Q&A With Jeremy Curtis

UK space expert talks about cooperative, international efforts to explore space

Image: Jacob Thomas

Space expert Jeremy Curtis is the United Kingdom’s delegate to the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, which in May 2007 issued a widely cited report calling for global cooperation in manned and unmanned missions to explore the solar system. In addition, he is the coordinator for the UK Space Exploration Working Group and the business development manager for the space science and technology department at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, England. IEEE Spectrum Senior Editor William Sweet interviewed Curtis late last year. Here are excerpts from the interview.

IEEE Spectrum: How did the 2007 report originate?

Jeremy Curtis: It came from the American vision for space exploration in 2004. That stated very encouragingly, for the first time, that the United States was interested in collaborating in a way it had never done before with other nations on space exploration. This was almost a gauntlet being thrown down for other nations to join in. And it was treated as a much more exciting prospect than the space station. The space station was a political activity where everyone’s goals were being shoehorned into one space, one direction. And if your views didn’t match, it was hard to fit. The idea of space exploration was, ”Come along with your own goals, your own aims, and we’ll see whether there are overlaps of what we want to do and what you want to do.”

 

Spectrum: The United Kingdom was not a participant in the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory for the International Space Station’s. Why not?

JC: There was deep discussion when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister as to whether to get involved. In the end the decision was not to. That’s the origin of what appeared to be a policy not to participate in human spaceflight, but it was actually about not investing in the space station. So we don’t have a policy on human spaceflight. We have not in the past invested in it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t in the future.

 

Spectrum: So how has the UK’s thinking about human space exploration evolved?

JC: As a result of the U.S. moon-Mars program announced in 2004, NASA invited other agencies interested to create a joint vision for space exploration, a global one, and the global exploration strategy was born. We had meetings frequently for just over a year in various places, resulting in ”The Global Exploration Strategy: The Framework for Coordination,” which was published in May 2007.

The next phase was, What does Britain do about it? We agreed this is what we’d like to do in an ideal world, but what are the specifics? And so an independent team was put together of 22 experts, mostly from academe and industry, but also some officials. I coordinated the group.

 

Spectrum: Did the group make suggestions on spending in the future?

JC: We were talking in the region of £50 million a year [about US $80 million], compared with a total civil space budget of £200 million, a fairly large increase.

 

Spectrum: The level of British spending is modest compared to that of other European countries.

JC: Yes, absolutely.

 

Spectrum: I’ve heard grumbling that NASA is not as open to international cooperation as people had hoped it might be. Are you hearing that?

Curtis: It’s early days yet. I think NASA has been far more open than ever before, and it’s been much easier to work with them. I think it’s been a revelation. We realize that the Americans spend far more than what we do in Europe as a whole, and so for us to expect NASA to do what we wish it to do would be too much. NASA has its priorities.

 

Spectrum: In its report, the working group pays lip service to the general idea of going back to the moon, and then to Mars. Is there a sincere consensus that the general plan makes sense?

JC: Visiting Mars and bringing back samples is one of our high priorities. It’s clear there are two ways of doing that. You either put all your effort into doing that and do it first, in which case we’ve got an enormous gap to jump. The other approach is to try the technology on the moon first, see if everything works, and use that as a staging post. If you’re doing that, there’s a lot of useful science you can do on the way. That’s the approach that we’re taking. We’d like to go to the moon first, though that’s not the view of every scientist in the UK. The official UK approach is to attempt the moon before Mars.

 

Spectrum: What are the UK’s strengths in planetary exploration?

JC: What we have a lot of experience in is sample analysis. You’re aware of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission? We developed the Ptolemy spectrometer system that’s going to take the samples of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. We developed the technology for digging, drilling, and crushing analysis of samples for ESA’s Beagle 2 lander—even though it didn’t succeed in landing successfully on Mars, we did the technology. We’ve got the contract from the European Space Agency for [the ExoMars] rover—that’s held by EADS Astrium in the UK.

London runs a lot of communication satellites. We could provide a service for communications around the moon. If there are multiple agencies running missions to the moon, they will need communications. It’s probably more efficient for one supplier to provide them rather than many.

There’s one specific mission we’re studying, called Moonlight. The idea of that is to demonstrate small-satellite technology carrying lunar communications. The orbiter also will carry suitcase-size penetrometers—these projectiles will impact the surface of the moon carrying scientific instruments. The data collected by them gets fed back to the orbiter, then back to Earth. The general idea was hatched at Surrey Satellite and now is being discussed as a possible joint project with NASA.

 

Spectrum: Would you say that as a result of the American, global, and British space vision exercises that plans are now getting more concrete?

JC: There’s a point now where we have real business cases that can be identified. We will be returning to the moon, people will be exploring Mars, and one day we’ll be landing on nearby asteroids. There are business cases that can be made for supplying services to these missions.

We’re trying to get away from the idea that government has to do everything themselves. Where industry is a better place to do things, let industry do it and sell us their services.

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