Transcript: CSPS Virtual Café Series: Talking Space Exploration, with Lindy Elkins-Tanton and Sarah Gallagher
Walt Natynczyk: Welcome, everyone. Hello and welcome, everyone, to this Virtual Café on the benefits of space exploration. Today's event is another part of the Canada School of Public Service Virtual Cafe series. These events aim to introduce public servants to fascinating thinkers both from within and outside of public service and to explore important topics and ideas through thoughtful discussions. I'm Walt Natynczyk, deputy minister of Veterans Affairs, Canada. I had the absolute pleasure of serving as the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2013 to 2014. It truly is an impressive team of exceptionally talented folks who support Canada's space interests, both at home and abroad. In 2013–2014, I had the opportunity to serve as the president of the Canadian Space Agency, and I met some fantastic people. For today's session, just to remind that simultaneous interpretation is available for this event.
For those who need it, you have access to simultaneous translation, and you can send your questions by pressing the button to raise your hand. Also, participants can send in their questions throughout the session by pressing the "raise hand" icon in the upper right corner of their screen, and someone will be monitoring the inbox throughout the event.
Clearly, by the huge turnout for today's session, space and space exploration captivates our imagination. Space inspires energy, creativity, innovation and bold thinking. Space is a source of inspiration for today's generation, our next generation and those to come. Space research is at the epicentre of scientific development. Space is such a harsh environment that technology that has been tested in space will generally be successful and successfully leveraged in any other environment where it's applied. Space tests our existing beliefs and pushes us to do things that are previously thought impossible.
At the same time, space research and technology development are major economic drivers and a huge source of innovation in other fields. Canada's space sector contributes over two billion dollars to our country's economy. The space industry employs almost 10,000 Canadians and is one of the most research and development intensive sectors in the Canadian economy. Did you know that the space industry employs almost 10,000 Canadians?
Space research and development have enabled everything from navigation to satellite imagery to advanced medical intervention. And space also enables essential government functions like surveying our sovereignty, environmental monitoring, disaster response and search and rescue. And applications go beyond agriculture, natural resources and commerce. Canadians are proud of Canada's contribution to this field even if they do not always understand the needs or the importance of investment. Canadians are rightfully proud of our country's contribution to space but that doesn't always mean we understand it or fully appreciate the importance of ongoing investments in this field.
Space research and development requires long-term investments in talented folks, basic science, astronomy, advanced technology and high-risk ventures with our international partners. Our close partnerships with international space agencies like NASA, the European space agencies and others to promote international collaboration and cooperation. So today we are just so fortunate to be joined by two exceptional and talented leaders, Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton and Dr. Sarah Gallagher. And over the next while, they will help us shed light on the importance of advanced research in space, the practical applications of this work and what it takes to be a scientist tackling some of the universe's most complex and challenging problems.
Therefore, may I ask each of you to introduce yourselves and please tell us a bit about your current pursuits, if you could share with us what is currently captivating your interest and imagination as it relates to space exploration. Perhaps, Lindy, if I could ask you to lead off. Lindy, over to you.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Thank you so much, Deputy Natynczyk and the CSPS. Thank you so much for this opportunity to meet and speak with you all. I'm so happy to join Dr. Gallagher on this on this event. Psyche is both the name of a metallic asteroid out past Mars and the name of the NASA Psyche mission, which is a robotic orbiter being sent to that metallic asteroid. Humans have visited rocky worlds and we visited icy worlds, but this will be the very first metallic object that humankind has ever visited. The Psyche spacecraft has just entered its assembly phase and we will launch in August 2022. I'm the lead of this mission and you can imagine that my life has become very intense, focussed on this team of 800 people building the spacecraft and making this happen.
