Frank de Winne: Space exploration requires international cooperation

Written by Margarita Chrysaki on 19 March 2018

 Frank De Winne | Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Andreas Schepers

Hugely inspired by the discoveries of black holes and supernovas when he was in secondary school, Frank De Winne wrote a letter to Nasa saying that he wanted to become an astronaut.

Nasa replied saying that he was on the right path but still too young to be considered. 

Sticking to his decision to become an astronaut, De Winne pursued a career in the military, studying to become an engineer and a pilot. 

His big moment came in 1989 when he saw a newspaper advert that read, ‘ESA is looking for astronauts’ and applied. The response he got from the ESA (European Space Agency) helped to make his dream come true and later put Europe at the wheel of the ISS (International Space Station) for the first time.  


You served as a Commander of the ISS Expedition 21, becoming the first non- American, non-Russian astronaut in the ESA to command a space mission. Why you were chosen ahead of others? 
There are many criteria to fulfil in order to be assigned as an ISS commander. First, the partnership looks at previous space flight experience. In my case, I was on board the successful ISS Odissea mission in 2002, which was financed by the Belgian Science Policy Office. At the time of the selection, I was already training as the back-up for Léopold Eyharts1 for the ISS Expedition 16 in 2007. 

Previous leadership experience is important, so my military background as a squadron commander was helpful. 

You also need to have a little bit of luck. Before 2009, the position was reserved only for Russians and Americans, so if I had flown earlier, I would not have been able to become a commander.

Since 2009, space missions have been led alternately by a Russian commander and a commander from the western world and at the time, it was a slot for someone from the west. Also, the other two crew members who flew with me, Bob Thirsk and Roman Romanenko, did not have previous ISS experience, so I was the natural choice out of the three. 


What does it mean to be the Commander of ISS? 
The main tasks as a commander are the same as with any crew member onboard, because the real boss is the flight director in the Space Centre Houston or Moscow Control Centre, not the commander. ISS authority officially transferred from the Flight Director on the ground to the Commander only in case of an emergency. This can be a fire, explosive decompression or toxic atmosphere onboard, for example. 

When there is an emergency, it’s very difficult for those on the ground to know what’s going on in orbit. There might also be an emergency when there is no communication with the ground. This is why trained with the crew members on how to react in case of an emergency and here the role of the commander is very clear: the first task is to save the crew; once they are safe you can move on to the next task, which is to try to save the space station. When the space station is safe, and if there is still have time, you can try to save the mission, for example if there is an important ongoing experiment or critical equipment that needs to be saved. These are the three steps you need to follow and there is a methodological procedure, but each emergency is unique. 


Now you are on the other side: you serve as the Head of EAC (European Astronaut Centre), so what are the main challenges for this role? 
The main tasks of any management position are to provide leadership. The way I try to lead is always the same: leadership by example, leadership by motivation and leadership by consensus building. I want is my team to be motivated when they carry out their tasks. Of course, we have had difficult situations, for example, last year we had to significantly reduce the team and merge two teams from different positions which resulted in a 70 per cent staff reduction. It’s easy to take these decisions but I don’t like to take decisions. I like to find solutions which might be challenging.

So, once a solution is found and the team has helped you find it, then they get to implement it and the results are better for it. That is for me the main part of my task. 


Recently you had a meeting with the Chinese to discuss possible cooperation. What was the outcome of your meeting and will Europe send its astronauts to the Chinese station? 
The outcome of the meeting was positive in the sense that we agreed on a workplan for 2018. This means that we will continue to work with the Chinese Manned Space Agency on scientific activities related to astronaut training and will continue to see how Europe can contribute to building the Chinese station. 

In return, we expect that one of our European astronauts will fly to the Chinese space station in the first half of the 2020s, more precisely around 2022-23. But, of course this is all subject to approval and authorisation by the respective authorities. On the ESA side, this would be the member states. We hope to have a decision from the ESA Council at ministerial level in 2019 that approves preparation and cooperation with China. At the same time, the Chinese also need their authorities to agree to fly a European astronaut to the Chinese space station as this would be the first non-Chinese astronaut to do so. That will also be a highly visible event for the entire world and this decision can only be taken at a high political level. It’s up to the decision-makers. 


In 2016, ESA Director-General Jan Wörner presented a plan to build a village on the moon. What are the main challenges? 
The challenges remain technological and logistical. A lot of people think that it will become easier to go to the moon thanks to the private sector. I hope so, but if you see the difficulties we now have just bringing crew to the space station, the delays we have with that, we can also think that the delays on the moon will substantial. 

We also have to consider the political difficulties, because it’s an open project where people have to cooperate together. I’m not so sure if this is shared by all the space agencies. For example, the US wants a position of leadership and the rest can cooperate with them. On the other hand, China also wants to play a bigger role. Russia has always been a strong partner in space exploration. 

The ESA tries to bring everybody together, countries, agencies, private sector which is a role that Europe likes to play but it’s also a difficult and diplomatic role. 


About the author

Margarita Chrysaki is a Brussels-based scientific journalist

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