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David Southwood


I am just retired as Director of Science and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA).

Professor David Southwood. Credit: Max Alexander.
Credit: Max Alexander.

What was your job? 

At ESA, I oversaw both the space science missions of ESA and those proposed for the robotic exploration programmes.  The latter is a programme of technology and science focused on joint exploration of Mars with the US.  I lived in Paris where ESA HQ is, but spent a lot of my time at the ESA technical centre ESTEC.  Time also needed to be spent working at the science operations centre, ESAC, in Spain as well as our mission ops centre, ESOC in Germany.  

What are you doing now? 

Well, although technically retired, I am not exactly inactive.  I'm president elect of the Royal Astronomical Society and I have returned to scientific research at Imperial College.

What did your ESA job involve?

It was a very varied job. We had to try to make our programme respond to the science community's priorities. This meant listening to the community as much as I could.  Of course, now I'm back in the community, I see it from the other side! The job gave me a good training on how to make sense of many science questions as I am expert in only a few areas.  This was a challenge. However it is a principle, ESA has to listen carefully to the various technological and industrial aspirations of our member states but science must always be prime.  Space technology has many uses outside pure science so there was a fair amount of politics.  Overall the breadth of scientific view the job forced on me probably stands me in good stead to deal with the Royal Astronomical Society.

Of course, the ESA job gave me a lot of contact with engineering. I’m not an engineer by original discipline but having the job gave me a great respect for that profession.

What interested you in working in the space sector? 

There is no doubt that space was a very exciting prospect when I started 40-50 years ago.  I ended in the 'frontier' end of things. I never dreamed I would see Europe sending probes to Mars or other planets and yet not only did I see it but I played a part in it.  When it comes to what we have found in the space age beyond the Solar System and how little we knew 50 years ago, I realise it has been a great time to be in the business. I am happy to say that it remains that way.  In fact, I find the business of putting things in space exciting in itself. I imagine I could have spent a happy career working in applications areas like navigation or telecoms, indeed I did spend part of my career working on Earth observation where one gets a very direct mix of science and applications.   

What was a typical day like? 

Few days were typical and I'm pleased to say retirement is also varied.  “Attend a meeting on …..” used to be the most common item in my diary.  However what the meeting was about varied enormously.  Internal meetings ranged from high level agency administration to meetings with my engineers and scientists as well as technical reviews or progress briefings on particular missions. Outside the agency, I often met with other space agencies. Not only the national European agencies like the UK Space Agency but also non-European agencies like NASA, as the ESA science and exploration programme is very much based on international cooperation.

Are there any other interesting aspects to your work, e.g. working in other locations or with other fields of science?

One joy of retirement is travelling less! I did travel a lot, but found the changing environment kept my mind open to things outside my range of expert knowledge.  I also needed to travel 'intellectually' far and wide. I’m a physicist but space science now means astro-chemistry and astro-biology as well. I was interested in the Earth and the planets. I needed to pay attention to the Universe beyond the Kuiper belt. This sort of intellectual travel I can still do whilst I'm retired and I fully intend to.  Perhaps what I'll miss most as I go back to science is the direct contact with the engineers. It was a challenge to find myself in charge of a lot of engineers and, indeed, most of the critical decisions I had to make were based on engineering issues. Figuring out not only the solution to a problem but also how to have it reliably work, time and time again, is very much at the heart of a space engineer’s responsibilities. Learning how engineers work and think has been very instructive.

What was it about your job that fascinated or inspired you? 

I refuse to believe that most people are not fascinated by what lies out there beyond our planet and I am no exception. Exploring the Universe is endlessly inspiring whether one is trying to go to the planets or to see back to the Big Bang.  On a completely different level, the European aspect of my work inspired me.   The international aspect of my work provided continual interest in how cultures mix. Culturally, the strengths and weaknesses of working in a completely European environment with all that entails in diversity of attitude and understanding made things not only fascinating but also very invigorating. 

Why is what you do important? 

We’re out on the final frontier.  We, all human beings, our planet, our Sun, all somehow came from cosmic dust.  We can either look down on the ground or, in other words, try to ignore it, or one can look out and see the processes from out of which we have developed. Of course the drive to understand what is out there also serves as a powerful driver for technology down here as well as a major source of inspiration.  

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in space? 

First, even if you want eventually to become an administrator or non-technical person, get a good grounding in STEM subjects.  Secondly, don’t target very narrowly.  Make sure you see space activities in their broadest context and then keep engaged. Saying that you want only to explore the planets for example is too narrow.  Just about every aspect of work in the space area from space science through to something as apparently mundane as telecoms has “out of this world” aspects and that’s exciting and satisfying. Moreover, always be willing to see your career and interests evolve.  I started at university as a mathematician, moved into physics and then into experimental work.  Moreover in ESA, I first worked in Earth Observation (looking down from space) before I switched to looking out at space and so to space science. 


 

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