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Wubbo Ockels Interview by Lonneke Engel

Prof. Dr. Wubbo J. Ockels (1946) is a brand in itself. His track record is impressive. He was the first Dutchman in Space aboard the last successful trip of the Space Shuttle challenger before it exploded on its 23rd flight. Wubbo Ockels is a physicist, a professor at TU delft University of Technology, director of ASSET (applied Sustainable Science, Engineering and technology), and not only that: Wubbo Ockels is THE man who has put sustainable energy on the agenda in the Netherlands and beyond. In addition, Wubbo Ockels has survived many life- threatening situations, including an airplane crash and having his heart stop beating for 6 minutes.

But that doesn’t stop this optimistic “Energy Hero”. He started many international power projects including the Superbus, the Ecolution Ship, the Nuon Solar team challenge, and most recently his “Happy Energy” project. He does all this while dancing his way through life and enjoying it to the utmost, surrounding himself with the young people of our future, sometimes even at the Supperclub in amsterdam. It certainly doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop anytime soon. “optimism is a responsibility one cannot win without” is his motto, along with “if the world ends today, I’ll be ok because i am happy with the way I lived my life”. OYL is ready to get a lesson in living a sustainable, successful, and happy life.


Lonneke: Let’s go back to the beginning when it all started. You were the first Dutch person to go into Space. Have you always been interested in going to Space?

Wubbo: I wasn’t particularly interested in Space in the beginning. in reality, what happened was that one day, I came across an advertisement from the European Space Agency (ESA), looking for people who would want to go “to Space”. I signed up. I think it was a bit of a coincidence. I think I was a difficult student in school. I was even thrown out of High School at some point, but I followed my own talent for physics, and later on I even graduated Cum Laude from the University, and that got me the chance to go to Space. I think you need a bit of luck in your life, and to be able to catch opportunities when they come your way.

L: You went to Space in a space shuttle about 26 years years ago, in 1985. Can you tell us what it feels like to travel there, and to see things from that perspective?

W:  the take off was really intense. But then, you get the first view of the Earth, and it is overwhelming – you feel extraterrestrial. it is something you have to experience to understand. on that note: I have ambivalent feelings about commercial Space travel. When you see the Earth like that, you get an even stronger desire to protect our planet. But on the other hand, we travel too much already. it is a consuming activity and one that is bad for the environment. Do we really need to start regular flights into Space? don’t people just want to escape their environment for something new? that is something we should think about. But the view is amazing, that is for sure.

L: Perhaps there is some inherent risk in flying to Space as well? I mean, The flight you were on was the 22nd flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger, flight STS-61a. That was the last successful flight of the Challenger before it exploded mid-flight killing 7 crew members including your roommate Dick Scobee. It was one of the great “challenges” in your life so far. How did you react to it when you heard the news? Did you feel like you escaped a disaster? And will flying into space always be dangerous?

W: I learned about the Challenger’s disaster when I saw film crews at my house. I asked my wife if there was something wrong with our kids. I was relieved to discover that that was not the case. then I was told about the explosion and about the death of the 7 crew members, and the passing of my roommate, Dick. I felt really sad. My 2nd emotion later on was that I got angry. As it turned out, there was a design flaw in the solid rocket boosters that could have been prevented. Later, we found out that
of the 23 flights of the challenger, 8 had issues with this problem, including my flight. So this disaster could have struck on any one of those flights. So yes, I feel extremely lucky that I am still here. Later on, I was impressed by NASA – they did some very good and thorough research on the Challenger.

L: One of the reasons NASA sends Space Shuttles (although now the program is almost discontinued), is to do experiments. What do you think has been the most important result to come from those experiments?

W: I think the Hubble Telescope has given us so many insights and beautiful images of the Universe. It might have raised more questions than answers. On my flight I was most fascinated by the Human Being experiments, like awareness of state and position, and reflexes, etc. take the “Gaze Experiment”: When you focus on a spot, and close your eyes, you know where it is when you are on Earth. But in Space, you can’t do it. It has to do with time maybe? it made me think differently the rest of my life, and it made me think differently about our notion of time.

L: What do you think the future of Space travel will be? I

W: In the next 20 years, commercial Space flights will grow enormously. But we can’t afford the rocket launches since they require large amounts of fuel and are hazardous to our environment. So, I think we are going to use cables to basically “lift” us into
Space, using nano tubes made of strong fibers. I think this technique will also be developed more in the coming years. I might go on one of the first commercial flights that will take off from Curaçao, but only on the condition that they use their profits to clean up Curaçao and make it a nicer place.

