Eyes on the horizon need emotion as well as precision

Earth as seen by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst from the window of his Soyuz capsule en route to the ISS – on a mission appropriately named “Horizons” (ESA/A. Gerst/NASA)

24 June 2018

Jan Wörner brings many strengths to his role as director general of the European Space Agency, well-prepared as he was owing to prior experience heading Germany’s DLR aeronautics and space research centre. But in Wörner’s case the management skills necessary to marshall diverse teams and constituencies crossing technical, bureaucratic and political lines in pursuit of an ambitious basket of cutting-edge objectives are supplemented by a notable instinct for keeping an eye on the horizon – while thinking big enough to have vision beyond.

Critically, he understands the importance of communicating that vision, to colleagues, partners and the taxpaying public. One good example was his presentation to the June conference in Baveno, Italy, organised by the European Commission to mark the 20th anniversary of the meeting there which formed the proposal that has become Europe’s Copernicus Earth observation programme.

Wörner recalled discussions with EO experts in which he raised the prospect of using the International Space Station as a platform – only to be shot down. The ISS, experts told him, followed the wrong sort of orbit for EO and doesn’t see the whole planet. And, pictures from the ISS are taken by astronauts. “Astronauts,” said Wörner, “what do they do?”

Well, as Wörner sees it, astronauts do something very important. Any picture taken by an astronaut could be taken by a robotic mission. But, he said, “If an astronaut also gives you his feelings when he is taking this picture, it is something we should use. We should also have the feeling of what we are doing, not only the data itself.”

To make his point, he showed an image much like the one here, which was taken by Germany’s Alexander Gerst soon after his 6 June launch to the ISS on a mission appropriately named Horizons. Such a view, said Wörner, shows how very thin is the atmosphere around our globe: “It gives us totally different information, it is not the information based on data and what the atmosphere is about, it gives feeling, and this feeling can be then conveyed to the public, that our atmosphere is a very thin layer, and we had better take care of this atmosphere by using satellites that are measuring the NOX emissions and all of this.”

It is nothing new to be told that, in this day and age, people are swayed by feelings more than by facts – a reality too often forgotten by people armed with a vast array of facts. For the Earth observation community, whose (passionate!) work depends on the financial generosity of taxpayers and the representatives who rely on their votes, to ignore feeling is to risk exposing this vitally important 21st Century mission to the fickle winds of public-purse bean counting.