European-US Co-operation in Space - Dream or Nightmare?

Joan Homer

Peter Beech

We welcomed Peter Beech, one of our own members, as speaker at la Menitre on the 20th May. Peter joined the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) in May 1967 after an initial career in television broadcast engineering. His first assignment was to participate in the setting up of the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt in Germany. Launches of European scientific spacecraft began in May 1968 and Peter played a key role in the orbital operations of the first launches of the European scientific spacecraft. During his time in Darmstadt he was involved in many scientific, meteorological and communications programmes.

In 1975 the European Space Agency (ESA) was created by merging ESRO and ELDO, an organisation set up earlier to provide a European launch capability. The main theme of his talk will be to share some of the experiences of mutual co-operation between NASA and ESA using the Ulysses scientific mission as an example. Mission operations for Ulysses were carried out from a dedicated control centre at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena in California and were conducted by a joint ESA/NASA team. Management of the team was under the responsibility of Peter from ESA with a deputy being provided by JPL. The spacecraft was launched on the Space Shuttle Discovery in October 1990 and orbital operations terminated in July 2009.

Peter's work has taken him to many locations in the world including China, Africa, Australia and India, as well as most of the member states in Europe. Peter is a member of the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Peter took us through the evolution of the organisations that resulted in the establishment of the European Space Agency and explained his involvement in the management of the Ulysses launch programme liaising with the NASA team based at Pasadena in California. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the scale of the NASA operation, ESA projects were not always given due priority by the Americans and could be put on hold, sometimes for years before ultimately making it to the launch-pad, as was the case after the catastrophic Challenger explosion in 1986. Ulysses finally launched in 1990 and, after successfully completing its mission, is still out there and, although no longer able to relay any scientific data, it continues on its way into deep space.

Peter mentioned some of the pitfalls of international scientific co-operation, as when two teams working on the same project were found to be working in different units of measurement - not something likely to lead to a successful result.

Aside from the scientific duties associated with the mission, Peter also found himself responsible for other important aspects of international co-operation, namely entertaining, and was able to relate some amusing anecdotes on his experiences. Finally, reflecting on his title 'dream or nightmare', Peter concluded that it was both and had given him a career full of interesting experiences working alongside scientists and engineers of formidable intellect and ingenuity.

Peter's talk generated some interesting questions, from the practical 'what is it all for ?' to the more philosophical 'is there life out there ?' On these two topics, Peter rightly pointed to the many spin-offs from which we now benefit as a result of the space programme and gave it as his opinion that, given the vaste expanse of the universe, it was unlikely that there would NOT be other life-forms out there somewhere, though that did not imply that we could ever communicate with them.

By this time we were all in need of re-fuelling so, after thanks given by Susan Quigley, we moved on to the other activity of the evening, eating. It was evident, from discussions overheard around the table, that Peter's talk had contributed considerably to animating the conversation. Another successful and enjoyable evening for the branch.