One of my big goals is that everyone feels they can connect to the mission. We humans are explorers right down to our genes and space exploration is our next frontier. Space exploration gives us a way to do exploration right, to include all people and to use the excitement and the inspiration to drive all of humankind to a better future. And this is largely what I'm working on myself. We need to work on human governance and education and policy and how to include all of us in our space future. I sit on the board of, and collaborate with, an organisation called Open Lunar Foundation that is helping to create a peaceful, cooperative future on the moon for all humans. There are two Canadians on that board with me, my friends Jessy Kate Schingler and the board president, Colonel Chris Hadfield. I'm very pleased to know them both and know that we're all collaborating on this purpose.
Canada has a tremendous history in space, I don't need to tell you, from Alouette, the first satellite from a country other than those Cold War warriors the US and the Soviet Union, to today's astronauts Jeremy, Josh, Jenni and David, and to the even greater potential for space-based communications across the vast country and the more distant future of space resources. I myself trained as a terrestrial geologist and spent time in Canada learning about the natural resources and now I think of the resources available in space as the next step.
My purpose in life, the vision that I'm pursuing is to create a society of problem solvers where we each feel we have the agency and the motivation and the knowledge to identify and change the things that need to be changed. Space exploration is a tremendous driver and inspirer to be bolder and better. That's what we're working on at the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative. And that's the university where I work, at Arizona State. This vision of a positive human future requires new ways to build teams, new ways to solve problems, new ways to educate and new aspirations and ideas for human futures. And space exploration gives us a way to ideate and to practise these things. So we're building these things in interplanetary initiative and we love to work with partners. So perhaps we'll find some ways to drive this future together. Thanks very much.
Walt: Thank you so much for that. If I can now turn to Dr. Gallagher. Sarah, over to you.
Sarah Gallagher: Thank you so much. It's really a pleasure to be here. And after Lindy's beautiful eloquence, I'm at a loss for words. I think she captured so much of how I feel about space.
I come from an astronomy background and my first introduction to space was when I was a graduate student. I was fortunate enough to be at Penn State University the year before the Chandra X-ray Observatory launched and the primary instrument builder for Chandra was at Penn State. So that was my introduction to space, was to be at the heart as a new member of this team, getting prepared to see the outcome of decades of work and passion and disappointment and frustration and all of those emotions. And I think that is also something that's just fantastic about space. We saw the pictures recently when Perseverance landed, of the elation on the team. I mean, they were literally jumping for joy. And it's just... that emotion, that passion, that excitement of that group of hundreds of people working together to really make something extraordinary and new happen is something that we're lucky when we're involved with space, that that's part of the deal.
I think that is what draws so many people to it, is just the excitement of the entire enterprise and the passion and the novelty and also the risk. So it's really hard and it's really risky. And I think that we do need to have things that challenge us in all the ways that matter in order to push us so that we can grow and we can become better. And what Lindy said, some of the things that she said that really resonated with me and I completely agree with are that we do want to be a society of problem solvers, but we also want to do it in a thoughtful way in terms of thinking about exploration, that we have this common resource for all humanity. We have Low Earth orbit, which is a valuable resource that we have to look after and maintain. We have to think thoughtfully about when we explore other parts in our solar system, how to do that in a peaceful and gentle and collaborative way so that we are all able to share in the bounty of that enterprise.
And I would say that I have felt so privileged to have made, to be both an active astronomer who's doing research and is very excited looking forward to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope later this year. In terms of things I'm really looking forward to, the Canadian astronomy community is very excited about that; we have contributed two instruments to that mission and that is really going to break open some new space for knowledge and discovery very soon. But also, I feel very privileged as a science adviser to the Canadian Space Agency that I've had an opportunity to dip my toes into all of these other space science areas that I really wasn't that knowledgeable about before.
