The European Space Agency On Elon Musk, The Martian, And The Future Of Space

The European Space Agency On Elon Musk, The Martian, And The Future Of Space
An ExoMars press briefing. Image: ESA

This weekend, National Geographic’s Mars: The Live Experience is touring Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, with astronaut Buzz Aldrin and scientists from NASA and the European Space Agency talking about the future of space and humanity’s goal of reaching Mars — what many believe should be our goal as a civilisation and the potential for the continued survival of the human race.

Before the shows, we sat down with Professor Mark McCaughrean, a senior science advisor at the ESA, to get his take on what the Agency does, what it sees as the future of missions to space, and how it works with governments and private sector space companies like SpaceX.

CS: Hi, Mark. Can you give Gizmodo readers a bit of background on what you do, and some of the missions that ESA is responsible for?

MM: I’m a senior science advisor at the European Space Agency. I have responsibility to advise the Directorate of Science, where I’ve lived most of my life, but also the Human and Robotic Exploration Directorate — where our astronauts are, and also where our Mars missions are.

I get to have fun, and wander around the world talking what we do. I run the outreach and communications group for the science directorate — so for all of our telescopes in the Solar System, our missions investigating the solar system, and we have many. ESA is much bigger in that we have Earth observation, we have launches, we have telecoms.

Beyond the Mars missions that I’m here to talk about in Australia, we had Rosetta, which went to the comet — I’ve been down here a couple of times to talk about it in the last few years. My team is responsible for the communications from that and missions like it.

CS: To start off, in a broad sense — ESA is made up of member states and governments. How do you convince a younger generation of the public — the person that might not have been around to watch a Moon mission — of the value of the work that ESA does, in anything from Rosetta to ExoMars to Earth observation?

MM: An analogy I make here is that people don’t want to see how the sausage is made — the internal workings of an agency with 22 member states and money and budgets and politics and all of that. The general public want the sausage to taste good — they want it to work — and it should look good as well — they need to be convinced that what we’re doing, they need to see it and have it described to them.

“People don’t want to see how the sausage is made… they want the sausage to taste good, and to look good.”

It’s fair to say we haven’t done as good a job as we could have over the years, even though we’ve had all of these amazing missions. NASA has done a very good job of that, so we’ve been a little bit in their shadow. Earth observation is a critical thing in Europe, understanding climate change and resource management — we actually have the biggest fleet of Earth observation satellites in orbit in the world, so that’s something we’re very proud of. There’s kind of a fine line between doing science and providing resources for government and industry to look at how the world is changing. It’s a big program for us.

It’s absolutely vital we do get kids to be inspired by we do — it’s not just so they look at what we do and say “oh, that’s cool, I want to be an astronaut, and fly a spacecraft through the solar system”. It’s because many of the problems that face us on the Earth are related to science, technology, engineering and maths and we need more kids in those fields. If we can be stage two in — dinosaurs one, space two — that’s where we can get kids in. We’ve got so much evidence from Rosetta of people saying “this is what I want to do with my life now” — not necessarily flying spacecraft, but wanting to follow science and help make a difference.

CS: Is that something you expected? The mission to Rosetta was successful in the science that it did and was a technical feat in getting there in the first place — and had cultural impact, like the Vangelis album. Did you expect it to resonate so widely?

MM: I think we were surprised by how much it did catch on. Rosetta in many ways had lots of things going for it — it’s a 10 year journey through the solar system, you can talk about how we got there in the first place. We had two spacecraft that could talk to each other, we had Twitter and social media — we didn’t exploit that, we always made quite clear that this was a real mission doing real science.

But we even made cartoons around it — for kids, but adults loved them as well — with anthropomorphised spacecraft and with human emotion expressed in them, but they’re always correct; we wrote the scripts for those and we made sure they accurately represented the science. We knew Vangelis, and he was very keen on space, but he decided — it was his first album in 15 years, and he said “I want to do this, because this is important to me”, and we didn’t pay him a penny, we couldn’t. You can’t get that kind of thing without somebody being inspired.

The European Space Agency On Elon Musk, The Martian, And The Future Of SpaceRosetta and Philae. Image: ESA

We made two short sci-fi films around Rosetta and Philae, one called Ambition, which starred Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) and Aisling Franciosi (Lyanna Stark, also from Game of Thrones) — set a million years in the future, looking back at that moment in time when that mission happened. And it talks about fundamental questions, the meaning of life, where did life come from on the earth, the origin of water on Earth.

