On May 18th 2014 dutch physicist Wubbo Ockels died. I interviewed Wubbo a few years earlier, on May 21st 2011. I like sharing it with you as Wubbo inspired a lot of people with his stories, achievements and energy. May he rest in Peace. 

Lonneke & Wubbo Ockels by Alique

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 his “Happy Energy” project. He does all of this while dancing his way through life and enjoying it fully, and by surrounding himself with the young people of our future, sometimes even at the Supperclub in Amsterdam. It certainly does not seem like he’s going to stop anytime soon.

“Optimism is a responsibility one cannot win without” – Wubbo Ockels

Interview by Lonneke Engel. Pictures by Alique.

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.

Wubbo Ockels by Alique

 

L: You went to space in a Space Shuttle about 26 years ago, in 1985. can you tell us what it feels Like to travel there, and 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? 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.

READ MORE: OYL Circle of Five by Wubbo Ockels

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. In 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?

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 the 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 others 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.

Wubbo Ockels by Alique

L: You Like to travel. 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 Band 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.

READ MORE: OYL Checklist by Wubbo Ockels

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 is 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 wantto 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.

Wubbo Ockels by Alique

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. 

READ MORE: www.happyenergy.com

L: Can you tell us a bit about the projects you are 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. I worked from 1994-1998 on the Euromoon 2000 project from 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?

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 coalmine, 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 howto 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. – May 21st 2011

If the world ends today, I’ll be ok because I am happy with the way I lived my life

– Wubbo Ockels

Wubbo Ockels : Almelo March 26th 1946 – Amsterdam May 18th 2014

READ MORE: Wubbo Ockels: Goodbye with a smile

 

Lonneke & Wubbo Ockels by Alique

All pictures copyright by Organice Your Life® and Alique. First published in Organice Your Life magazine in 2011, and online on February 18th 2012.