L: Do you believe in life outside of Earth?

W:  I think it is unacceptable that we think we are the only ones who are aware of the “Cosmos”. Extraterrestrial life is all around us. We just see what we know around us: Earth type parts of the Universe. Since Galilei, we have built instruments to learn more about the Universe, but for instance, the Egyptians thought he Earth was the center of the Universe and Galilei thought it is the Sun. Our interpretation of what we see changes when we learn new facts but our eyes still see the same. Now we think we are in a non-specific place in the Galaxy. Suppose you ask the old Egyptians: “is there another Earth?” they would answer: “wrong question, the Earth is the center!” and when you would ask Galilei:”is there another Sun?”, he would answer similarly. I compare that to asking today: is there another now? Is there another time? I think other lives have different time and that
is why we don’t see them (yet). Everything is related to the present time but I am curious about what we can do with another notion of time.

L: After your work in the field of Aerospace, you shifted your interest towards sustainable engineering and technology. Where did this interest come from?

W:  Really, Space is not so unique. But Earth is unique. if you could see it from Space, you’d know what I mean. The Earth has the blue of water, the green of trees, and so on. I learned that the Earth is beautiful and that we have to take care of it. I was always an inventor my whole life. I like to think outside of the box, and some say it might also be my handicap. In 1972, I had an eye-opening moment when I read “The Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome. In 1996, I started inventing again, and in 2004, I got a professorship in Sustainability at the University of delft. I enjoy working on different projects, and with a new way of looking at data.

L: You like To Ttavel. What is your favorite place on Earth to travel to?

W: I used to travel a lot, but I have cut down on it recently. I also think there are many beautiful places to visit close to home. I like the “Waddeneilanden” (islands north of the Netherlands), I like Amsterdam, and I also loved Big Bend National park in Texas when I lived there for 4 years. I think many people travel now just to change the scenery, like they escape from their own reality. We might need to restrict our travel because it is not good for the environment.

L: What do you think the situation of Earth is as of now? What do you think we should all do for Earth in the coming years?

W:  I think we still have a way of doing business on Earth where profit is the driving force. The Earth has been suffering because of it. I see that we have to make a change in our mindset. We need a different culture. There also a big potential for recycling products, and we can still improve in capturing heat from existing buildings and products to heat our houses. there is a lot of potential to do better, but we all have to look at ourselves and change our ways. For instance, in my opinion, a car using the commonly used fuel is so old-fashioned. I think if you want to make the world a better place you need to embrace the future. Electric cars will make tremendous progress, and you will see many more on the streets in the coming years as batteries get better and the total production of electric cars becomes more sustainable. And once you realize the true beauty of a car is not the noisy engine, but rather the silence of an electric car, we will have made the right shift. I think we have all gone too far with certain ways of capturing energy, including nuclear energy.It is the arrogance of the industrial revolution. This way of getting energy is too big for human kind. That’s also why I started the Happy Energy movement as a new way, a new paradigm in looking for energy, that does not harm people, animals, or the Earth.

L: What is your mission with Happy Energy?

W: I want to encourage young people – the people of the future – to think about sustainable energy and to help them set up projects that use renewable energy sources. I embrace new ways of communication like social media to get them excited.

L: Can you tell us a bit about the projects you are you working on and what you think the World of sustainability will look like?

W: I have been working on a lot of different projects over the past years. They are all in some way related to new ways of using certain types of energy. Some are successful and went into production, others were just ideas. Iworked from 1994-1998
on the Euromoon 2000 project by the ESA. We as Europe mark a space in history so this project would have been an extension
of that. The idea was that we put an extraterrestrial station on the moon, and use the moon for energy. One idea was putting up solar panels there that would give us year-round solar energy. We would live there through village robots in what is called “telepresence” so, while not actually living there.

I also worked on the “laddermill” concept, that is an attempt to “ grab wind energy” high up in the sky.

The “Superbus” concept will make a difference for travel over roads, with luxury transportation to wherever the passenger wants
to go (usually zipcode to zipcode travel).

L:What can you suggest  for someone who wants to become more sustainable? What can
he or she do to start?

W:  First of all, I encourage people who want to become more sustainable, to go to people who have the knowledge. Education is key. learn how you can do better. also, I think solar panels will flood the world in the coming years as they become cheaper. They are a great way of capturing energy that is basically free. So, adding that to your house is a great step forward. maybe countries should encourage their citizens to use more renewable energy sources. and companies can be more forward in giving suggestions to their buyers.

