An interview with Thorsten Siwitza, ExoMars Project Control and Administration Manager
Thorsten Siwitza (1960) is a native of Kamp-Lintfort in Germany, a small mining town at the western edge of the ‘Ruhrgebiet’. Influenced by his local environment, Thorsten enrolled at the Clausthal University of Technology (Technische Universität Clausthal) from where he graduated in 1987 with a Masters of Engineering in Mining. Following his studies, Thorsten spent extended periods of time in South East Asia, India and Africa while working with a mining consultancy company on behalf of the German development aid agency (GTZ).
Thorsten came to the European Space Agency in 1990 as a Project Controller for the Cluster mission and in the intervening years has held a similar position in a variety of ESA missions: Herschel/Planck, Mars Express, SMART-1, Venus Express, Solar Orbiter, Swarm, and CryoSat2. Thorsten is currently ESA’s ExoMars Project Controller and Administration Manager. In this role he is responsible for all administrative activities in the ExoMars programme, covering a broad range of tasks spanning finance, planning, procurement and risk assessment to general administration and organisational activities.
Thorsten, can you tell us something more about your role as a Project Controller?
Project Controllers are vital in any complex organisation. In general terms, the role of my team and I is to follow all project processes, to design or implement efficient procedures and to monitor their flow. We are the 'lubrication' that keeps the project running smoothly, efficiently and effectively. In addition, we are also closely involved in monitoring our many contracts with industry.
Space missions, especially those with an international flavour, tend to be very complex organisations. For the ExoMars Project Controllers this means that, since in the course of our day-to-day duties we work with all parties engaged in the mission - the ESA project team, industry, scientists, international partners and the national delegations - we have an important role to play in ensuring the smooth interaction between all these groups.
What is your favourite part of the job?
There are two distinct phases of a project that I particularly enjoy: while the very early days are exciting, as this period always leaves room for creativity in establishing the project, the launch campaign is the pinnacle of a mission for me. During these final activities, as the spacecraft is readied for lift-off, the daily routine is broken and new, constantly changing challenges occur in the area of logistics and organisation. At that time, all participants, regardless of their company or institutional affiliation, work hand in hand, as one team in one location toward a common goal: the launch of the spacecraft. This is a very fulfilling and hugely rewarding experience.
What challenges do you face on ExoMars?
The ESA ExoMars team and European industry are developing a planetary exploration programme that breaks new ground. Such a large-scale space project, especially one combining advanced technology and exploration objectives, tends to be inherently expensive. The financial challenges are especially felt now as Europe is currently going through an economic dip; while this constrains the funding, it does not diminish the aspirations.
We also face the challenge of ensuring a fair financial return to industry that is proportionate to the funding that we receive from participating ESA Member States. In practice, this is achieved by returning equitable distribution of contracts to industry and, at the same time, maintaining fair and open competition among European industry.
To add to the complexity, we have to perform a ‘high-wire act’, taking into account all technical and programmatic risks while observing the very strict schedule constraints of the launch date.
And last, but not least, quoting a fellow countryman, Wernher von Braun: “Our two greatest problems (to get to the Moon) are gravity and paper work. We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paper work is overwhelming”. Unfortunately, this is still true...
Why did you choose to work on the ExoMars programme?
I have already participated in Mars Express, the first European mission to Mars, and I did not want to miss being part of the efforts for the next ESA mission to the Red Planet. ExoMars was also appealing to me as it gave me the opportunity to work in a different organisational structure with new and relatively young team members that bring new ideas to the table.
What is it like working with an international team?
I wouldn’t have it any other way! I really enjoy experiencing on a daily basis the diversity of culture that an international environment brings; both the different national backgrounds of each colleague and the different working cultures that people bring to the team.
Making a team work well despite these differences requires all of us to be flexible and tolerant. This working spirit is extended outside the ESA team to our industrial and institutional partners in Europe and beyond. At the same time, it is nice and rewarding to receive the same flexibility and tolerance.
I guess that this experience makes us all feel more European than most of our compatriots back home.
What do you find inspiring about Mars and the ExoMars programme?
As the nearest planet that we could reach, Mars must inspire anyone engaged in space exploration. In the last two decades humankind has sought to understand our neighbour in the Solar System, to prepare the ground for future endeavours. This effort will continue, mostly driven by the deep-seated human curiosity. With technological progress sometimes appearing to advance exponentially and, if I take for granted the continuing support for space activities, I sometimes wonder what will be happening 100 years from now; will the planet be a hive of activity with numerous probes at a multitude of landing sites?
What is the big question about Mars you would like to see answered?
For me, the first and foremost question has to be: is there, or was there ever, life on the Red Planet? For some it might be a mere confirmation of what they suspected all along, that we are not alone in the Universe. However, a positive answer might very easily revolutionise our view of the Universe, maybe even as much as the change from a geocentric to a heliocentric concept of the world in the Middle Ages.
Another big question relates to the history of our neighbouring planets, Mars and Venus. They are both located in a potentially habitable zone, but still they have developed a completely different climate to that of the Earth, rendering them inhabitable for humans. Finding out the mechanisms that led one planet to become a desert and the other to experience a runaway greenhouse effect could have a great impact on how we deal with our climate, here on Earth.
What is your vision or hope for the future of the programme?
I wish and hope that Europe meets the financial challenges of this planetary mission. Accomplishing the objectives of ExoMars will not only establish European capabilities in robotic exploration in space but most of all it will demonstrate that in Europe we have the political will to embrace the long term challenge of exploring the Red Planet.
Last Update: 22 Aug 2012