Planetary science, of course, is something where we have a lot going on. We're very excited about our next advances and going to the moon. Our recent exploration of OSIRIS-REX, going to the asteroid Bennu and mapping it with the Canadian instrument. We actually have that with the highest resolution map of anybody in the solar system that has ever been made, so that was a very exciting achievement. And then also in terms of Earth observations, we are learning, studying the aurora and the radiation environment in space, which is going to be so important for having people safely in the environment around the moon and looking down on the earth and using the information we can gain from space, both to keep track of our big, beautiful country and look after it and monitor effects and impacts of climate change. So it's just such a rich field and it impacts so many different aspects of our life, and I feel really privileged to be able to be a part of it and also to be a champion for so much fantastic science in so many domains. That's really wonderful. So thank you for having me and I'm really looking forward to our conversation.
Walt: Thanks so much, Dr. Gallagher. And I'll tell you, it is so inspiring hearing the passion coming out from both of you in terms of the dedication you have for this incredible profession and pursuit. And really, that comes down to why we're all together here, to try to reach out to others and create some of that awareness about space and space research.
The first question that we'd like to have a discussion about is: especially as Canadians and everyone who is on the line here today, we're living in the middle of this pandemic and we're seeing real time effects on our economy and in our society, what our medical folks are going through and the social challenges that all governments are dealing with around the world. So the whole notion of launching objects into space and space pursuits may not feel like a priority to everyone at this moment. So I wouldn't mind getting your perspectives, if you could, with regard the practical applications of some of the research in our day to day lives. Why should governments continue investing in space and why is it so important being a lead in this area? How do we make the work in space and the space business accessible to the public and encourage interest? Who would like to kick off in this regard?
Lindy: I think Sarah should take this first for sure.
Sarah: Thank you, Lindy. So I think there's a lot of different ways to answer this question. First, I just want to give people a sense of what the space domain is like. In Canada, we have a number of companies that are working on developing space technology. And they do a range of different kinds of activities. For example, they're building satellites, they're building new instruments on satellites. We have communication satellites, we have instruments that take measurements up in space. And in order to have a vibrant community of companies and of industry and of development, you have to have a constant influx of new and novel ideas, and new and novel technology. The role of science in general and exploration science is to be that impetus and that driver that really enables that kind of new innovation.
I'll give you an example from astronomy. In astronomy—all of us right now pretty much carry around a video camera in our in our pockets that's got a little camera. And that technology originated from astronomy. So those little those little cameras, those detectors originated from that field and the reason is because astronomers had the most demand, the most demanding specifications for cameras because they want to look in the dark at really faint things. And so that means they have to have a really, really awesome camera. And so that scientific demand just pushes the technology and now it's something that's in everybody's pocket and it's almost not even worth mentioning. But you have to remember where those things originate.
And the same thing for of all sorts of technologies. The science demands are so extreme that you can't just take what you've already got and maybe tweak it and make a little bit better. You have to toss it out and start over because what we have now just will not work for that demand. And so that's one thing in which it's really important to take advantage of the scientific requirements and the passion and the problem solving and the motivation of those communities to really push into new arenas and develop new technologies.
The other thing that happens is that when we have demands in space—for example, we need to keep our astronauts healthy. And space is really, really hard. It's hard on your bones, it's hard on your blood, it's hard on your brain. And so it turns out that keeping astronauts healthy also helps us develop strategies for helping people with challenges of ageing, like what happens when their circulatory system gets stressed. And so that's a benefit that is a consequence of the work that we're doing in space. But it wasn't clear that that would happen, that we would get that benefit, but it turns out we do. And that's often I think what's challenging, is it's hard to pick a winner when we start. We don't know what thing we're working on is going to actually wind up having a downstream impact that's really major. So we really need to work on a whole bunch of different things because not all of them are going to have that big impact, but just one or two could completely change our life and how we how we deal with really pressing needs. So I'll pass it off to Lindy now to hear her perspective.
Lindy: Yeah, what Sarah said is so right. Each of us has within our arm's reach, right in front of us quite a number of things that were developed for space and because of space. And another great example is not just the camera, but also the thing that allows you to find your way on a map. The fact that we have GPS and we can get to—how did we do this before our phones? I don't know. How did we get anywhere? This is all because of space technology.
