Climate Change

This astronaut spent 177 days living and working in space – here’s what he learnt about Earth

Matthias Maurer, Astronaut at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

“Space provides information, and without information, no decision-making can take place,” says Maurer. Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum

Ewan Thomson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Climate Change

  • Astronaut Matthias Maurer spent several months on the International Space Station conducting various experiments to help tackle some of Earth’s challenges.
  • He talked to the World Economic Forum’s Meet The Leader podcast about leadership, space debris and how we can beat the climate crisis.
  • Maurer also highlighted the value of collaboration and the stark realization of how limited our resources are.

The world faces a series of interlinked and complex challenges – from the climate crisis to geopolitical instability. But what if some of the solutions were hundreds of kilometres above us?

Astronaut Matthias Maurer has spent 177 days living and working in space, conducting over 35 experiments at the International Space Station (ISS), from mixing concrete to STEM research.

Maurer recently told the World Economic Forum’s Meet The Leader podcast about how this research is contributing to improving life on Earth, and also some of the leadership lessons he’s learned from being in space.

Astronaut, Matthias Maurer
Astronaut Matthias Maurer believes research carried out in space can help tackle numerous challenges we face on Earth. Image: World Economic Forum

What space can teach us

“Space provides information, and without information, no decision-making can take place,” explained Maurer.

For example, satellites provide a lot of data about the climate, which is vital to understanding how it’s changing and the impact we’re having. Indeed, “without satellites we wouldn't know anything about climate change,” said Maurer.

“But also doing space research on the International Space Station can contribute a lot. For example, I had a key experiment which was mixing concrete in space.” Maurer pointed out that, worldwide, we produce more CO2 due to the concrete used in buildings than the entire aerospace industry. “So just by doing research in space and improving an old material, we can also produce significant benefits to stop climate change.”

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Other experiments Maurer undertook on the ISS included medical ones. “We brought stem cells up there, had heart muscles grow and even got a heart muscle beating,” Maurer said, in a bid to “create organoids in space” for the many people who need replacement organs, like a kidney or liver.

Some of Maurer’s learnings were more immediate, however. “When I was up there, a country shut down a satellite and that created lots of space debris. So it was a serious risk for us on the ISS. It was at short notice and we couldn't deviate, so we had to shelter. We had to basically go into a bunker – our space capsule – and we were just hoping that the space debris wouldn't hit us.”

Leadership lessons from high above

It was a close encounter with an ongoing challenge in the space sector.

“I work for the European Space Agency, which is heavily engaged in establishing rules on how to fly safely in space. We all know, when you climb into a plane, there are rules. We don't have these rules currently for satellites, so these rules need to be established to keep space clean,” said Maurer.

With space limited for satellites and risks around space debris and rubbish, countries must work together, he says. They must collaborate far more closely. And not just for safety reasons. For the sharing of information, too.

“If everybody runs his own satellite and doesn't share the data, then you only have a fraction of the data available,” Maurer pointed out. “And we all understand the more data points you have and the more diverse the data points are, the more global your picture is.”

This call for collaboration was Maurer’s key message to leaders.

“As an astronaut, my leadership training focused very much on international cooperation and collaboration,” he said. “By doing things together, we are way more efficient. We can solve problems that nobody can solve on their own.”

Solving some of Earth’s biggest challenges

The view from space also offered him a stark reminder of how fragile and finite Earth is. “It’s the only place that we have … so we need to take care of it,” Maurer urged.

But how? Get the collaboration in place, he said, and space has the potential to help us tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, like the climate crisis.

“We need to bring the decision-makers together,” said Maurer. “We need to bring the scientists together. Because quite often we have two sides – on one side, the experts, but they don't really have the oversight or the direct contact to the decision-makers.”

Some of Maurer’s quotes have been slightly edited. You can find out more about the biggest risks we face in the new edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, which will be released on 10 January; and join us for our Annual Meeting in Davos from 15-19 January to explore solutions – from space and Earth – to tackle them.

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