Running between the feet of giants with Aude Vignelles, Chief Technical Officer of the Australian Space Agency
Where did your passion for space come from?
I grew up with the creation of the European Space Agency and was lucky enough to witness the first launch of the European rocket Ariane in French Guiana on 24th December 1979. I was 11 years old and will never forget the sight and especially the noise it made. I was hooked!
I see you grew up in Europe. How many languages do you speak?
I speak French (my native language), English, and a bit of German, Dutch and Spanish. I studied Latin at school and that helped picking up lots of other languages.
Five languages? That’s so cool! If we set up a human community on Mars, what language do you think we should speak up there?
By the time we do set up a human community on Mars, we may well have a technology form of a Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [a translator], so it won’t matter what language you speak, and we can all keep our own languages.
Why did you choose to study space and aeronautical engineering at uni?
Space and Aeronautical engineering allows you to learn about a broad range of disciplines such as aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics, materials science, structural analysis and manufacturing. But it also includes psychology (how humans react in a space environment), ergonomics (how to design a habitat for humans in outer space), law (can you do whatever you want on Mars?), medicine (how the body will react in outer space?). As I was very curious about everything, choosing aerospace engineering seemed like a perfect fit for me.
Sounds like a great choice! What was your job at the European Space Agency?
I was responsible for designing the test campaign required for each specific satellite (one of them was Rosetta!) and making sure the tests were carried out as specified. We simulated the environments a satellite would meet during launch and once in orbit by using big facilities like a vibration table with shakers, a huge chamber equipped with horns to reproduce the noise of the launcher, a vacuum chamber equipped with radiators where cold or hot gas circulates and where a specific lightbulb can simulate the heat of the sun. Depending on the results, a satellite would be declared as OK to launch or sometimes something would not be quite right, and the design would have to be changed.
Rosetta, a space probe built by the European Space Agency, was launched in March 2014 to unravel the secrets of a comet’s mysterious ‘mini’ ice world. It travelled for ten years, crossing the asteroid belt, deep into space. Rosetta’s landing module, called Philea, was the first to land on a comet.
What do you do now at the Australian Space Agency?
I am the Chief Technical Officer for the Agency, responsible for identifying the activities Australia should undertake in different areas of space. We are being careful choosing the activities we are good at and where we are going to be very successful. For example, Australia has developed expertise in robotics and remotely operating big machines due to our skills in mining. Exporting these skills into space where we need robots to build gateways and habitats is a great opportunity for Australia.
What do you love best about your job?
Every single day I am talking about space technology, from rocket engines to laser communications between satellites through to interplanetary missions. I am interacting with the research community, industry, start-ups, all within Australia (but also with folks in ESA, NASA, ISRO, JAXA to name a few). I am learning something new every day. And I feel I am taking part in building the future of Australia in space. I could not be happier!
Some other space agencies that Australia works with include:
• ESA: European Space Agency
• ISRO: Indian Space Research Organisation
• JAXA: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
• NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (USA).
What are the main differences and similarities you noticed between the European and Australian Space Agencies?
Both agencies are working toward growing space industries in their own countries, looking at the next space mission to improve our life on Earth or to explore outer space. But ESA is 40 years old, made of 22 countries, and has a budget of more than AU$6 billion. The Australian Space Agency is only a year old and much smaller, but it means we have the capability to run between the feet of giants.
How is the Australian Space Agency helping space-loving kids like me?
The Agency’s purpose is to grow and transform our space industry. We have an ambitious goal to create 20,000 jobs in the space industry by 2030. That means you’ll have a pretty good chance to find a job in the domain that you love when you grow up! To achieve this, we are engaging with international space agencies to work on space missions together, we are investing in developing space infrastructure in Australia (ground mission control, satellite testing centre, robotics centre), and ensuring we are doing all this responsibly. Space is a risky business and also a limited resource (there is a lot of debris orbiting the Earth today and the whole world is trying to address this too).
Will we ever launch humans into space from Australia?
In Australia, our legislation needs to be updated to enable human space flight, but we shouldn’t temper our ambitions. If we limited our vision, we wouldn’t have the commercial sector already so far advanced in space tourism. From what we are observing, these visions are capable of being achieved within a generation.
That’s so exciting! Would you like to go to space yourself?
I would love to go to space, but I’m not too good with confined spaces so I’ll need to wait until we have more spacious vessels!
If you had a bigger spaceship, which planet would you most like to visit?
Planet wise, Mars sounds like the most reachable goal but I wouldn’t mind trying moons of other planets like Europa around Jupiter or Titan around Saturn.
What advice do you have for Aussie kids who want to work in the space industry in the future?
If you have read this until the end, you are probably passionate about space. Follow your passion and your dreams, get out there, meet people, ask questions, keep working, keep learning and never give up. There has never been a better time for young Australian girls or boys to see their dreams of working on and in space come true! And we need you to make it happen!