ESA is ‘Prepared to be Surprised’ by the Citizens’ Debate on Space

ESA is ‘Prepared to be Surprised’ by the Citizens’ Debate on Space

- in Space Travel

About 2000 Europeans will debate the future of space research on September 10 at 22 different locations. The European Space Agency’s Kai-Uwe Schrogl hopes to be surprised. Here’s what we can expect.

DW: What is the idea behind the European Space Agency’s Citizens’ Debate? Is this a new beginning for ESA?

Professor Kai-Uwe Schrogl: I should start by saying what the Citizens’ Debate is not. It is not a simple survey or a poll. It is a dialogue with citizens, an in-depth and substantive dialogue in all European member states of the European Space Agency (ESA). There will be around 100 people at each location. It’s completely different from a survey where someone is asked five questions on the phone, or they sit down and tick boxes for 20 minutes. It will provide us with an opportunity to get people’s ideas, their visions, their criticism, and especially their expectations on space.

And with Jan Wörner as the new head of the European Space Agency, is this his attempt…

Yes… Even before he became ESA’s director general, during his interview for the job, Jan Wörner said he wanted to engage the public more. So he asked us to come up with ideas for making things more interactive.

What about the citizens in the 22 locations – will they be able to communicate between the locations?

No, there’s no provision for that. There will be the short video message from Jan Wörner. Then the moderators will explain how things will work. People will get together in small groups and first watch a presentation to get some background information on a topic. For instance, if it’s on exploration, they will be told what’s happening now. And then they will discuss a questionnaire – but it’s different from usual ones, because the results will be developed through the dialogue. And we need that so we have a result which we can evaluate later.

Kai-Uwe Schrogl ESASchrogl: We want to hear the citizens’ ideas. And we want to be surprised!

How informed do you think people will be? Clearly, you want people from different walks of life, but they will have to bring some kind of understanding, won’t they?

They will have all received an infopack before the day. It’s not “propaganda material” – it’s facts about space and space activities, and there are links for further reading, so people can inform themselves. It’s about 20 pages with lots of illustrations.

Conflicts of interest

Space has always been the “next frontier” in our imaginations, but it’s now becoming the next commercial frontier too. To use that horrible word, people are trying to find ways to “monetize” space. How concerned are you that interest groups may get in there and try to push the conversation in certain directions?

Well, with 100 people in the room, it will be hard to hijack the discussion and then the results. So I’m not afraid of that happening. On the contrary, we want to have clear voices and clear ideas. And we’re open to it. We will ask about security – military use of space – what do people think about that? We will touch on commercialization as well as privatization – should we leave space to private actors, such as billionaires, or should states and governments keep control? We will ask about fairness, regarding developing countries, for instance. So we will touch on all these so-called “contentious” issues.

A personal view

I know you want the Citizens’ Debate to be as objective and scientific as possible, but what do you hope will be a big interest? People often speak of the Moon Village […] do you have any personal preferences?

I’m trying to stay neutral. But I’m really interested in people’s understanding – and by that I don’t mean a breakdown of the numbers, such as 65 percent for and 35 percent against [an idea]. I’m interested in how much people understand what benefits space can bring and what their ideas for space are, because this is where we would like to be surprised. We want to know whether people have different visions aside from the Moon Village or Mars exploration. Of course, it being our director general’s idea, we’d be happy if people said they were interested in the Moon Village idea. But what else are they interested in? We are prepared to be surprised!

Deutschland ESA Pressekonferenz - Rückkehr Astronaut Tim Peake von der ISSBritish astronaut Tim Peake days after returning from the International Space Station – and days before the Brexit vote

And interests will be different from one country to another, I imagine.

Yes. And we’re open to that, too. The UK, for instance, has a “space policy” that is extremely oriented to jobs, growth and economic impact. And now we just had the astronaut Tim Peake’s spaceflight [to the International Space Station]. It will be interesting for us to see whether UK citizens are oriented towards the utilitarian aspects of space, or are they now, given Tim Peake’s experience, a little more interested and fascinated by the trans-utilitarian aspects. And after Brexit, they may regard space as a way to remain part of Europe, even if we are not the European Union. ESA is still a multilateral European endeavor.

Or indeed they may regard it as another thing from which to withdraw…

Yeah!… [laughs]. The UK won’t withdraw from ESA, though, they have made that clear already. But there could be surprising things. There have been a number of surveys on space at the European level – for instance, the EU Commission’s Eurobarometer has done surveys on space. And typically people just tick boxes without any debate. And you see this in the answers. Ask people whether earth observation is useful for the environment and everyone says “yes.” Then a few questions later you ask them whether they know any earth observation satellites and almost no one knows anything about those real things. These surveys don’t give you an insight into what people really know and think. That’s why we need a citizens’ debate – and why it can be particularly fruitful.

Professor Kai-Uwe Schrogl heads the Director General’s Strategy Department at the European Space Agency in Paris.

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