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Foto: Romain Beker
international

Astronaut André Kuipers on brilliant ideas and earthly vulnerabilities

Jip Koene,
20 oktober 2023 - 09:47

An underwater city as a solution to overpopulation and rising sea levels. A giant ice machine to cool the earth. Genetically modified jellyfish to clean up microplastics from the ocean. In André Kuipers' NL MOONSHOTS '24 program, it is the “crazy ideas” that serve as the starting point for solutions to earthly problems. “I hope we come across ideas that later we say ‘wow!’, this saves humanity.”

In 2024, the 35th edition of the ASE Planetary Congress will take place in the Netherlands, the annual congress for astronauts worldwide. André Kuipers is hosting this edition and has launched a program for students leading up to this congress: NL MOONSHOTS '24. In this program, students can pitch and develop their “crazy ideas.” Ultimately, students will have the opportunity to present their ideas at the congress.
 
The program aims to challenge students to think about the future of the Earth. During one year, one hundred student teams are guided by astronaut coaches and other experts. Folia spoke with André Kuipers about the program, his view of the future, and his own “crazy ideas.”

André Kuipers
  • André Kuipers completed his studies in medicine at the University of Amsterdam in 1987.
  • During his studies he worked in the balance department of the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam.
  • After his studies, he gained extensive research experience in the Royal Air Force, especially in the field of space sickness and balance.
  • In October 1998, Kuipers passed the astronaut selection process and joined the European Astronaut Team in July 1999.
  • Kuipers spent a total of 203 days researching space on the International Space Station ISS.

André, what “crazy ideas” did you used to have as a student?
“When I was 12 in 1970, I already dreamed of being an astronaut, but at the time that seemed to be something that only American test pilots did, pilots who specialize in testing aircraft. The idea that I wanted to go into space was pretty unusual. It was not yet common in Europe. The European Space Agency was only founded five years later, in 1975. So yes, it was definitely a “crazy idea” at the time, especially for my friends and acquaintances. They often said, “Dream on!” Besides my dream of becoming an astronaut, later, as a student, I also had some unconventional ideas about innovation, such as how to protect yourself from radiation in space. Water blocks radiation, so I imagined having rotating water tanks in a spaceship to protect astronauts from space radiation. Maybe that's still a good idea, but unfortunately, I can't participate in my own program, NL MOONSHOTS '24.
 
The ultimate goal of NL MOONSHOTS '24 is to focus on “radical innovation.” What inventions of fellow astronauts and researchers are you perhaps a little jealous of? 
“Well, jealousy is not the right word. English 'envy' would be a more appropriate word. It's more that I'm not so young anymore and my brain is not so young, either. Instead, you need young people, students for whom “the impossible” does not exist. The average age of the people who put the Apollo astronauts on the moon was 26. The Apollo 11 mission was saved by an engineer of 23. So yes, in that sense I'm jealous of young people's ability to think 'out of the box.'”

Foto: Romain Beker

In high school and college, young adults are often faced with having to come up with solutions to earthly problems. EN MOONSHOTS '24 is a perfect fit for that. Young people today take to the streets for all kinds of wrongs (climate change, injustice), and are hardly listened to. Don't the elderly also play a role?
“It's a combination of things because new ideas have to come from young minds. After all, they still think without limits; ‘the impossible’ does not exist for them. But then, of course, it has to be practically applicable. It must be feasible in certain forms. Hopefully, ideas will come out of NL MOONSHOTS '24 which will be, well, fantastic, but if they are going to apply them...then the idea may not succeed because it does not comply with the laws of physics. Or financially it's impossible to do it now. And of course, you also need people with experience to do that.  So it's a combination. Wild ideas, and then to see, okay, what is feasible?”
 
Earth's fragility is slowly beginning to sink in with governments and industry as well. In several interviews with you and other astronauts, the so-called overview effect is frequently cited; a phenomenon among astronauts where there is a sudden realization of how fragile the Earth actually is after a space mission. Are you concerned?
“Yes. On Earth everything seems infinite, but in space, you realize the limitedness of the planet. Suddenly you see that everything belongs together, all the people, all the animals, all the plants: it feels like one living being. I worry about humanity. But I believe very much in young people with brilliant ideas, which is why we have NL MOONSHOTS '24. But in the near future we are going to lose a lot when it comes to biodiversity, and temperatures will continue to rise.”
 
What are you hoping for at NL MOONSHOTS '24? What is your “crazy dream”?
“My ‘crazy dream’ is that we get fantastic ideas, some of which are picked up by ESA and other organizations. I hope we come across ideas that later make us say ‘Wow!, this saves humanity, this solves space debris,’ or other big problems. So I am very optimistic about youth as well as moonshots.”