But there's another aspect of inspiration I want to mention, which is really the emotional aspect of inspiration. We don't need to lower our sights in times of difficulty like the pandemic; we need to raise our sights. And so many of the narratives that we live with right now are narratives that are filled with guilt or fear. They have to do with global warming and climate change, they have to do with pandemics. But if we think about the aspirational things that we can do as humans, they give us the hope and the optimism to move beyond, and space is incredibly good at that.
I have a really specific example that I'd like to share. For all of history when humans made things, there was always a person who had the idea in their head how it would work, what the whole thing was, and it wasn't until just a few decades ago that the aerospace endeavours we were undertaking became so complicated that no single person could understand how the whole thing would work that they were building. And that's when the discipline of systems engineering was developed. In my mind, this is actually a leap in human evolution. It's actually a sea change in what we can do as a species where we can build something so complicated that it can fly through space for a decade without failing, without repair, and send us back information about an object that from here looks like a speck of light, that it can work without fail. And it's so complicated that no single person who was building it understood how the whole thing worked but we know how to do it together. And that's the kind of inspiration and ability that we need to solve the challenges that we have here in front of us. And it's only space so far that's given us as humans the ability to rise above and do those kinds of challenges.
Walt: Thanks so much for that, Lindy. If I could just build on that, I'd like to turn to the second notion here about how do we apply lessons from space research to really big problems? And both of you have dedicated your careers to exploring some of the universe's most complex challenges. Lindy, you mentioned that as the principal investigator, you are looking at deep space metal asteroids, and if we are able to exploit that knowledge, perhaps understand a little bit more about our earth's core. Meanwhile, Sarah, your focus is on the properties of supermassive black holes which are seemingly at the centre of every known galaxy, including our own. So the whole notion of the complexity and the magnitude and the uncertainty that we have in these fields cannot be overstated, nor the importance of being able to work with a multidisciplinary team. So especially recognising that a lot of folks who are listening here are public servants, and we're working in our traditional settings, in our government business, trying to find what are the right solutions to big public policy issues. So when you think about the kind of qualities and the kind of lessons that we think that we could offer from a scientific standpoint, what qualities would you say are most important in order to thrive in the kind of work that both of you do? And who would like to start off? Perhaps Lindy?
Lindy: Sure, I'm happy to just start off. I was thinking about this so much because in a way I benefit in the job that I have of having a very specific target that we're trying to do and that everyone on the team agrees on what that target is, and more or less how we're going to get to it. I know that when we're doing things around public policy and we're dealing with all of society and people who come from very different points of view, we don't always have that luxury of commonality of goals. And so one thing I think about quite a lot—and that's been an interesting transition for me, coming from a scientific background in academia, but luckily I worked in business for a decade and I helped start-up companies and I got a little bit of a sense of organisation—it's this idea that we're working with the responsibility, but without the authority. Very often we need to bring together groups where we do not have the authority over them but we have the responsibility to create a common belief and a common direction and a common movement. And if I were to give some advice to anyone thinking about coming into space exploration or any large projects, it's: focus on and practise what it is to have responsibility without authority. You can't be a leader without any followers. You have to have a vision and you have to be able to connect with people and you have to be able to listen to them and find those common points. And in the end, those are the aspects of my job that I've spent perhaps the most time thinking about how to make that work.
Walt: Thanks so much, Lindy. Sarah?
