12 April 2022


Blog, Media Updates, Space

No comments

RHEA Group Strategic Advisor Peter DubockOn 12 April 1961, the first human space flight took place when Soviet citizen Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in just under 2 hours. In a neat coincidence, exactly 20 years later on 12 April 1981, the first Space Shuttle launch took place.

12 April is now celebrated around the world as the International Day of Human Space Flight following a United Nations declaration in 2011 “to celebrate each year at the international level the beginning of the space era for mankind, reaffirming the important contribution of space science and technology in achieving sustainable development goals and increasing the wellbeing of states and peoples”.

Now, in 2022, RHEA Group Strategic Advisor Peter Dubock marks this notable date by recalling his involvement in manned space missions and looks forward to planned missions to the Moon and Mars.

How were you involved in manned spaceflight?

I worked for the European Space Agency for 37 years, culminating in being Inspector General, so I worked across a lot of missions and activities.

From 1978 to 1982 I led a team working on the Space Shuttle mission that took the first ever European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut into space – the German astronaut Ulf Merbold. The STS-9 mission on the Columbia shuttle also carried the first Spacelab laboratory into orbit. Although I left in 1982, I returned for the launch in 1983.

Our team’s role was to deliver the software interface for the European experiments on board the mission, making sure they had a similar look and feel to make it easier for the astronauts to use them. In total, over 70 scientific experiments were carried out on that mission, including a European one using a grille spectrometer to measure the spectra of atmospheric gases in space. This was the first such instrument to do so, paving the way for its widespread and much-valued use on satellites, including some Copernicus Sentinel satellites.

Why do you think manned space missions are important?

Manned spaceflight is something that really excites people across the globe. Even though the first man walked on the moon over 50 years ago, people are still fantastically enthusiastic about astronauts going into space. You might have thought that when the Apollo programme was abandoned, people would lose interest, but they did not.

If you are British, you may have seen the huge mural at Heathrow Airport of Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to go to the International Space Station. A fantastic amount of interest was generated in his flight – and he was not even the first Brit to go into space, because that was Helen Sharman, who visited the Mir space station in 1991. The ‘Tim Peake effect’ happens in every ESA Member State that has an astronaut; they become hugely popular.

That human interest factor is important because it drives the popular imagination in the same way as Captain Scott going to the South Pole over 100 years ago. It is not so much about the science – it is about the adventure, the danger and the courage. And that interest means people accept the broader financial investment in all the space-related activities ESA does, including the less exciting ones that are nevertheless fundamentally important for our everyday lives.

What is your view on private space tourism?

If people want to spend their money on space tourism, why not? I am not interested in being a space tourist, despite my long history in the space sector, but there is no reason people should not pay to go into space if they want.

Will mankind make it to Mars?

Exploration of space is important and so it is obvious really that the next step, as has been agreed, is to build a permanent base on the Moon. The principal issue here is about sustainability. You have to be able to provide water, air and fuel locally – if you can do those things, you can sustain life. And then you can move further afield.

I believe a base on the Moon will happen – probably within the next 20 years or so.

In terms of travelling to Mars, however, you have all those challenges but also it is unthinkable that you will be able to transport enough fuel to Mars to bring people back again; at least, not any time soon. So we will have to find a way to generate fuel on Mars. And there are also issues relating to providing the supplies needed to feed and support life on Mars, as well as aspects such as shielding astronauts from cosmic radiation on the journey.

There are also the psychological aspects to consider. Living in a very small space away from Earth for a long time is achievable; the longest stay by any astronaut in space was over 14 months [437 days] on the Mir space station in 1994-95, so something close to the equivalent has been done. But in that astronaut’s case, he knew he was coming back afterwards. And maybe it is significant that nobody has beaten that record ever since.

So there are really big challenges for manned flights to Mars. Put it this way: we have not even managed to operate a ‘sample-and-return’ mission to Mars yet. However, I believe that even when there are political divides, the technical challenges presented by space missions can be a unifying factor. It is about being pragmatic and using all the skilled engineers from every country to find a solution.

Find out more

Discover RHEA’s range of services and solutions for the space sector

Register for our next RHEA Talk webinar to find out how space missions are being secured against cyberattacks