They’re a gateway, and one thing we’ve learned is that it’s not so much telling people what you want them to know, but finding out what they’re interested in and using that as a vector to give them information. We’re doing things in virtual reality, in music — next year we’ll do a rock music meets science festival in the UK. We’ve got architects, sculptures — that kind of thing came out of Rosetta, because Rosetta was special, but now we’ve got people doing other things.

We’ve got an artist who likes to explode things as an artistic statement — we’re not too keen on that from a perspective of spacecraft blowing up! — but it’s a metaphor, she’s telling a story of construction out of destruction, the way stars are formed through explosions and fusion and how life can come out of that. In that sense, the door has been blown wide open for us to communicate.

CS: ESA is made up of 22 different member states — does that mean you have the security of multiple funding sources and points of view, or does the bureaucracy get in the way in determining what you do?

MM: A little bit of both, of course. The funding is stability — one of the core rules of the European Space Agency is a French term called juste retour — if a country puts in a certain amount of money, they’re guaranteed to get that money back into their industry. We don’t give the money to the lowest bidder necessarily, that’s just part of the rules set up in the 1970s, and it works. Countries can safely invest in ESA and know that their money is going back into their high-tech industries. We don’t personally build spacecraft, we let contracts out, and companies build spacecraft, they have the technologies.

In that sense, there’s a lot more investment in ESA from the big countries than if the money was just flowing to the cheapest bidder all the time. But of course there’s bureaucracy, you have to make sure those contracts are balanced out between 22 member states. So if one big spacecraft is built in Germany, you may have to look carefully for next time.

Very fundamentally, in the areas that I sit — in our telescopes, in our missions and unmanned missions exploring the solar system — those are chosen by the outside scientific community. Proposals are made, we have outside peer review panels, we don’t choose those, we provide the infrastructure for the process but we don’t choose them. We bring in experts from other areas and they say, “these are the top three missions out of the 50 proposals — we think this one should go first”.

“Very fundamentally, the science is bottom up — it’s chosen by the community and we do it on behalf of the community.”

Very fundamentally, the science is bottom up — it’s chosen by the community and we do it on behalf of the community. That’s a real strength, because it avoids situations like in the US where the President might say “we are now going to the Moon, we are now going to Mars” — that can be very important, and if the money comes, you can do it, but if you say it and you don’t provide the resources and you don’t do it, you look a bit stupid.

CS: When you have all of that inertia from member states, what you want is success in your missions — but inevitably along the way that doesn’t always happen. The recent Schiaparelli lander incident, for example — how do you communicate what might in a public sense be seen as a failure, how do you learn from those and educate that that incident isn’t a complete loss of data?

The European Space Agency On Elon Musk, The Martian, And The Future Of SpaceThe Schiaparelli landing site. Image: ESA

MM: It’s a bit like when the first Space Shuttle blew up in 1986; there had been quite a few successful flights, then we were reminded pretty viscerally that this is risky. And nobody was watching on that day, really — it was becoming routine, and the minute that space becomes routine, especially for science, you’re not doing challenging things. If you can guarantee that every time it works, you’re not pushing hard enough to do challenging technical and scientific things.

For us, of course we have to manage the risks and ensure we do everything we can to make a mission happen. But we always have to set expectations that things can go wrong. If you watch Ambition, it talks very explicitly about risk and the possibility of failure — and in the film, you never see Philae land on the comet. Very deliberately not, because we didn’t know it was going to succeed. It’s about setting expectations, saying “we try difficult things”, but nevertheless we pick ourselves up and go on.

And of course, these things are very public. You rely on a base community of people who are interested and understand all the technical background and that follow you — but inevitably on the day of a landing or a launch you’ll have a lot of people that follow for those few hours because it’s exciting. And trying to get that message to them that we’re doing something risky and it might fail — partly they’re watching almost because that might happen!

I think that’s quite well recognised. It’s not to say we might deliberately crash one in 10 or one in 100 just to make sure that they keep watching — but there’s a contract with people that they understand it’s hard. The flip-side is that Schiaparelli was a demonstrator; it was deliberately flown to Mars to test technologies for future missions. There was very little science on board; we had all of the data come back to Earth, all the way to impact, and we have all of that so we can work out what worked and what failed.

