Prof. Pascale Ehrenfreund is one of the most prolific and influential scientists in aerospace research. The Austrian has made important contributions to the fields of astrochemistry and astrobiology and is at the forefront of efforts to find life on Mars. As chair of the executive board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Prof. Ehrenfreund is also the first female head of a major research facility in Germany. Prof. Ehrenfreund tells AcademiaNet about her own background and passions, women in aerospace, and why space research is so important for our life here on earth.
AcademiaNet: Professor Ehrenfreund, from the beginning of your career, your interests have covered both chemistry and molecular biology on the one hand as well as astronomy and astrophysics on the other. Given this background, was the search for extraterrestrial life always going to be a major passion of yours?
Prof Ehrenfreund: When entering the university, I was unable to decide between astrophysics and genetics and so I decided to study both. I was given the opportunity to work on large carbon molecules in space and to complete an interdisciplinary Ph.D. thesis combining biology, chemistry, and astronomy. The search for extraterrestrial life is a fascinating topic, not only for scientists. It would have a big impact on society if we find evidence that we are not the only life forms that exist in the Universe.
You have authored more than 300 publications in your career. Which are you most proud of and why?
Certainly, the detection of two interstellar absorption bands coincident with spectral features of C60+. The confirmation by laboratory experiments came 20 years later. Today, fullerenes are an important component of interstellar carbon chemistry. But my contributions to interstellar ice chemistry and the organic inventory of meteorites are also especially meaningful to me.
An important strand of your research has been specifically concerned with the search for life on Mars. What do you make of the recent finding of organic matter in an ancient lake bed on the red planet?
The recent results of the the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument provide conclusive evidence for the presence of organic compounds on Mars. That is an important step in our understanding of the carbon chemistry, although not a confirmation of life on Mars yet. It remains to be seen what further investigations and further missions such as the European Exomars Mission 2020 will reveal.
DLR recently agreed upon a general research direction for the next 15 years, the so-called DLR Strategy 2030. What are the salient points of this research program? What are you personally most excited by?
Our new DLR Strategy 2030 aims to strengthen DLR’s core competencies in aeronautics, space, energy, and transportation and to make even more systematic use of our internal synergy potential to further enhance DLR’s leading position in research. This will allow us to generate tangible added value for society, the economy, and the scientific community. DLR is in a good position to be able to conduct complex analyses and devise comprehensive solutions. For this reason, we have made a cross-sectoral initiative an integral part of DLR’s Strategy 2030. The cross-discipline area of digitalization brings together projects in the fields of intelligent mobility and cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, as well as Big and Smart Data.
Women have traditionally been underrepresented in space, but this is changing. For instance, plans are underway to send the first female German astronaut into space in 2020. Are you happy with the progress that is being made? What about less visible aerospace careers?
More women in aerospace – we all want that. The German Aerospace Center has the most extensive medical and psychological expertise in Europe for ESA and NASA astronaut selection. We have been able to support the Astronautin project with our scientific expertise. I am convinced that the ‘Female Astronaut’ initiative will help to inspire young females for STEM research and give women in aerospace industry more visibility. But also organizations like Women in Aerospace support and coach women in the aerospace sector worldwide.
One final question, Professor Ehrenfreund. Some argue that investing billions in space and in reaching other planets is a waste of resources when we have so many profound problems here on Earth. What do you say to those people?
Imagine what would happen if we switched off all space applications for just one hour – no communication, no navigation, no Earth observation. We did not start only investing in space, but in technologies – technologies that are permanently helping us to improve our quality of life on Earth. Many of the things that have been developed for space are part of our daily lives today. Aerospace also supports sustainability on Earth. And something else – humans are curious by nature, and it is precisely this curiosity that drives them to explore space and to develop and experience something new every day.
Questions were asked by Neysan Donnelly for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de.(© Neyson Donnelly / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)