In typical fashion, I had overslept a nap – rushing up the steps inside Will’s Memorial, I made it inside the Big Hall just in time to attend an event I had been looking forward to for months. Titled “Once Explorers, Always Explorers – Europe’s Role in Space Exploration”, it is part of a lecture series established by the Pillinger family in 2015 in memory of Colin Pillinger. Born in Bristol, he attended Kingswood Grammar school (now King’s Oak Academy), and graduated with a BSc and PhD in Chemistry from University College of Swansea and was a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Bristol School of Chemistry, Organic Geochemistry Unit from 1968 to 1974. A pioneering figure with an illustrious career in instrument development and analysis of extra-terrestrial samples at the University of Cambridge, and later at the Open University where he founded the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, he is probably best known as the leader of the Beagle 2 Mars mission. His legacy lives on, and as Dr David Parker so perfectly summarised, Colin possessed “sheer bloody mindedness”.
That being said, the main speaker of the night was the fantastic Dr David Parker himself, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration in the European Space Agency. With fervent passion, he delivered such engaging insight into what projects are currently being undertaken, and where we are going in Europe’s space exploration. He began with highlighting the many successes of ESA, including the Cassini-Huygens mission exploring the Saturnian system, the historical Rosetta mission gathering data surrounding the Jupiter-family comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and of course, the huge international collaboration of the ISS itself. Attempting to be discreet as I hastily scribbled notes in my battered notebook, Dr Parker zoomed ahead to talk about the challenges space exploration still currently presents, analogs here on Earth, and potentially going back to the Moon (build a base, anyone?). My favourite analogy of the night was that if Earth were the size of his hands balled together, the distance to Mars would be the equivalent to the distance between Will’s Memorial and IKEA (1:12,133,333 km scale). Love me some #justbristolthings geography.
Then we got to watch some amazing videos of Tim Peake and Thomas Pesquet, emphasising the overview effect and how “…it takes all of this technology to allow us to understand the simplicity of us.” It was only then appropriate for Dr Parker to now look to the future – more than ever, international cooperation is required for ambitious projects like the ExoMars programme to put the 2020 rover on Mawrth Vallis, planning the first roundtrip to Mars, and hopefully, undertaking the proposed Deep Space Gateway. You should’ve seen number of jaw drops around the room.
After Dr Parker’s compelling talk, there was a Q&A hosted by Tim Gregory – you may know him as the finalist on BBC Two’s riveting program, Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?, but he is also currently completing his PhD in cosmochemistry right here at the University of Bristol. The selected audience members had intriguing questions, including the future of planetary protection and how investment into the space program compares with current pressing issues today (e.g. poverty and famine). I especially loved Dr Parker’s answer to the age-old question “Are we alone?”, which was that either way – whether yes, there are other species out there, or no, humans are a unique entity – both answers will be just as extraordinary as the other. Tim ended the event with, “I hope you all have a safe journey back home…and beyond!” and the claps were thunderous.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I beelined towards the front and went up to Dr David Parker – surrounded by a huddle of middle-aged people discussing the technical aspects of spaceflight, I kept thinking to myself, “I am definitely not intelligent enough to talk to these people.” And at that point, Dr Parker looked at me expectantly during a lull in the conversation. So, I thanked him for the awesome talk, introduced myself, and began rambling on about Beth Healey, space medicine and the Concordia Station since he mentioned it during the lecture – he replied with a chuckle, “Oh, you probably know much more about this stuff than I do!” to which I promptly disagreed with a smile. I then quickly asked him, “Do you think one day we’re going to have to genetically modify the perfect astronaut?”, to which Dr Parker threw his head back in laughter, and responded, “Well, isn’t that the question!? I think we’ll all be walking around more cyborg than human, and that’s something I can’t quite wrap my head around!”
I then turned around, and spotted Tim Gregory – we immediately geeked over the lecture for a bit, before I told him I attempted to read his publication “Geochemistry and petrology of howardite Miller Range 11100” (to which I confessed a single sentence took me an unfortunate amount of time to understand). Thirty seconds into the conversation, and I already understood why Tim was nothing short of extraordinary – with such powerful maturity simultaneously coupled with an endearing child-like enthusiasm, he spoke about the psychological impact going through vigorous astronaut training, the importance of keeping up your hobbies, and how Will’s Memorial can be slightly unsettling in the wee hours of the morning (there is no denying the paranormal activity).
I finally asked him, “What’s your motivation when you’re completely down?”, and without any hesitation, he looked me straight in the eye before replying, “Just always remember why you began in the first place.” Incredibly optimistic, humble and kind-hearted, I cannot wait to see what other fantastic contributions Tim will make for science in the future. And then as we said our goodbyes, he enthused about how we could one day be working together on the Moon, as geologist and doctor – needless to say, describing my elation as ‘over the moon’ seems paradoxically unbefitting.
Throughout the night, I remember feeling a little out of place – bustling with an older generation, it could’ve been mistaken for just another humdrum event. But instead, looking around, I did not just see an audience – I was looking at the spirits of restless kids staying up way past their bedtime; I was looking at the wide-eyed children lying much too closely to the grainy television, chins resting on palms and legs swinging back & forth; I was looking at the generation of children who, united together on that one Sunday evening in 1969, witnessed the history-defining moment when Armstrong stepped down off that pad onto the Moon.
And even though I couldn’t join in to fondly chuckle at the memories of “Space: 1999” or reminisce back to collecting Brooke Bond & Company’s “The Race to Space” tea card set in 1971, there was something universally compelling about the night’s events – this powerful hope that united every single one of us, rooted back in time to the ancient dreamers who looked up at the night-sky all the way to the tinkerers of the future, is what eventually got us from “I wonder…” to “What next?”. We’re going to keep innovating as long as we remain curious, and as Queen perfectly summarises, I don’t want to stop at all.