careers. From Strasbourg a space professionals network is expanding across the world.