Sarah This is a tough question. I'll talk a little bit about my experience and things that I brought from space into other domains that I had not expected to at all. As Lindy mentioned, a lot of new projects are really, really complicated. And you need to bring together the expertise of a lot of different people, you have to figure out how to get those teams to talk to each other using the same language. Often scientists and engineers, for example, don't always have the same perspective and the same point of view and the same priorities. And so that's certainly a skill that's really valuable. And I also learned about the value of having responsibility without authority. I think that's such an interesting way of putting it. And for me personally it first happened when I was interested in the planning for the next generation telescope and there was a call that said, "Hey, we need somebody to lead this team." And, you know, it's always a lot of work to lead a team but I just thought, "Man, I really care about this one part of it and I am worried that if I don't say yes, that it's not going to happen and then I can't do my science." So I said yes. I put my hand up and I did it. And that was, I guess, my first experience of, you know, responsibility without authority where I just said "I need to do it because I care about it and it needs to be done." And it's not clear what my role is going to be in the future; and also any time you're planning one of these things, you never know if they're actually going to happen, right? You have to do a ton of work to build the case before you actually know whether something's going to go forward. And so that experience was really seminal for me and I look for it when somebody is excited about a new project. I look for their initiative and also for their collaborative practises. Are they asking everybody for their opinion? Are they bringing everybody into the field? And I think those two things are so important in leaders, particularly now.
It used to be the case in science that we had the sort of principal investigator model where there'd be one person who was the leader who made the decisions and drove everything. And that just doesn't work because projects are too complicated and we want to bring everybody into the fold and be more inclusive, and so those practises are just so, so important. And one way in which I have leveraged my experience in space was last spring, a year ago as the epidemic was breaking, there was an effort to... The governments of Canada, as well as governments around the world, wanted to push money into science in order to support the effort and develop a vaccine and do all that important work. But we needed someone to coordinate all the different researchers and so with the endorsement of Mona Nemer, our chief science adviser, I worked with Cara Tannenbaum and a team of people and we built a collaboration platform in order to bring the researchers together in the pandemic response. I have no experience whatsoever in biomedical science, but I've worked on collaborative teams, on big complicated projects remotely. I'm familiar with those sorts of platforms and how to make them work and what infrastructure you need for those organisations, and so I was able to take that experience, which is directly from space and from the big science projects I've worked on, and apply it in a really meaningful way. And I think that we have we have so much talent in the scientific community and other communities as well that we can apply to these important problems that obviously impact everybody's life. And so that makes me very optimistic about the future, because we are developing these new strategies for how to combat these big problems.
Walt: Thanks so much.
Lindy: May I add something to that?
Lindy: Not meaning to interrupt, but Sarah, I think the things you said about building teams are so important that I just couldn't resist adding to that because of its criticality. Picking your team is so important, but even then you don't always know. Sometimes rearranging your team is also necessary. I've become really passionate about this because I believe… I've come to believe that the culture is actually the key to diversity and that if you have a bullying culture or a culture of only a few leaders being allowed to speak, then you're never going to retain any diversity that you managed to foster because people would feel bullied out. People who don't feel that they have a group of like people there to support them will be the first to leave and then you will not have the diversity that you were looking for.
And diversity has been shown through careful double-blind studies to end up with creating better outcomes because you have more opinions, you have more outlooks, you have more different points of view. You really do get a better a better outcome. So working on that team culture where every voice can be heard—I try not to have the kind of team where some people sit at the table and they are the ones who speak and then the ones along the extra chairs on the wall and never get heard. And on the Psyche mission it becomes particularly obvious how critical this is, not just for diversity, but because it's the person who is eight lines of report away from me who is actually soldering the electronics board, who figures out the thing was designed wrong and if they don't feel that their role matters because they're too junior, in fact, we'll fail. And so we have a motto, which is "The best news is bad news brought early." And the only way that you can do that is if everyone can speak, and so I love that you brought up the teamwork issue. I think it's critical for all of us on Earth today.
Walt: Thanks very much for that, Lindy, and just to say it's so important when people feel safe to contribute, and that their viewpoints are valued and it just makes the whole team effort all the better. You both talked about transitions, you know, when you worked in industry for a while. And Sarah, you went from solid academic now into the government role. Both of you have gone through these transitions. And so I wouldn't mind if we could just tease out again your perspectives on what it was like in terms of transitioning from the academia and both of you now working with your respective national space agencies, but also what particular problem-solving approaches or ways of tackling these tough, big issues for government? And what can government learn from those approaches? And lessons learned that you could perhaps share from a researcher standpoint. Who would like to kick off on this one?
