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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C

Leo Enright Why invest in space? It's not just to make Ireland look cool

Ireland has played a real part in the advancement of space science and technology in Europe, and there are more opportunities out there, writes Leo Enright.

THE SIGHT OF Ireland’s young people queueing up in droves to be vaccinated has gladdened the nation and made us all proud: Ireland is now a leader in Europe – nay, in the world – when it comes to vaccine in-hesitancy.

I have my own theory of why this has happened: science education. I have been saying for years that a basic science education is the best vaccine against stupidity. And space has been one of the drivers of education reform in Ireland.

Twenty years ago, under pressure from the tech industry, the government finally began to take science in schools seriously. The country began turning out primary school teachers who were not afraid to teach our children the most basic scientific principles, and the secondary curriculum was entirely revamped to introduce evidence-based learning.

At the same time, there was a new seriousness about the country’s national space policy, and this was closely interwoven with the revolution in science teaching.

Making Ireland ‘fit for space’ – with a workforce smart enough to meet the challenges of space science and technology – has been an important element in the modernisation of our schools and of our society.

The astronomy and space community were perhaps the earliest sector to actively promote the new science education agenda. In the mid-2000s, Cork Institute of Technology (now the Munster Technological University) teamed up with Cork City Council to create what is now the award-winning MTU Blackrock Castle Observatory, hosting schools groups from throughout Munster and beyond.

In Limerick, Analog Devices (a supplier of key microchip technology to the Space Shuttle programme) began vigorously promoting science and technology careers through school visits by their staff and a large presence at the BT Young Scientists Exhibition, while the historic Birr Castle in Co Offaly (site of the biggest telescope in the world for most of the Victorian era) became a focal point of local efforts to demonstrate science and technology alternatives to the Bord na Móna jobs that were already in obvious decline.

Ireland Inc. does not invest in space just to look cool, nor even just to learn stuff (though discovering stuff is a very real society good); we do it so that our children can compete in the modern world.

“Doing space is hard” is such a hackneyed cliché that I never, ever, use it in my day-to-day reporting, but it is relevant here because that is exactly why space offers real opportunities for Ireland.

Since the first Irish space missions in (yes) the 1960s, through Ireland’s involvement in the Apollo moon landings (the first Irish experiment was landed on the Moon in 1972), and on into the era of the European Space Agency (Ireland was a founding member of ESA in 1975), Ireland has played a small but real part in the advancement of space science and technology in Europe.

Though we could have done more (much, much more) it is important to recognise that Irish space scientists and engineers have been bringing credit to this country (mostly unnoticed here) for decades. A small army of Irish women and men (some still in their 20s and 30s) now hold key leadership roles in some of the biggest space projects of our times.

spacecraft-mars-express-orbiting-mars Konstantin Shaklein / Alamy Stock Photo Mars Express in orbit. Konstantin Shaklein / Alamy Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

germany-mars-express DPA / PA Images Mars Express Flight director Mike McKay (L) pictured at the European Space Operations Center ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany, 2005. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

An early Irish pioneer at ESA was Mike McKay, flight director of Mars Express, which went into orbit around the Red Planet just before Christmas 2003.

Still operating flawlessly after more than 18 years in the harsh environment of space, it is one of the most successful missions in the space agency’s history. The capacity to build such rugged machines is a key strategic asset for the whole of Europe.

Mars Express could not have succeeded without the software brilliance of a small Irish company, Captec, in Malahide, Co Dublin – and the Captec story neatly summarises the core argument for ‘Ireland in space’: Captec’s visionary founder, the late Fred Kennedy, then adapted what they had learned working for ESA to create tools for the HSE that are now used for telemedicine in Irish hospitals across the country.

Cardiac patients no longer have to travel to Dublin for complex heart-monitoring tests because of Captec’s CARDICON system, based on software developed for interplanetary spaceships.

If you ask me personally why invest in space, I can give you no better answer than to look – as I did two weeks ago – at the heartbreaking sight of Indian flight controllers, utterly devastated, as they came to the stunning realisation that India’s latest space mission had ended in a catastrophic failure.

The country has had a string of big successes, including missions to the Moon and Mars, but this launch was special: the 12-storey-tall GSLV rocket was to launch the EOS-03 Earth observation satellite. And why should they all be so stunned by its loss?

In 1970, the Bhola cyclone struck present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. It was a category 4 hurricane, and it killed at least 500,000 people – the biggest cyclone disaster in recorded history.

Two years ago, in April/May 2019, a category 5 storm called Fani struck the same area. This time it was being watched by five satellites (Insat-3D, Insat-3DR, Scatsat-1, Oceansat-2 and Megha Tropiques) which were feeding data every 15 minutes into the Indian Space Research Organisation’s control centre.

As a result of this early warning, more than two million people were moved out of the path of the deadly cyclone. Sadly, 89 people were killed in eastern India and Bangladesh combined. 89 souls whose deaths we mourn.

Personally, I believe every cent that has ever been spent in the entire history of space exploration was repaid in just one week in the Spring of 2019.

Leo Enright was the founding Chairman of the Irish Government’s Discover programme and he held that post for 10 years through successive governments. He was RTÉ’s London correspondent in the 1980s and the BBC’s Dublin correspondent throughout the 1990s. He is now a full-time space commentator (a job that did not exist when he was born).

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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