Anna Christmann is a member of Alliance 90/the Greens and has been a member of the German Bundestag since 2017. She has been serving as Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace Policy since January 2022. We spoke to her about space travel during times of war, German scepticism of technology and NASA sweatshirts.

Space travel is a very multilateral affair. We now have an awful war of aggression happening in Europe. Can space travel build bridges at a time when there is not much understanding elsewhere?

Science and innovation are traditionally areas that only work with international cooperation. All the progress that we have made as a human race over the years has been shaped by collaboration. That’s why it is a really dramatic turn of events that a lot of things can no longer happen like they did before 24 February 2022. The implications are huge. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has quite rightly decided to halt all bilateral cooperation with Russia. These are projects that are based on a mutual understanding of freedom and democracy, a basis that now no longer exists. I recently spoke to Matthias Maurer, the German astronaut on the ISS. The astronauts are continuing their collaborative work with the Russian cosmonauts on board, and it is going smoothly, in part because a space station is its own world to a certain extent. But generally speaking, even here war means a step backwards for civilisation and ultimately also a step backwards for scientific cooperation.

All the progress that we have made as a human race over the years has been shaped by collaboration.

Does the war in Ukraine have direct consequences for European aerospace?

Like in other areas, it is evident that European sovereignty in the technology sector is of the utmost importance here. Not as a means of isolation or separation, but because we must be able to act confidently and independently even in a crisis. Cooperation with other countries is extremely important in space travel. The activities that we have taking place in Europe to support a functioning ecosystem in space travel now have even greater priority.

Will this also impact cooperation with the USA?

Traditionally, there is very close cooperation with the USA in space travel. However, the entire aerospace landscape has changed a lot over there in any case, and there are some fundamental issues surrounding commercialisation, privatisation and new space that we need to address together with the USA.

You touched upon the new commercial players in the space industry like Elon Musk and his company SpaceX. Is there a new competition between the state and the private sector?

The commercialisation of space travel is fundamentally an opportunity, because it broadens the fields of application, increases competition and promotes innovation. The political task is to create a framework for private activities and look at how we can also use technology in a meaningful way for the benefit of society. What is important is that we ultimately make these decisions collectively: Commercialisation cannot mean that a small number of people get to decide how we use space as a human race.

How can space travel impact climate protection?

Firstly: A lot of what we know today about the climate crisis has been learned through space travel. We have only been able to analyse the changes in the climate as well as we have over recent years because we have satellites in space that monitor all these changing weather patterns, which over time become climate change. Space technology is crucial to solving the climate crisis. Besides monitoring, space travel facilitates a lot of other relevant applications, such as in the field of mobility. Efficient route planning uses GPS and Galileo data, for instance. I am often on the road and visit start-ups, for example, which are working with satellite technology to detect forest fires earlier. This can also help us to combat the climate crisis.

We are constantly looking for common aspects of European identity. How could we make European space travel one of these aspects?

By selling ESA sweatshirts as well as the wonderful NASA ones, for example (laughs). But seriously: There is room for improvement when it comes to the visibility of European space travel. There are so many different activities going on, and we must not hide away in Europe. The ESA has its own astronauts – and you just need to look at Alexander Gerst to see how popular they can become, in Germany and beyond. We are also discussing the role that European space activities and a European satellite constellation can play in secure communications and cybersecurity. That is another area where Europe needs to be visible in a world that is currently becoming more unstable. Finally, the prominence of space travel as a topic varies between different European societies. In France, for example, society tends to pay more attention to the issue than in Germany. Emmanuel Macron also drew attention to the subject recently. I think that it would do Europe good if we were even more proud of what we have already achieved. Did you know that the European Galileo is now more precise than the American GPS system? But still no one says: “My phone navigates with Galileo.” We have an excellent research ecosystem, but when it comes to making the step into commercialisation and transferring this knowledge, we are lagging behind the USA.

What is important is that we ultimately make these decisions collectively.

Why do we seem to be more reluctant in this area in Germany in particular?

I think that unfortunately we still hold on far too tightly to preconceptions in some areas. With regard to space in particular, you always hear: “Oh no, that all costs so much. And what do we even get out of it?” Sometimes we don’t see the opportunity to embrace that sense of discovery and learn and experience new things that we can’t yet even begin to imagine. Sometimes we are perhaps a bit too averse to change in Germany and see it all as something that belongs in the world of science fiction. But then we overlook just how much in business, industry and our daily lives depends on what comes from space.

Perhaps it isn’t just to do with pride, but also education?

Naturally, there is more we can do in terms of communication. That starts in school and at home too, where boys are still more likely to be given a rocket than girls are. The aim of making more women visible in the space sector is really important to me. Another contributing factor is the way that we as a society talk about technology in general. Let’s take artificial intelligence as an example: We have spoken a lot about how evil robots could take over the world, but not enough about the opportunities that AI presents – be it in everyday life, in health care or in climate protection. So we perhaps have this somewhat sceptical bias in Germany in many areas of technology. I want to make sure that we recognise the opportunities and possibilities and understand that it’s absolutely essential for us to be involved in these areas of innovation.

Space technology is crucial to solving the climate crisis.

If private space tourism is soon a possibility, will Anna Christmann be on board?

I can understand why people would want to have the opportunity to fly into space and get that new perspective. When you hear Alexander Gerst talking about what a difference it makes to see the planet from above, of course it’s inspiring. Nevertheless, it is important to make sure that we use our limited resources as sensibly as possible. And the sensible use of resources in space travel doesn’t mean tourism flights in the first instance. It means applications that will help us make progress in research, innovation and exploration. The progress made in the commercial sector and financed by private investors can, of course, absolutely be applied to other areas in a meaningful way, as these activities involve the development of new technology as well. But the more something escalates, the more we need to consider the question of who should use the limited resources available and who should not. If three people fly into space a year, that’s tolerable. If that figure increases a lot in the future, we will certainly have to discuss some common rules.

The interview was conducted by Cornelia Göbel and Daniel Wixforth.

Dr Anna Christmann obtained a doctorate on “The limits of direct democracy” in Zurich. She became a member of the Greens in 2003. She has been a member of the German Bundestag since 2017. In January 2022, German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck appointed her as Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace Policy.