Achieving the impossible (interview Prof. Balsiger)
21 May 1999For three years Swiss physicist Hans Balsiger has been chairman of ESA'sScience Programme Committee (SPC). On May 19 and 20Balsiger chaired his last meeting of the SPC in his hometown of Berne. Askedabout his experiences, he was enthusiastic about ESA's successfulscientific missions but also criticized the budgetary constraints.
What were the highlights during the time you chaired the Science Programme Committee?
Balsiger: A very important decision was to build Cluster II after Cluster I was lost when Ariane-5 exploded. Cluster II rose like a phoenix from the ashes. In spite of the drop of purchasing power and the additional costs because of Cluster II we were able to guarantee the realization of the long-term programme. In addition to the major ventures we decided on smaller, cheaper missions like Mars Express. Only a dramatic restructuring of the science programme made this feasible. Furthermore, the successful missions like Hipparcos, SOHO and ISO are the crown jewels of the Agency.
What is Europe's role in space science today?
We have five times less money than NASA but about the same gross national product. Nevertheless we exist on the map of scientific success and we presented top results. Taking into account the funds that we got we really achieved a first-rate perfomance. But for me it's incomprehensible why the Europeans spend so much less money on space science compared to the Americans.
What were the most exciting results of ESA's Science Programme?
SOHO is fantastic. It is amazing how much we have learned about the Sun in the last few years. And the Hubble Telescope, with Europe's small but very professional contribution, is astounding too. Then there was ISO with its fundamental astronomical results and Hipparcos that didn't look spectacular at first sight but is now considered as a quantum leap for astrophysics. For myself Giotto was very special because I was personally involved. There Europe was almost on its own and achieved something absolutely novel. All the missions were excellent and we showed that we can achieve outstanding projects.
What about the future? What was your reaction to the Ministerial Conference last week in Brussels?
I was disappointed because I had hoped to gain more. Some politicians even claimed that we had lived beyond our means, but in the last five years we saved roughly the budget of a whole year, that means more than 20 percent. It hurts that the Council didn't appreciate this effort. Now we have to face reality. It is a big challenge, but in the past ESA's Science Programme Directorate always lived up to the challenges. In September, in an extended Science Programme Committee meeting, it should be discussed how many of the small missions like SMART-I and -II or STEP will still be feasible within the continual budgetary constraints.
What was your personal experience as chairman of the Science Programme Committee?
It was an exciting task. I met a lot of interesting people. And although sometimes it was quite an effort there was nothing to regret except perhaps that the budgetary situation isn't better at the moment that I am leaving.
What will you do in your spare time after resigning?
I may still keep on working for one or two committees but mainly will go back to do more research. At the moment I have almost no time for research. Fortunately I have very good collaborators and students here at the University of Berne. We work on an experiment called Rosina that will fly on the Rosetta mission to comet Wirtanen. This is a big challenge for us as well as for our industrial partners. No other field than science technology is carried to such extremes. We want to achieve the impossible.
And finally I may live up to the long-standing request of my family to take off at some weekends and cash in some of my unused vacation time!