An interview with Michael Kasper, Head of ExoMars Product Assurance & Safety Office
Head of ExoMars Product Assurance & Safety Office
(March 2010 – present)
Michael Kasper was born in Bottrop, Germany, a city in the heart of the Ruhrgebiet, an area known as the centre of the German coal and steel industry. He spent his childhood there until the economic downturn of the 1970s at which time his family moved to Cologne, where he lived until he moved to The Netherlands when he joined ESA in 1989.
As a child, Michael was fascinated by planes and was very quickly able to identify the different types by their sound or silhouettes. He decided early, at the age of five according to his mother, that he wanted a job which had something to do with “flying machines”! However, by the time he finished school, he had somewhat lost sight of his target and initially took on a three-year apprenticeship as a toolmaker. After a period of time serving in the military, Michael decided to pursue his original dream and as a first step he attended the University of Wuppertal where he studied engineering.
Michael's studies focused on the reliability of complex technical systems, such as aircraft systems and power plants. During this period, he was given the opportunity to work on the Airbus 320 aircraft, which at that time was undergoing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification process. He was also involved in analysing the failure of components within a technical system and assessing the effect of this failure on the next system level as well as identifying possible compensation methods. With his undergraduate dissertation, he specialised in reliability growth models, which assess if a means to improve the reliability of a system will lead to the desired performance, graduating in 1988 as Diplom Ingenieur.
After graduation, Michael started working in Quality Control in a German company, which manufactured, tested and certified fuel systems for jet engines, especially for military planes. In the summer of 1989, while reading an engineering newspaper, Michael saw an advertisement for the European Space Agency (ESA) and immediately concluded that space is indeed the final frontier for those “flying machines” of his childhood. He subsequently applied for a position at ESA and was selected in October 1989 as a Reliability Engineer in the Columbus programme. In 1994, he joined the scientific projects department as Product Assurance Engineer, and has been involved in a number of science projects, including, Cluster, Rosetta, LISA Pathfinder and BepiColombo.
Michael is now responsible for the implementation of ESA’s product assurance and safety policies in the ExoMars programme. He is also contributing to the planetary protection activities of the programme.
Michael, can you tell us something more about your role and responsibilities in ExoMars? What does your job entail?
As the Head of ExoMars Product Assurance (PA) & Safety Office in ESA, I have to ensure that each element of the ExoMars programme (the Trace Gas Orbiter, the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, and the Rover) meets the design and performance requirements. I am involved in planning, implementing and monitoring all the product assurance activities for the elements provided by industry. I mainly focus on aspects dealing with the selection and procurement of electronic, electrical, and electro-mechanical components as well as general quality aspects, including anomalies and failures encountered during manufacturing and testing. I will also support the launch approval process by verifying that all flight elements conform to the relevant launch site safety requirements.
Another interesting part of my job is the planetary protection aspect, which involves sterilisation processes of the spacecraft and associated equipment to ensure that the Martian environment will not be contaminated with biological material from Earth.
To fulfil all the above tasks, it is very important to have a sound working relationship with every team member and raise awareness for the PA processes within the ExoMars team. To successfully achieve that, I am supported by the ExoMars PA team. I also collaborate with ESA technical experts, in areas such as the selection of parts, materials and processes, software PA, and cleanliness and contamination procedures, especially when expert knowledge is not available within our industrial or academic partners.
What has been your favourite part of your career so far?
This is a very difficult question to answer because I have enjoyed all of my jobs at ESA and would find it hard to choose one aspect in particular. However, on second thoughts, I feel that the most rewarding moment in a space project is when you hear the noise of a launcher with 'your' spacecraft onboard, roaring into the sky.
What challenges does ExoMars face?
The development of the ExoMars programme has resulted in a large and complex organisation, including several universities and research institutes that supply the scientific instruments, and a big industrial team. To save costs and meet the tight schedule, we closely monitor the industrial activities as well as provide guidance to the instrument suppliers for delivering flight acceptable units.
Another challenging area is the international cooperation between ESA and NASA where two different approaches to project management and product assurance approaches have to be smoothly combined.
ExoMars has a difficult path to follow and still a long way to go, especially for the 2018 mission, but everyone in the team and certainly myself are ready for that challenge.
Why did you choose to work on the ExoMars programme?
Since joining the scientific projects department in ESA, I have been mostly involved in Solar System missions. Landing something on a comet (as Rosetta will do) or on another planet, like Mars, is very demanding but provides the necessary thrill to keep up the motivation for such an endeavour. This was one of the attractions of the ExoMars programme for me. In addition, ExoMars encompasses many different elements in its two missions, which makes it even more challenging than any other project I have worked on.
What is it like working with an international team?
When I embarked for a job assignment with ESA, this was a big question mark for me. However, very quickly I realised that this is actually a very positive aspect of my work and suits my character and mentality very well. What I enjoy most is the cultural diversity and the opportunity to collaborate with people of different backgrounds.
What inspires you about Mars and the ExoMars programme?
As children, many of us watched science-fiction movies with space invaders coming primarily from Mars. The Red Planet has played a very special role in human imagination for thousands of years. To land on the surface of Mars and perform very complex scientific investigations searching for signs of life is one of the most exciting aspects of ExoMars for me.
What is your vision or hope for the future of the programme?
The ExoMars programme went through some restructuring in the past due to changing of the political framework and the funding conditions. I sincerely hope that this can be settled now and we can move smoothly forward to the next phases of the programme and eventually leave a European footprint on Mars. It’s about time!