Lindy: Sarah should start. I spoke last, please, if you don't mind.
Sarah: No, not at all. I'm happy to do that. So, my transition, the way it worked for me is I was a university researcher. I mean, still a university researcher. I'm a professor at Western University. And I started to get interested in some issues that mattered on a national level. As I mentioned, the telescope I was working on, the Planning for Next Generation telescope. I worked on a couple of projects like that. We had Canadian Space Exploration Workshop in 2017 and I was working on that. I was also a member of our Canadian Astronomical Society, I was a member on the board. So I was seeing things on a holistic sort of community level. And after going to the Canadian Space Exploration Workshop I was talking to some of my colleagues and I said, "I think we need to write something up. I think we need to write up a sort of vision for going forward to support space exploration in Canada." And so that white paper was consulted with different fields in space exploration, including human exploration, as well as the space health and planetary science and space astronomy.
I really enjoyed that process—the process of hearing what people were concerned about, hearing what their ideas were, learning about other fields. We spoke to industry as well as government and then I think it was about six months later, I was actually taking a science policy workshop at Western. We had a little workshop and the job ad for the science adviser to the Canadian Space Agency came up and three different people forwarded me the ad. And I thought, "Oh, this seems really, really awesome." An opportunity to see how science is supported, to learn about other fields, to be an advocate, to be a champion for those fields. And so it happened a bit organically in my career in terms of how I wound up there. But once I started the job—and I will say I just learned so much. First of all, I was so impressed by the passion and also just the desire to serve the public service. I've been so impressed with my colleagues at the Canadian Space Agency. They are just determined to support the science communities, to make amazing things happen, to support the other government departments in terms of the space resources and the space infrastructure that they all need. But there were some things that were really interesting, just in terms of the difference between how universities function and how government departments function.
When you're a university professor, you don't really have a boss. So, you could get fired if you're... I mean, that's certainly possible if you behave badly enough, but you don't really have a boss. It's not very hierarchical. Universities are pretty flat in terms of organizations and they're not very formal in a lot of ways. So that was a big contrast to going into a government department where they are fairly hierarchical, very formal. And there's pros and cons to both systems. Usually in the government there's a process for doing everything that you want to do. It might be a little burdensome but it does exist. In universities sometimes you feel like you're reinventing the wheel. Every time somebody tries to figure out how to do something it's not documented, then somebody else has to figure it out again.
But what I appreciated when I got to see under the hood at the Space Agency was that they're just juggling a lot of different priorities. So they have to juggle different science areas, also different government priorities. There's obviously the constraints of things like budget, and that is a really hard job. So I think one of the things that I can bring to this role is to be a liaison, and to some extent just translate between the communities. Because there are certain things that university researchers are used to and that are normal, but that are totally abnormal in the government and vice versa.
I'll just give you an example. So as a university research researcher who applies for time, it's telescope time, money, whatever, we get rejected all the time. And so this is part of what Lindy was saying about bad news. We get bad news all the time, and we can handle it. But I would rather know what's going to happen and know what a reasonable expectation is early, so that I don't put more time into something that's not going to go anywhere. But I can handle the fact that the thing I want to do is not going to happen, and I think that's something that—that pattern of communication that is very typical in academia. It's less typical in government, I think. So that's something that I think could be just… more open communication, even when it's bad news, I think is something that would be of benefit if that happens more often. But certainly some of the rigour and the carefulness and the accountability that you see in government is also really important. That's people's money that the government is spending and it is important that they keep track of it and use it carefully. So I think both of those are just two minor examples of different cultural differences. I'll stop there. Thanks.
Walt: Thank you so much, Sarah. Can I turn that to Lindy on the same topic?
