An interview with Don McCoy, ExoMars Project Manager
Don McCoy is the man entrusted with the task of managing the ExoMars project for ESA. Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Don followed graduate degrees in Chemistry (University of Manitoba, 1976), and Civil Engineering (University of Manitoba, 1979) and a post graduate degree in Aerospace Engineering (University of Toronto, 1981) before embarking on a career in the space sector.
Don joined ESA as a systems engineer in 1986 and spent two years working on coordination and promotion of technology developments before being appointed Operations and Assembly, Integration and Verification (AIV) engineer for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). After the launch of HST, he joined the Huygens team as Principal Payload engineer and, following the Huygens launch, he joined the Mars Express Project Team in 1997 to become the Principal AIV engineer. In 2004, Don became Venus Express Project Manager and he held this post until the successful commissioning of the spacecraft in Venus orbit in mid 2006. He was appointed ExoMars Project Manager in December 2006.
Don, how has an engineer from Canada ended up working on the ExoMars programme at ESA?
Even as a young boy I was interested in space, and what really fired my imagination at that time (the 1960s) was the Apollo programme. However, it was only in later years that I realised that I too could actually pursue a career in space so I changed my studies to follow that direction and that was the start of the career which has led me to ExoMars today.
Once I had completed my studies, I worked in the Canadian space industry until the terrible Challenger accident happened. The Canadian space programme was badly affected by the accident and that had an impact on the opportunities that were available then. At that time, ESA was advertising some positions; Canadians could apply since Canada is a cooperating ESA state*. I was quite interested to come to Europe and lucky enough to be a successful applicant.
(* Canada takes part in some projects under a Cooperation Agreement).
What is it like working with an international team?
An international team is an absolute delight. It is never predictable. My experience at ESA has shown me that it brings a dynamic to a team which absolutely opens up possibilities for new ideas, new ways of doing things. I think in the end, everybody who is involved in it, is very happy to have had the experience just from a personal point of view – aside from any professional considerations. From a personal satisfaction point of view, people who are involved in international teams have an everlasting impression of a memorable experience.
What has been your favourite part of your career so far?
In my time at ESA I have been fortunate to work on several very exciting missions. It’s difficult to tell which has been the best part of my career so far because, interestingly, every time I've started a new activity it has turned out to be the best. So, I think I would have to say that ExoMars is the best part so far.
Why did you choose to work on the ExoMars programme?
ExoMars is a great challenge for me. I had already participated in a Mars exploration project with the Mars Express mission. The Mars Express spacecraft was successfully launched and inserted into orbit around Mars. It is still operating and producing fantastic science. However, Mars Express carried a lander provided by one of the participating states, which was lost and so in some sense the first Mars mission of my career was only partially complete. I want ExoMars to show the world that Europe can successfully land on Mars for the benefit of scientists and engineers everywhere. I hugely enjoy the challenges posed by exploration beyond the confines of Earth and ExoMars is an opportunity for me to participate in that great adventure.
I also think that Mars has a romantic side to it as well; it has long been embedded in human folklore, whether it was the ancients thinking of gods or more modern tales about the Martians visiting Earth. Somehow Mars is part of the human experience and we are bound to explore it.
Can you tell us something more about your role and responsibilities in ExoMars?
I am the ESA project manager for the ExoMars programme. In 2009, ExoMars evolved from being one European mission, to a two-mission programme, involving both ESA and NASA, and that requires managing a large international cooperation. I’m the project manager of both the Trace Gas Orbiter mission and the ExoMars Rover mission. I am essentially charged with making sure that the project achieves its goals - at all stages of the project - within budget, on time and gives the return on science and technology that is demanded by the participating states.
In that sense, timing is a very important aspect in a planetary programme; in order to go to a planet, you have to target a very specific launch window – a period of time when Earth and the target planet are optimally aligned to launch spacecraft. For Mars the launch windows occur approximately every 26 Earth months. One of the most challenging tasks of the project manager is to balance all the work that must be done on time so as to meet the launch at a certain date.
To successfully achieve that, the project manager collaborates with people from the engineering and the financial sides and also works with all the participants, i.e. with NASA, the Principal Investigators of the payload instruments, scientists from Europe and US, and the delegates from the participating European states. Managing the expectations with limited resources is probably the most difficult part of this position. I think that one of the biggest challenges facing a project manager in the ExoMars programme is to keep all the people involved sufficiently aware to understand the principal constraints which drive a project team; these being of course money, schedule and scientific/technical achievements.
What inspires you about Mars and the ExoMars programme?
I think Mars inspires almost everybody because of its history: from the very earliest civilisations for whom the Red Planet triggered images of warriors to more recent impressions of canals of water and the possibilities of life next door to our planet. The fact that it is relatively close to Earth and not so different in size and that it also has an atmosphere makes us wonder if there was or is some kind of life on Mars. So, I would like to see the big questions about Mars answered: Was there life in the past and is there life today on Mars?
In fact, the primary goal of the ExoMars mission is to look for evidence of past or present life on Mars. There are a lot of indications that Mars may have been able to support life, but to find physical evidence of traces of life on another planet is a kind of proof of concept and that will change us dramatically. If we do find some traces of life it will be a contributing factor to a large psychological change to the human population because we will no longer be able to say that “life is only on Earth”. In that sense, it has potentially extraordinary implications for our sense of who we are.
What is your vision or hope for the future of the ExoMars programme?
My hope for both missions in the ExoMars programme is to be on schedule and to have them achieve their objectives. A successful ExoMars programme will pave the way for European participation in future extraordinary and ambitious projects, such as the Mars Sample Return.
Apart from the two ExoMars missions, our partners in NASA are considering the 2018 mission as the beginning of the Mars Sample Return programme, which is a very large endeavour encompassing the aspirations of scientists from all over the world to retrieve a sample of Martian material and bring it back to Earth.
The ExoMars programme, by addressing the question of life on Mars with its two missions in 2016 and 2018, will help the international community to one day bring a piece of Mars back to Earth. These are the challenging days of Mars exploration and I am very happy and proud to be involved in such an inspiring programme.