The European Space Agency On Elon Musk, The Martian, And The Future Of SpaceThe Schiaparelli impact site. Image: ESA

A lot of it worked — we got through the high speed entry, we got through the parachute phase, and down to the last step, definitely — and now we have all of the data, we can plug them into the computer on the ground which is a duplicate of the one on board. If it’s a software bug, we’ll find it, and we’ll go on. In the same day, we put the biggest, heaviest spacecraft ever put into Mars orbit successfully, perfectly successfully — and that’s the big science machine. That’s the one that’s looking for possible signs of life on Mars.

CS: The Trace Gas Orbiter is in orbit around Mars at the moment and doing its work, and contributing forward to 2020 and 2022 and the next parts of the ExoMars mission. What’s the next step — how do you maintain interest, and what’s the next step in the science?

MM: We’re in a very elliptical orbit with the Trace Gas Orbiter at the moment. What we’re doing in the next 12 months is using the atmosphere of Mars to slow us down — it’s kind of ironic that we’re using the things we measure to slow us down. We’re going into a circular orbit at 400 miles above Mars, where we can really start doing the science.

But how do you maintain interest when there’s a year to go until you start doing the science? We’ve got many other things going on at ESA, of course — we’ve got a mission flying off to Mercury in 2018, we have two missions being built to search for planets around other stars, we’re part of the big NASA mission for the James Webb Space Telescope. We’ll be launching that on our rocket from our launch site in 2018. So we have a lot more to talk about what we’re doing, but you’re always going to get the slightly ephemeral audience that turns up for a day to watch a launch or a landing. What we aim for is a few of those people to stay.

That’s certainly been happening over the last few years in a broader sense. NASA New Horizons flying past Pluto, Curiosity on Mars, there’s certainly a buzz and interest about space at the moment. I hope it’s not an interest based on wishful thinking and fantasy, though — people need to know that what we do is hard, and engage with how difficult this is. It doesn’t matter if you’re government or Elon Musk — the physics is the same for all of us.

CS: Do you find that a rising tide lifts all ships? If SpaceX successfully launches, if Elon Musk jumps on stage and talks about a manned mission to Mars — does that benefit you, or do you find that expectations can become too high?

“If you’re setting expectations that are unrealistic, and trivialising certain aspects, it’s dangerous.”

MM: It’s an area that preoccupies me a lot. There are a lot of people that say that talking about space and getting people excited is good; I tend to side with the fact that if you’re setting expectations that are unrealistic, and trivialising certain aspects, it’s dangerous. Elon said in a speech that we’re going to have pizza restaurants on the way to Mars, it’s going to be a great fun cruise — forget that. It’s obvious nonsense.

The more serious side is that do you really want to send human beings to Mars before we’ve established whether there’s life on Mars in the first place? What is our role in protecting or ensuring that we don’t contaminate it with our own life? These are very serious questions that we think about a lot — we follow the rules, there are very strict rules about how sterile your spacecraft should be when you’re travelling to Mars.

It also becomes a sense of impatience; you put The Martian on, it’s got to be a two-hour film, and in those two hours, they’re on Mars at the beginning of it. How did that happen? It’s just, oh, we’re on Mars. That’s the hard bit, actually.

The European Space Agency On Elon Musk, The Martian, And The Future Of SpaceAn ESA communications dish. Image: ESA

There’s this real sense of instant gratification, people want these things to be true. There’s a wishful thinking about “I want to walk on Mars, I want to be an explorer, I want to be somewhere else” — part of that is sticking your head in the sand, because the Earth that we live on isn’t doing so well at the moment. So you want to go somewhere else and have fantasy dreams about starting afresh.

But you need to tap into those dreams. I worry that the private enterprise comes in and makes promises — to raise money, it’s got to promise a lot — that make things for the rest of us hard. Elon Musk can talk about going to Mars, but we actually went there and did this thing. It makes us look slow and bureaucratic, but this is where the line is drawn — governments have to ensure that if you’re promising a service, you get it.

That’s part of the whole point — at what point does the government step in and say “Elon, you’re not flying a rocket from the United States because your spacecraft is dirty and it’s going to contaminate Mars”? He’s said many times that he’s just going anyway — but whoa, hold on. Just being rich and having the ability to do these things doesn’t give you the right to do them.

Tickets for National Geographic’s Mars: The Live Experience are still on sale. The show is on at Melbourne’s Town Hall on Friday November 4, in Sydney at the Hordern Pavilion on Sunday November 6, and at Canberra’s Llewellyn Hall on Monday November 7.