Lindy: Yeah, everything you said really rings true for me as well. I'm still a full-time employee of Arizona State University, it just happens that I'm the ultimate person responsible for this government contract. That's why this idea of responsibility without authority became so primary in my mind, because our partners on the mission are Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Maxar Technologies, and then quite a number of very significant subcontractors building instruments, and people from the science team. So there are dozens and dozens of organizations who do not report to me, except in that I am the ultimate signatory on a contract. It's not even like a client relationship, it's really just that we've all agreed we're going to go for this goal and I try to bring people together to talk about it together and make it happen together. So it's a big communications challenge and a big alignment challenge of constantly going back and forth in NASA headquarters. But the big flash for me and my brain in this comparison that you're making between government and academia came earlier in my career.
I went to school at MIT and I got my undergraduate and my master's degrees. So I did original research and I took data and I had to interpret the data because the data tells you right or wrong. And then I took 10 years before I went to get my PhD and in those 10 years I worked partly as a management consultant and we were working actually with an aerospace company. We were working on a big helicopter manufacturing floor where they were bringing in old models of this helicopter and re-manufacturing them up into new models and they were having trouble making that process work. And we had to come in and figure out how to help them improve that process. At first I felt really at sea because it was so different than taking data and strictly interpreting it. And then I had this flash of insight that when you're working with a group of people, and you're not being bound by the laws of physics, you can make up something in your head if you convince the people around you that it's true, it becomes true, like magic. I had this insight into the way humans work together. Let's decide that we are now going to work in a different way. Let's decide that this is now the way our norm is. This is the way we interact, this is the way we do our work. We could invent it and it would become true, like magic. And to me, that's the beauty of working in teams of people. If you can get all of your hearts and minds together, you can invent a way to do things that hasn't been done before. That, to me, is the huge difference between working in organizations and just doing science.
Walt: Thanks so much for that. This fourth topic before we go to questions from our audience is about the space economy. Seeing how disruptive technologies and all kinds of advancements are drastically changing the economics, and with the building and launching of spacecraft, we see that government agencies are developing new partnerships with commercial organizations such as SpaceX. And we know that both NASA and CSA are doing that, and therefore making space and space travel more affordable and accessible. The increased commercialization is also raising some important questions about the role of government in ensuring peaceful and sustainable exploration of space. I wouldn't mind sharing your thoughts on the growing commercialisation of space travel and the increasing reliance of governments with regard to partners in the industry. We also have one of the questions that came in that's connected to this: Is it a good thing that some prominent investors, such as Richard Branson or Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are getting involved in this space business? And your thoughts in this regard. I wonder if I could turn to Dr. Elkins-Tanton in this regard first.
Lindy: Sure. We do a huge amount of work with the new space industry and with the traditional aerospace companies, both in my work at the university and with the Psyche mission. I feel that it is entirely a good thing that this is happening.
One of the differences between having a whole bunch of billionaires involved in space travel and having them involved in other aspects of human endeavour is that space travel is unforgiving, as Sarah pointed out. You are either going to get it right or you're going to get it wrong, and when it's wrong, it's catastrophically wrong. So there is huge pressure on these companies to get it right. If their rocket blows up the satellite, they're not going to get more business.
In two ways this has helped my mission tremendously. I'll give a very pragmatic example. The first is getting a robotic spacecraft as far out as the asteroid Psyche that is way in the outer main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars requires a lot of propulsion to get there. In order to fit in the cost cap of the mission program that we applied to, we decided to use solar electric propulsion. So we're flying at 20 kilowatt solar array and we're using it to ionize individual xenon atoms and send them through a little electric potential. It's called a Hall thruster, a Hall-effect thruster, and it's literally the little xenon atoms that give the impulse to the spacecraft; so it's extremely efficient, but very slow, and it was affordable for this cost cap. The company that's the best at making these in the world, I would argue, is Maxar, which incidentally was a part of MDA, part of a big Canadian company. So, a nice connection to Canada.
