David Parker, director of space science at the UK Space Agency
More needs to be done to champion today’s space pioneers, says the UK Space Agency’s science chief
Not many people have the chance to meet their childhood heroes. Many less have lunch with them and plan the future of mankind. For David Parker, director of space science at the UK Space Agency, his meeting on space exploration with long-time idol Buzz Aldrin left a lasting impression.
’When I sat down, he heard my English accent and said, “Do you know Arthur C Clarke?” Obviously he was on first-name terms with the author and exchanging messages all the time. I thought, I’m in a different world here,’ laughed the 48 year old, who remembers the Apollo lunar landings with a mixture of nostalgia and admiration.
Like millions of his generation, Parker was inspired by the iconic images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taken on the moon’s surface. In the 1960s, space was characterised by danger, excitement and discovery and it left an indelible imprint on the minds of all those present.
“There are projects out there that if people knew more about, they would be just as excited as us”
More than four decades later and things couldn’t be more different. Ambitions of seeing humans reach the depths of our solar system have yet to be realised and seem even further from our reach. Space agencies have largely given up those dreams to the private sector and instead focused on the less glamorous areas of satellites and robotics. Somehow, this technology hasn’t fuelled the public imagination in the same way.
’It’s a pub conversation you have all the time,’ said Parker. ’You meet somebody, and you say, “I work for the UK Space Agency”. They say, “Oh, I didn’t know we had a space agency”. Fair enough, we’re just a bunch of bureaucrats. But on the other hand, we’re very excited by what we do and very passionate. I think there are projects out there that if people knew more about, they would be just as excited.’
One of these is the Gaia spacecraft, due to be launched in 2013. Its mission is to chart a thousand million stars in our galaxy, monitoring each of the stars about 70 times over a five-year period. Scientists are hoping this will create a precise three-dimensional map that could provide answers to some of the most challenging questions on the origin, structure and evolution of our galaxy.
At Gaia’s heart are two optical telescopes, able to split the light of stars into a spectrum for analysis. Throughout its five-year mission, the spacecraft will slowly spin and sweep the two telescopes across the entire celestial sphere. As the detectors repeatedly measure the position of each celestial object, researchers will be able to chart the changes in the object’s motion.
’Gaia will have the biggest set of detectors that have ever been launched into space,’ said Parker. ’Laid out side by side, the detectors will be about the size of a coffee table. These detectors are being made in Chelmsford by e2v. They are going to produce torrents of data and all that is going into a computer system being built by Astrium in Stevenage. Then you have scientists at Cambridge University that will take this data and produce complex models.’
“It’s very exciting…everyone should feel that way about space research”
UK involvement in projects such as this is something Parker believes we should be shouting about. And while some might argue that space science is a luxury that we can ill afford in the current climate, Parker is bullish on the importance of continuing to invest in the sector.
’Very often, the technologies we invest in enable the commercial activities to happen in other industries, such as security, energy, healthcare… I shouted at someone the other day who had drafted an article all about the benefits of space, and Teflon frying pans were in there. Unfortunately, space programmes didn’t contribute to that, but they have contributed to many, far more significant, things.’
Promoting space science and technology, despite recent successes in the field, remains an uphill battle. But Parker’s enthusiasm for space isn’t just a remnant of more glorious days gone by. He is just as enthusiastic about the direction that space technology is going at the moment, and believes it’s just a matter of time before others feel the same.
’I saw my first launch last November, and it was a very exciting experience,’ he said. ’You see the rocket sitting there on the launch stand, and [during] the countdown you can feel the sweat on your palms, even if it isn’t the spacecraft you’ve worked on. So many people have worked for so many years to get to this moment. When you put a spacecraft on a rocket, the computer is in control. You just don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s very exciting…everyone should feel that way about space research.’
David Parker - Biography
Director of space science at the UK Space Agency
- 1984 BSc Hons in aeronautics and astronautics at Southampton University
- 1989 PhD in wind tunnel magnetic suspension technology at Southampton University
- 1990 Joined British Aerospace Space Systems as a guidance, navigation and control engineer
- 1991 Promoted to head of liquid propulsion systems
- 1995 Appointed head of guidance navigation and control department at Matra Marconi Space, Bristol
- 1997 Selected for a two-year secondment as assistant director at the British National Space Centre, London
- 2002 Became key account manager for space science, EADS Astrium
- 2004 Appointed director of space science and exploration at the UK Space Agency
Q&A - Wonders of the universe
What area of space science are you particularly interested in at the moment?
Right now, I’m very interested the progress that Reaction Engines is making with its Skylon spaceplane. I’m in lots of discussions with them about how that is going to be taken forward. We’re facilitating discussions with the European air worthiness authorities, thinking about how you operate a spaceplane from the regulation and insurance point of view, because a Mach 5 spaceplane without a pilot [raises] some interesting questions about flying things around in airspace. There are a lot of ’ifs’ with Skylon. But there are some very smart guys working on it, I have to say. As well as some good financial backers. It’s a really exciting project for the future.
Will the UK maintain its involvement in the 2018 Mars Rover mission now that NASA and ESA are combining their efforts into one rover?
We’ve spent a lot of effort and resources in the UK on putting UK scientists and industry at the heart of this project and we’re going to ensure that they stay there. That’s taking up a lot of time with what I’m doing at the moment…NASA has some considerable budget difficulties right now, and that’s put politely. Combining the two will create some fascinating technical challenges, but I’ve some confidence that we’ll end up with rather a smashing mission.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career?
I’d say the moment of landing on Titan on January 2005. I was in the operations centre of the European Space Agency (ESA) on the day we landed, seeing the first images come up. That was just amazing. It was an incredible atmosphere, people who had worked on the project for 15 years finally seeing a new world revealed, especially because it was more dramatic than anyone had imagined seeing rivers and lake basins, not of water, but of methane and hydrocarbons. It was an incredible day.
What would you like to see achieved in space research by the time you retire?
I would like to see materials brought back from other planets for the first time. That’s probably Mars, and also some of the more interesting asteroids. The second thing could be whether we are able to spot signs in the atmosphere of other planets with life, so other planets going round stars. The technology to do that is just on the fringe of being possible. I’d like to think that we would go back with astronauts to the moon and onto Mars. I’m not sure whether I will see that, but, in the long-term scale of humanity, its got to happen eventually.
Why do you think the UK is so strong in space research?
I think it’s something to do with being good inventors. Maybe you could argue it’s because we don’t have huge amounts of money that it forces us to be creative, to look for clever solutions. Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) are taking technology used for computers and adapting that for space a perfect example of the different ways of doing things. I was having a conversation with someone at ESA and they said we respect what SSTL do, but we can’t do that. They can spend a lot of money to crush a problem out of existence, rather than spending a lot of time analysing and thinking about alternatives.