She’s shooting for the stars

Nadine Smolka has a dream: The aerospace engineer at Berlin startup PTScientists wants to send a spacecraft to the moon in 2021.

Nadina Smolka

She’s sure she’ll cry when it happens. After all, every “giant leap for mankind” so far has brought tears to her eyes. She had the same reaction last April when she saw the first-ever pictures of a black hole.
Nadine Smolka is an engineer at Berlin-based company PTScientists, which is the first private company in Europe planning to send a rocket ship to the moon—as soon as 2021! The 27-year-old and her team are working to ensure a successful landing, the most difficult maneuver of the entire mission. Thus far, no private company anywhere—not even Israeli firm SpaceIL—has succeeded at this. Their ship, Beresheet, crash-landed on the moon in April 2019.
Bright-eyed whirlwind Nadine Smolka says: “If we manage it, this will be the Apollo moment of our generation.”

Space travel is becoming a private enterprise

Up until about 20 years ago, space travel was the domain of the government. Private companies began to venture into space exploration in the late 1990s, about 10 years after the Cold War ended. These pioneers developed software to view Earth from above. A few years later, the first entrepreneurs sent small, cost-effective satellites into orbit. And recently, startups have begun taking the bold step of launching their own spaceships.Thus far they have been moderately successful.

She initially wanted to do something with art

For as long as Nadine Smolka can remember, she has been captivated by outer space. When she went camping with her family, she and her brother spent many a night staring up at the sky until dawn. The siblings were fascinated by the concept that Earth is only a small part of something infinite.
Smolka wanted to “do something with art” after high school, but outer space continued to call to her. She was working at the Deichtorhallen exhibition venue in Hamburg when Antony Gormley’s Horizon Field project opened there. A huge, free-floating platform, it had to be installed with the help of structural engineers. All the scientists Smolka worked with at the museum would ask her whether she really wanted to work with art, since she was so technologically minded. She decided to give the natural sciences a try and registered at TU Berlin (Berlin University of Technology) to study physical engineering.

After attending a presentation by a NASA employee, she was consumed by the thought of going into space

Just after she had finished her bachelor’s degree, she and a friend went to see a short speech by a NASA employee that was called “A Trip to Mars.” Afterward Smolka wanted to take a selfie with the speaker and her friend: “How often do you get a chance like that?” The conversation with the NASA employee quickly turned to the topic of women in technology fields. At some point she told them, “We need female scientists like you.” For her master’s degree, Smolka took only courses related to aeronautics, and she ended up specializing in nozzle flows for rocket engines.


PTScientists’ mission to the moon started with a contest

For the PTScientists mission to the moon, she is now working on calculating what the ALINA moon ferry’s two control thrusters need to be able to do to prevent the ferry from faltering—for example if the two fuel tanks empty at different rates.
PTScientists was founded eleven years ago by Berlin computer scientist Robert Böhme and six friends. They wanted to participate in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a contest held by Google to motivate entrepreneurs to fly to the moon. The first one to land and cover a distance of 500 m would win $20,000,000. Böhme and his colleagues tinkered on their space shuttle idea in their spare time, which is why the company came to be called Part-Time Scientists. But by the time the contest was discontinued in early 2018—because not even one participant had launched after 11 years—the erstwhile part-time scientists had long since dedicated themselves to the project full time. Their plans for a cost-effective space ship built with existing technology and some materials made with a 3-D printer had progressed quite far, and they believed in their business model. They envisioned a kind of space taxi service for businesses, space agencies, and universities to transport research material—not people—skyward. Taking astronauts into space is more complex, requiring more expensive and more involved technology. PTScientists is further along on the road to building a moon ferry than every other private company in Europe. Seventy employees from 16 different countries are hard at work on the mission in the nondescript offices in Berlin’s Marzahn neighborhood. At the beginning of the year, Smolka heard about “nerds in Marzahn who are planning a trip to the moon” from a colleague at a children’s science show about outer space that she helped coordinate. Her interest was piqued immediately. She applied and joined the team a short time later, in February. She is still “super excited” about it: “Everyone here is so much more motivated than the people at the university, who were already pretty motivated.” She says that everyone there finds it mind-blowing to be working on what could be the next giant leap for mankind.

The objective is the last place humans stood on the moon

So far the ALINA moon ferry is just a model. It stands in a hall one floor down from Nadine Smolka’s desk, and it looks like a four-legged golden spider, as do all moon ferries. Independent experts have confirmed—based on the model—that ALINA is theoretically suitable for outer space. It can handle extreme temperatures and the shaking during launch. PTScientists is planning to build the ship as soon as the next investment round has been completed. They need about 120 million euros for the entire mission.


SpaceX is to take the moon ferry into space

The rocket to take ALINA into space has already been reserved with SpaceX, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s company. After a successful start the rocket will be taken to the Earth’s orbit. From PTScientists HQ in Berlin near Allee der Kosmonauten (Cosmonaut Avenue), they then want to have ALINA circle Earth a couple of times to gain momentum, which they will use to guide ALINA into the Moon’s orbit. ALINA is supposed to orbit the moon until a new lunar day begins. Then Nadine Smolka and her colleagues will throttle the engines and guide ALINA toward its destination: the Apollo 17 landing site. The team selected this site because it guarantees more attention for their mission. It was the last place where humans stood on the moon, in December 1972. In addition, that area has proven to be a good landing site.

Rovers for science

If all goes as planned, the ALINA team will unload two rovers on this spot to film and photograph and find out how well the materials of the Apollo 17 lunar roving vehicle have weathered the decades out in space.
No decisions have been made yet about what else the two vehicles might do on the moon.
ALINA can transport a maximum of 120 kg of materials for about 30 different projects. One thing is certain: The German Aerospace Center (DLR) will send up a laser to process moon rock and learn more about its composition.
Smolka has loved puzzles ever since she was a child. Her father, an aircraft engineer, was always thinking up new puzzles for her. Smolka would never let up until she found the right solution. Now, she says, she is faced with her most difficult puzzle: landing on the moon. And her drive to solve the puzzle has never been greater.