April 25, 2014 7:35 pm

UK Space Agency’s chief engineer on avoiding conflict beyond Earth

Richard Crowther talks about the problem of overcrowding in orbit – and the likelihood of aliens
Richard Crowther in the garden of his Berkshire home©Sam Frost

Richard Crowther in the garden of his Berkshire home

Driving from the local train station back to his family’s new home in Bucklebury, Berkshire, Richard Crowther, the UK Space Agency’s chief engineer, likens the woods surrounding his house to the dense forest in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Despite being only about 50 miles from central London, Bucklebury appears to be largely untouched by the 21st century. “This is horse country so the pace of life remains slow. People still talk to each other and there’s a strong sense of community. Our red phone box, for instance, is a book exchange,” he says.

Crowther, 53, and his family moved into their converted, five-bedroom farmhouse, dating to the early 1900s, in January. “My wife Wendy and I wanted a bigger place for our kids, Ben and Alexi, and our cat, Tigger.” The family wanted something more spacious but were keen to remain in the area; their old house is just over a mile away.

It is in the peace of the countryside that Crowther seeks solace from life in the fast lane. Having just returned from Madrid, where he visited the European Union Satellite Centre to discuss the implications of spacecraft re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, he is now heading to Frankfurt to join experts from Nasa. Together with other major space agencies, they will convene on the role of a new group responsible for designing missions to intercept potentially hazardous asteroids.

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IN At Home

As chief engineer, Crowther’s job description at the UK Space Agency covers all aspects of space: from safety and security to sustainability.

On entering the house, Tigger approaches as if in greeting before scurrying underneath a beech wood table in the kitchen. On top of this is a chess set with an unfinished game between Crowther and his youngest son, Alexi, which the 10-year-old appears to be winning. On one wall hang two framed blue ceramic slabs impressed with Crowther’s sons’ foot and hand prints taken when they were younger. Through an alcove is the dining room, a simple space with a table set for eight, wooden chairs and a window adorned with floral curtains. As Crowther takes a seat, a cup of tea in hand, he explains that the importance of space isn’t confined to just high-profile exploration.

“Our society is increasingly dependent on space for things we might normally take for granted: communication, broadcast, navigation, timing and Earth observation,” says Crowther, who is also a visiting professor of astronautics at the University of Southampton.

Crowther's kitchen with Tigger the cat©Sam Frost

Kitchen with Tigger the cat and a chess set midgame

While space is considered infinite, the space around Earth is limited. For this reason, Crowther believes there is potential crowding within some valuable orbits, making it imperative to manage the space environment. Asked what that involves, he says: “It means bringing satellites back at the end of their operational life and monitoring potential collisions in orbit.”

With companies, such as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Greason’s XCOR Aerospace offering space tourism, Crowther says it is important to consider how future manned systems can operate in space alongside orbital satellite systems.

“Virgin Galactic and the like are going to be dipping their toes into space albeit very lightly, but by doing that, they will have a potential to interact with the orbital systems,” he warns.

The UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) – whose UK delegation is headed by Crowther – provides a forum for the international community to agree measures ensuring the long-term sustainability of outer space activities, in a bid to maintain established orbital players in space such as satellites.

However, with new players, like manned systems, joining the fold, new regulations have to be put in place. States or governments, says Crowther, have a duty of care to ensure that when individuals go into space their safety is protected.

One of COPUOS’s other functions is to prevent the use of force and weapons in outer space. “We need to reassure the world that when a launch has been deployed, it is carrying scientific payload and not a warhead.” Crowther hopes the space race will remain focused on exploration. “What we don’t want is for it to be used as an excuse to develop space weapons. Of course, there will always be tensions. Some states, such as North Korea, have questionable ambitions in space,” he says.

Marine binoculars used by Crowther to spot wildlife in his garden©Sam Frost

Marine binoculars used by Crowther to spot wildlife in his garden

The emerging economies are racing to make their mark too. In November last year, India successfully propelled a Mars probe, the Mangalyaan spacecraft, out of orbit, while in January, China launched its moon rover, Jade Rabbit. The Chinese National Space Administration plans to build a second space station by 2020 and is on track to launch a manned mission to Mars in 2040.

“The nature of actors is changing, moving away from purely governmental operators to large commercial fleets. So the competition for space resources and power is likely to lead to increased tensions. Now, space, along with cyber, is a potential conflict domain,” says Crowther.

He leads the way into the sitting room, the heart of the house, which overlooks a large garden. Like the dining room, the decor is simple: two rose-coloured sofas, wooden beams, a red-brick fireplace and a woven Afghan rug. With children’s books strewn over the floor, it has a lived-in feel despite the family having only moved in a few months ago.

Asked about the possibility of colonising space, Crowther says he believes that Mars settlement programmes – such as that promoted by Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of private space flight company SpaceX – are fanciful ideas. “Humans have nowhere else to go. I don’t believe that there will be colonies on other planets in our solar system,” he says, arguing that the absence of critical conditions – heat, light, oxygen and water – would make life on Mars unfeasible.

“People might be able to live in space stations, but who would really want that? Think of being on an 11-hour flight in an aircraft. That’s already pretty horrible,” he says.

Crowther's living room©Sam Frost

Living room with Afghan rug

The engineer couldn’t imagine life without the outdoors. He intends to grow fruit and vegetables in his garden. “I’d like to get an orchard or a few apple trees. My plan is to start making cider at some stage in the future,” he says.

Humans might not be able to live in outer space but Crowther insists that extraterrestrial beings most definitely can. “There’s a large degree of conceit that we think humans are somehow special. But there is a huge probability that there are other life forms out there,” he says.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, Nasa has been able to observe the Hubble Deep Field, an image of a small region of the constellation Ursa Major that reveals thousands of other galaxies. “These galaxies are collections of solar systems; solar systems are collections of planets. Most likely, there are protoplanets and exoplanets in other systems that can support life,” he says.

However, owing to the vast distances involved in space and time, Crowther believes that communication with other life forms is highly unlikely. “We could conceive of civilisations evolving and dying out around the universe, but none of them coinciding . . . and I don’t think they’d be at the level of intelligence where they’d be able to communicate with us directly,” he says. “So while I believe they exist, I don’t think an encounter with aliens is on the cards.”

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Favourite thing:

A chart used for missions to the Russian MIR space station©Sam Frost

Crowther chooses a chart given to him by a late administrator at Nasa as his favourite object. It was used by the Nasa shuttle team to plan missions and as a contingency for flight planning should systems malfunction in orbit. “This one in particular was used for missions to the Russian MIR space station,” he says. “I see it as the space equivalent of the charts used by the great maritime explorers. It has no real monetary value – it’s probably not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

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