L: What countries do you think are doing well on that subject, and what countries can improve? g

W: Germany is doing well. their government has made a clear decision to promote sustainability. They have about 350,000 people working now in the sustainable sector. My own country, the Netherlands, is really not focusing on green ways at all and I wish they did. As it turns out, doing business with green ethics in the end will be at least as profitable as not thinking about it. So there is no reason not to do it. China will also probably save the world. their government is different than in the Western world, and they keep a long political strategy. When they open a coal mine, they already plan for its closure in the future. the essence of sustainability is the treasure of the future. not just thinking: “it’s so far away, let’s only think short- term”.

L: The mind shift, what should that be?

W: Right now, society seems to be largely managed by fear. People communicate with prejudgement that has to do with fear, and they use that fear to set up more armies, boundaries, walls, etc. We need to learn how to communicate with each other based on trust. When we all live without fear – and are positive – life becomes more beautiful. and we can all live with happy energy from within ourselves.


1994-1998 Euro Moon: A plan to bring a Eurpean-built lander to the south pole of the moon. The special landing site was called “Peak of Eternal Light” because this elevated part of the rim of the Shakleton crater is always lit by the Sun.The presence of frozen water in the crater would, combined with the permanent presence of solar energy, be the ideal place for the first extraterrestrial outpost. A mission was designed with support from most of the European Space industry, combined with a student satellite, Lunarsat. The lack of full political support ended the project.

2001- present Nuon Solar Team: The Nuon Solar team works to make the fastest solar energy powered vehicle out there
called “Nuna” to compete in the World Solar challenge in Australia every two years. They have won gold four times and silver once so far already! This year Nuna 6 will start on the 16th october. Wubbo’s role is advisor/coach to the team.

2007-2011 Ecolution: An autonomous sailing ship that provides a home to live in, using two big turbines to produce energy (stored in 12000 kg battery banks) during sailing. The modern two- mast aerorig allows for short hand sailing. full redundancy gives a high level of reliability and avoids time urgency.
2008 Laddermill: Because wind power is one of the biggest growing sources of energy, the laddermill concept was born: a large number of kites are lifted into the air (up to 30,000 feet) and are held together by a cable moving in a loop with downward and upward motion to capture wind energy. A small version with one “pumping” kite (25m2) was created and can produce up to 20 kW of power.

2010 Nederland2050 (previously known as Ladies First): A petition to have dutch people sign for a sustainable and 100% clean country by 2050.

2010 Superbus: A new method of sustainable transportation is possible with the Superbus. It is a 15 meter long electrically powered vehicle that can go up to 250km an hour and will be used as flexible public transportation, traveling based on the needs of the passengers instead of relying on fixed routes. It provides seating for 23 passengers. in order to improve comfort and to allow individuality, it has 8 doors per side and it looks like it came out of a Batman movie! www.

2009 TEDx Talk on time and gravity a new hypothesis was developed, turning around the roles of aging and time in physics. The talk is based on the personal experience of the difference between Space and Earth, and on the studies done by his Phd student, Suzanne Nooij on subjects exposed to hyper g (2-3g) in a centrifuge.

2008-2010 Natuurlijk Afsluitdijk: 2 natural dikes are placed, made of sand taken out of an artificial lake for storing energy. The space in between the two dikes provides new nature fishing grounds, tourism and agriculture. A reverse osmosis power plant was proposed mixing the fresh water with saline water before releasing it to the sea, lowering the impact on nature.On the existing dike, a Superbus track is planned. The plan has been worked out in a consortium of Royal Haskoning, Lieversen, Van Oord, Rabobank, and Eneco.

2011 Happy Energy: a young initiative that advocates a positive and sustainable culture. One which strives for a society that makes maximum use of recyclable products and clean energy, using the Happy Energy logo as the new universal symbol for sustainability. The Wubbo Ockels Happy Energy fund is a fund to support young people who are working in the field of sustainability.

Amsterdam, May 21st 2011

See also:

OYL Circle of Five by Wubbo Ockels, May 21st 2011

OYL Checklist – Wubbo Ockels May 21st 2011

Wubbo Ockels: Goodbye with a Smile May 18th 2014

Interview by Lonneke Engel. Photos by Alique. Copyright Organice Your Life®

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