Fatoumata Kebé: "If we have to reproduce the inequalities of the Earth on the Moon, we'd better not go"

4 min
Interview with the astronomer Fatoumata Kebé

BarcelonaShe has a shy look, and speaks in a small voice that the mask still makes it harder to decipher, but Fatoumata Kebe's ambition is enormous. Doctor in astronomy from the Sorbonne University, astrophysicist and aspiring to one day travel to the Moon, she has visited Barcelona to inaugurate the Kosmopolis festival of the CCCB, which has had as one of its main thematic axes the look at outer space from the point of view of science and literature. Kebe spoke about her first book, The Book of the Moon in which she combines scientific, historical and mythical considerations about the Earth's only satellite.

The philosopher, mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote in the mid-17th century: "The eternal silence of infinite space frightens me". It seems that you are rather attracted to this silence.

— Yes and no. Outer space is immense, and it scares me too. If we think that there are an estimated hundred billion stars, the figure leaves you stunned.

Why did you become interested in the study of the stars?

— For a very simple reason: their beauty. I grew up in Paris and, from there, I could hardly see stars in the sky, because it was already very polluted. But there in the middle of it was the moon, and I used to gawk at it. My parents always told me I had my head in the moon [laughs].

I hope they didn't call you a lunatic?

— No, not that [laughs]. It's funny, because someone who changes moods abruptly is described as a lunatic, whereas the moon changes little by little, it has a marked cycle and very stable phases.

Your interest in the stars didn't run in your family, then?

— No. It was thanks to books and documentaries that I became interested in the stars and outer space. When I started to study astronomy I didn't imagine how difficult it could be: it's a discipline that can be approached in many ways, from biology, geology or the mechanics of celestial bodies.

You decided to specialise in the study of space debris. What does that consist of?

— It's the waste that we humans have generated by sending satellites and other objects into space. When they stop working, we lose track of the debris, which can be of very different sizes. The problem is when one of these objects enters our atmosphere and falls on an inhabited place. Last year, the debris from a Chinese rocket ended up in a village in the Ivory Coast. There are countries that have irresponsible behaviour in outer space, but it can have consequences everywhere. This space pollution must be detected to avoid problems.

Can the work you do be described as galactic environmentalism?

— You could call it that, yes [laughs]. Two of my passions are outer space and the environment.

Do your imminent future plans include a trip to the moon?

— Yes, I've been observing and studying it for many years, thinking that one day I'll go. The European Space Agency has opened a call for applications to train four astronauts. The last time this happened was in 2009 and 1,300 candidates applied, of which only half a dozen were chosen. I'll know soon if they'll take me.

And then?

— Then I'll start two years of training in Cologne and after that, once I've graduated as an astronaut, I could be part of an expedition. The moon is only three days away from Earth!

There have only been two European astronauts, so far.

— Yes. An Italian, Samantha Christoforetti, and a French one, Claudie Haigneré

Why are there so few women astronauts?

— There are very few places and the conditions are very restrictive: you have to have a Master's degree in science, three years of professional experience in your field and training as a doctor or pilot. There is also the requirement to be fluent in two languages: English and another one. Women can be good astronauts, we have to stop censoring ourselves. To achieve this, we must first do more work to have more women with scientific careers. In France, whenever the media call on experts, if they are men, people believe them, and the few women who do come out are questioned.

The Book of the Moon tells us about the formation of the satellite, related myths and authors who have written about it, such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Victor Hugo. It also reminds us that if the human being stepped on the Moon it is more for political than scientific motivations.

— The space race between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War ended with the images of the Americans stepping on the Moon on July 21st, 1969.

The capitalist model once again defeated the communist one.

— Neither the Moon nor the other planets are legally protected enough against capitalism. The United Nations says that no nation can appropriate a celestial body, but it does not mention corporations.

Will one of the great battles of the imminent future be the possible exploitation of resources from other stars?

— It is very likely. Expeditions to the moon have a scientific and exploratory side, but also a political and even economic side. The idea of colonizing other planets worries me. Those who will be able to afford to travel will be businessmen, very rich people... If we have to reproduce the same system of inequalities as on Earth, we'd better not go.

There is also talk of the possibility of having to abandon Earth. Will we reach the point of destroying it?

— It seems incredible that our planet can endure, with all that we are doing to it. We've made Earth sick, but the idea of looking for an alternative planet makes no sense. We'd destroy it anyway.