Interview with Prof. Guenther Hasinger

Interview with Prof. Guenther Hasinger, Director of Science, ESA

Prof. Günther Hasinger took up duty as the Director of Science (D/SCI), and Head of ESAC, near Madrid, Spain, on 1 February 2018.Günther Hasinger was born in Oberammergau, Germany, in 1954. He received his physics diploma from Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) of Munich, and in 1984, he earned a PhD in astronomy from LMU for research done at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE). 

After visiting lectureships in the USA, he returned to Germany to take a position at the University of Potsdam. He served as director of the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam from 1994 to 2001. In 2001, he was appointed as a scientific member of the Max Planck Society, and as the director of the High Energy Group at MPE. 

In 2007, he spent four months at the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) at the University of Hawaii while on sabbatical, and in 2008 he became scientific director at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP), the position he relinquished to become the Director of the IfA. 

Günther Hasinger has received numerous awards for his research and scientific achievements, including the Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the most significant research prize in Germany, and the international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Award for his outstanding contributions to space science. He is a member of the Academia Europea, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, and Leopoldina (the German National Academy of Sciences), and an external member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. 

Günther Hasinger has also played a key role in the operation of X-ray satellites and the development of future observatories. When the attitude control system of ROSAT, a joint German/UK/US X-ray and ultraviolet satellite, failed soon after launch in 1990, Prof. Hasinger was instrumental in developing a new control system that enabled the satellite to continue its mission. 

He has also held several important national and international responsibilities, such as the chair of the Council of German Observatories and the president of the International Astronomical Union Division on Space and High Energy Astrophysics. He played a significant role in improving the financial constraints of basic space research in Germany and Europe. 

In addition to writing numerous scientific papers, Günther Hasinger is the author of an award-winning book, Schicksal des Universums, which explains astrophysics and cosmology to a wider audience (with an extended English version called Astronomy’s Limitless Journey: A Guide to Understanding the Universe), and the winner of the Wilhelm Foerster Prize for public dissemination of science in 2011. 

1. You were the Director of the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam (1994-2001) before assuming the leadership role of two Max-Planck Institutes, namely, MPE (2001-2008) and IPP (2008-2011), respectively. How did you manage to do that? Is there a secret recipe for scientific leadership? 

My PhD supervisor Joachim Trümper, along with several other distinguished colleagues, like Riccardo Giacconi, Maarten Schmidt and Yasuo Tanaka were important mentors for me, not only supporting me through-out my career, but also entrusting me with important responsibility early on. I was made responsible for the ROSAT Deep Surveys, which practically resolved the X-ray background into discrete sources. That gave an important push for my international recognition. 

2. And then you left Europe to take up the Directorship of the Institute of Astronomy, University of Hawaii, what made you do that? You must have something big in mind with optical astronomy in addition to X-ray astronomy. What could that be? 

In order to identify the extremely faint sources of the X-ray background as Active Galactic Nuclei shining across comic time, we had to do spectroscopy on the largest telescopes in the world. I got my education as optical observer at the Palomar 5m telescope, and at the two Keck telescopes in Hawaii. That made me fall in love with Hawaii throughout the years 1995-2010. As soon as I had concluded my most important leadership assignment at the Max-Planck-Institute for Plasma Physics (i.e. helping that the funding of fusion research continues in Germany and Europe), I felt free to apply for my dream job at that time at the University of Hawaii. Combining multi-wavelength information to better understand cosmic X-ray sources has always been an important element of my research.

3. And now you are back in Europe serving as Director of Science of the European Space Agency since 2018. You must have something even bigger in mind. Can you tell us briefly about your vision? 

While I love ground-based observing, I am a space scientist at heart. I always admired the ESA Science Programme and previously played several roles in its scientific advisory structure. For example, I had a leadership role in the genesis of the next L-class X-ray observatory ATHENA, which at earlier times started as XEUS and later IXO. To be at the helm of this programme now, and being able to shape its future, is arguably one of the most exciting and gratifying responsibilities you can imagine. I have the honor to implement a large fraction of the Cosmic Vision strategic plan. We have successfully launched BepiColombo, CHEOPS, Solar Orbiter, and now JWST. And I hope to also complete JUICE and Euclid, while advancing on PLATO and ARIEL. We were able to introduce a completely new program element, the F-mission Comet Interceptor, and also kicked off the new Voyage 2050 strategic plan. A new dream is emerging: the “inspirator” to land on an icy moon in the solar system to search for life and possibly bring back a cryogenic sample. 

4. In this grand vision, how important is international cooperation? Since it is a long-term plan, how do you see the potential involvement and participation of countries on the other side of Eurasia, that is, China, India and Japan? 

For ESA, and the Scientific Programme in particular, international cooperation is one of the essential backbones and founding principles. We have the luxury to be able to cooperate with any space faring nation in the world. Obviously, NASA with its very large flagship programs like Hubble, Cassini/Huygens and JWST is our prime international partner. But we also have very intense international cooperation with Japan, China and Russia. We are open to expanding these types of cooperation also to India and other upcoming international players. From experience we know, that even in a tense political climate, scientific cooperation can be very fruitful and can build important bridges. 

5. As you know, ISSI-Beijing was established to promote international cooperation in space science covering different related disciplines and to take advantage of the rapid progress of the space program of China. However, it is not always easy because of cultural differences and even political considerations. Can you tell us how can ISSI-Beijing do better under these conditions since you have such rich experience in leading major projects in the context of multinational and multi-cultural environment? 

From my point of view, it is extremely important to build up trustful personal relations between international partners. Many important decisions, checks and balances can only be achieved in face-to-face conversations on equal footing. One of the biggest drawbacks of the current pandemic situation is that we cannot visit our international partners. The danger is that important nuances get “lost in translation”. As long as you personally know and trust your partner from former meetings, this is o.k. for a while. But it is impossible to develop new relations or to start significant new projects. Therefore, a place like ISSI-Beijing is an important cooperation hub. 

6. To follow up the above question, one is led to think that ESA's support is very critical because European scientists are in a unique position to help bring different players together to ISSI-BJ, whether East and West, or North and South. We hope very much that bringing harmony to space exploration is also an important element of the Voyage 2050 program as we look towards the future. Is that right? 

We are indeed in a privileged position to be able to offer a venue, where different players can come together on more neutral ground. As soon as personal travel will be less limited, we hope to continue to foster such a dialogue. Voyage 2050 will clearly be an important element here. But even cooperation among different missions currently in the pipeline, be it e.g. the Dark Energy/Dark Matter missions, or the armada planned for Venus exploration in the next decade, could bring substantial synergies. 

7. Thank you so much for your valuable suggestions and wonderful ideas, Professor Hasinger. By the way, ISSI-BJ will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year in 2023. We heartily welcome you to attend the scientific symposium that is under planning with a view to reconnect and meet new friends. Many thanks in advance.

In addition, we want to specifically mention that ISSI-BJ and ESA will jointly organize the upcoming ESA-China Advanced Mars School, one of the most important events for ISSI-BJ.

Thanks for your support in this event and we look forward to the successful organization of this training program.

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