I recently had the privilege of sitting in on a zoom call hosted by Alice M. Bunn, the International Director at the UK Space Agency and Vice Chair of the Council of the European Space Agency and co- chair of the World Economic Forum Future Global Council on Space Technology. She also happens to be a very charming and highly capable presenter. Alongside her zoom window were an array of remarkable individuals who collectively represented everything that is good in the world of space research and exploration.
Dr Jim Green, Chief Scientist at NASA, was an excellent choice to kick off proceedings, giving an overview of NASAs many achievements in the past 60 years since its inception. What was abundantly clear, is that over the decades NASA has enjoyed prodigious funding unmatched by any other. The American scientific community have enjoyed a fullness of support from government that, even in the lean years, was a bounty of riches compared to other organisations. And while ambitions, it has always been scaled to the fiscal purse — America and the world have shared and benefitted enormously from this. The point was driven home when Jim presented a series of slides that showed past, present and future missions to all points in the solar system. He pointed out that the work today is on the shoulders of those who came before. It was a genuine moment to enjoy, the rich harvest of humanity’s innate curiosity at what is out there and the ingenuity to go and find out. NASA is surely the pinnacle of what is great about the USA.
Next up was Professor Günther Hasinger, Director of Science, European Space Agency who was entertaining in his presentation and self-effacing in ESAs contribution. At a time when Britain may begin to pull away from the collective efforts of our European friends Professor Hasinger was clear in his fondness for the British involvement. If ever two sides look to be diminished in separation, it is the scientific community that will, like electrons, seek to settle into a stable existence. Perhaps the big takeaway from the ESA presentation was that progress is much harder to achieve in partnerships of twenty-seven!
My personal favourite presentation was from Professor Mikhail Marov, Former Scientific Secretary of the Soviet Space Council and as dedicated a spaceman as anyone could wish to meet. Necessarily harking back to the Soviet era and the space race, politics in the form of national ambition, was more of a driver than scientific enquiring minds. Professor Marov referred to the many achievements and ‘firsts’ by the Soviet Union, but it felt that much of what was achieved was ‘lashed together’ to beat the rival rather than an investment into deep learning. That is not to diminish the professionalism of the scientists and everyone involved in the Soviet space race. Indeed, Professor Marov touched upon the extreme difficulties of scientific endeavours following Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that American or European scientists could have operated under the same circumstances, and one can only imagine the bleakness of the decade that followed. The exploits of intrepid astronauts are surely matched by the utter dedication of those men and women who kept the workshop lights on after the fall of communism. To follow a presentation by NASA and ESA and their generously funded histories could have felt like humiliation, and perhaps this was a moment to reflect on what it must feel like to be a Russian scientist today and who among us would willingly walk a mile in their shoes?
Professor Gu Yidong, Chief Scientist of China’s Manned Space Programme gave a short, precise presentation of the rapid progress his country has made in recent years. China’s space exploration programme is remarkable in what has been achieved largely in isolation of the West, and the striking way their ambitions and milestones are accelerating as they move forward. While all the main presentations laid out plans for the coming years, it felt as though China’s were the most likely to become a reality, if only because of the country’s single-minded approach to scientific progress. By contrast today’s SLS program at NASA looks fantastic in development, but it does look vulnerable in the marketplace placing a question mark over its delivery in the long term.
While not representing for a specific space agency both Dr Mae Jemison, former NASA astronaut and first African American woman in space, and Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, former cosmonaut and first Indian in space, gave personal insights into their trips into space and the importance of continued human exploration alongside robotic space vehicles.
On a final point, it was clear to me that these scientists were all unified in their belief that collaboration is the key not only to successful mission outcomes, but that through the sharing of knowledge and expertise so much more can be achieved. Everyone was positive on the importance of cooperation, yet, without saying it, politics seemed to lurk somewhere just beyond the camera —a force miring those willingly to help one another and therefore continuing the inflated costly endeavour of space exploration.