Success Stories

“Scientists need dreams, too”

Always curious: Dr.-Ing. Johann-Dietrich “Jan” Wörner, Prof., is the head of ESA

Auch Wissenschaftler müssen träumen - Earth Return Orbiter in Mars Orbit

He is an example of how a man with a logical and organized mind can take on almost any task. Dr.-Ing. Johann-Dietrich “Jan” Wörner, Prof., studied civil engineering and today heads the European Space Agency (ESA), which is headquartered in Paris. Wörner wrote his doctoral dissertation on the interaction of components and structures during earthquakes. He taught as a professor of solid construction at Technische Hochschule Darmstadt (renamed Technische Universität Darmstadt in 1997) until 1995, when he was elected president of the university. Wörner led TU Darmstadt into autonomy in 2005. It was the first German higher education institution to be allowed to make independent decisions on appointments, buildings and research priorities. Roland Koch, then Minister President of the State of Hesse, confirmed in retrospect that it was not policymakers, but Wörner who had shown the way to autonomy: “We wouldn’t have done it if Wörner hadn’t been president. We trusted him to lead the experiment to success.”

One thing Wörner and Koch share is a quick wit. Wörner answers questions before they are even halfway through. Unlike many scientists, he is also able to express himself clearly, for instance when he explains all the things that would not exist without space travel, namely navigation systems, reliable weather forecasts and observation of climate change. Or when he reminds us of the byproducts of space travel, like the smoke detectors that followed the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967, or the cordless drill, which was invented because the Americans wanted to drill a hole on the moon but didn’t have a cord that would reach all the way to the earth.

A civil engineer and university president – can someone with that background just take on a position of responsibility for European space travel and space research? Yes, if he is as quick a study as Wörner and is also an experienced science manager. And his preoccupation with what happens above, below and beside us in space didn’t come out of the blue, either. When he was just three, his father lifted him up and told him: “Look, up there, there goes Sputnik!” Little Jan couldn't see the Russians’ earth satellite with the naked eye, but that sparked his interest in space travel. Later on, the children’s room would feature a map of the moon, showing every single mission to earth’s only natural satellite. And Wörner, still a technology freak who prefers to repair every household appliance himself, built rockets and model airplanes as a teenager.

However, it was not until 2007 that the six-time honorary doctor first came really close to space, which came as part of his role as Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), headquartered in Cologne. This institution pools together applied and basic research in the German aerospace sector. Transportation, energy and security are also among its research priorities. DLR is represented at 20 sites in Germany, the largest and best-known being near Lake Starnberg at Oberpfaffenhofen, where the Space Operations Center is located.

It was through his work with the DLR that Wörner, who was born in Kassel on July 18, 1954, and has three grown children, came to the attention of the leadership of the European Space Agency (ESA). Created in 1970 and based in Paris, ESA coordinates European space activities and has 22 member states as members. The ESA Convention is national law in each member state, which strengthens the organization’s position. Cooperation here is more than just lip service; it’s the law. Anyone planning a national space mission registers it with ESA, which can then demand international cooperation. One of ESA’s objectives is for Europe to continue to maintain autonomous access to space, independent of the major space nations. The Director General is pleased that the day-to-day cooperation among people from so many different countries helps to further integrate the nations of Europe.

Wörner, who is also fluent in Japanese, now speaks mostly in English, which can lead to some interesting cross-language formulations: “We make industrial policy for our Mitgliedsländer,” he says, meaning member countries. He also borrows from English into German, using “Treiber” for “driver,” a concept that is not very well known in German. Even so, he immediately gets his point across when he says in German, “Curiosity is the strongest driver we humans have.” The man who has internalized so much science over his brilliant academic career has nevertheless remained a dreamer. “We have to teach young people that dreaming is worthwhile, even dreaming crazy things. That’s the only way we’ll be able to tackle global challenges.”

Does space travel also give mankind a better understanding of the state of the earth? No doubt, says Wörner. For example, we can collect more than half of all data relevant to our planet’s climate from space. Or, after a catastrophic earthquake, we can see from space which roads are still passable and where help is most urgently needed.

Wörner cites practical examples like these to point out that space travel is not too expensive. Every euro invested in ESA activities yields a return of six euros, he says. And there are still many possibilities waiting to be explored. Perhaps one day space travel will unlock a better understanding of the human immune system, for example; we already know it undergoes dramatic changes in zero gravity.

But to Wörner, space travel is more than just a utilitarian concern. The drive to explore, the thirst for knowledge, the discovery of the new, the joy of experimentation (which, to him, means failure is also valuable as something to learn from) have become second nature to him. To Wörner as an intellectual, there is also no inherent conflict between Christianity and science as long as the Church does not attempt to explain nature. So did God create the universe? Wörner has a cautiously positive answer: “Mankind is currently describing with relatively little contradiction that the Big Bang happened. The Big Bang was the start of the development of the world. I think it’s a bit of a bold proposition to hold that all of this was just a sequence of coincidences.’

Apr 14, 2020