They built over one hundred similar spacecraft using the same kinds of technologies for Earth orbiting telecom satellites, but they've never done deep space before. So we convinced NASA that they could be the prime contractor, but one of the things that happened is, because they built these all the time and they know exactly how to build them (they're not bespoke perfect one-time-only special designs), we could get it on a firm fixed price. And for those of you who are in purchasing understand, that that is quite amazing. They would tell us exactly what this is going to cost rather than cost plus, which is "Oh, it didn't work. Let's try again. You owe more money." We saved over one hundred million dollars by doing it this way, and it's because of the private sector new space industry.
The other one, a shorter story. Our launch period opens in August of 2022, we're going to be launched on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. And again, it was a huge cost savings. It was a competitive process. I do not participate in the rocket procurement S.P.I., that's the Kennedy Space Center's job. But it was a competitive procurement process and SpaceX won on the basis of both the excellence and the cost. And so we're saving a lot of taxpayer dollars by taking advantage of the expertise and the market forces of this new space industry.
Walt: Thanks so much. Sarah, comments in the same regard?
Sarah: Yeah, I'd like to just pivot a little bit from what Lindy said. Obviously in the domains in which the commercial companies are engaged, it's fantastic. They're driving costs down and they're enabling things that wouldn't be possible otherwise. But it is important to realize they're pretty picky about which domains they decide to work in. The ones they decide to work in are ultimately—if you have billionaires it may just be whatever they happen to be interested in, but for most companies, in the end, they're trying to make something and make money and have a viable company. So there are niches in which they're interested in exploring and developing and coming up with excellent new products. But there's a lot in which they aren't. So I think that's really the role for government, is to look the societal benefit and make sure that all of those different aspects are being looked after.
As an example, in Canada, we have the RADARSAT Constellation mission, which is this constellation of three radars that are looking down, that are mapping Canada. So we're getting these beautiful, three dimensional maps of Canada. They can do things like tell you what the levels of the soil moisture are in certain places, and the movement of the earth if you have a drought and the water table drops. It's incredibly rich, beautiful data that's being used by essentially almost every government department and it's this incredible, incredible resource. And we're using it all, we're using all of it. But we had to buy that. We had to pay for it, because a commercial company is not going to do that to the specifications we needed. I mean, a commercial company made the satellite, but when you have specific needs like that, that's not necessarily a domain in which you can take advantage of the business, the sector overall.
Similarly with other different types of things that we that we want to advance in, there's not necessarily going to be that same specific niche where we can really say, "Oh, we can just let the commercial domain handle it and let them do all the advancement" because they won't necessarily have the incentive that we do when we're looking after the public good.
Walt: Thanks so much for that. We're going to start taking questions from our audience here, and I think your comments earlier really did bring out some thoughts with regard to teams and teamwork. I can just combine two of the questions here. One is, "when you're tackling really big, complex challenges and things don't work out, how have you coped and how do you keep yourself and your teams motivated?" And the second is somewhat like this: "How do you ensure effective communication takes place when dealing with large multidisciplinary teams so that everyone feels involved in current?" Who would like to take that one on?
Sarah: I think Lindy should start with this one. She's got this recent Psyche experience to help us out.
Lindy: Yeah. Communication's on really big teams is always a big challenge. As I mentioned earlier, at peak, our Psyche team is 800 people and mostly in the United States, but it's a big place, and also overseas. Well, what do we do? So we have regular email communications every week on what's happened this week, the significant events. Since the pandemic began every couple of weeks we have a morning coffee all-team meeting where we give updates on all the processes and what's happening. Then there's the usual cascading set of meetings among the leadership and then the next teams and the next teams. And we're constantly trying to feed documents and graphics and things that show the progress and to urge people to bring the news to everyone. Then I try to send out all-team emails with pieces of news that will reach everyone. I don't think there's a secret to what we're doing. And I'm we're doing everything we've been able to think of so far.
One thing I have noticed is that the intentionality actually goes a long way. If we're clear and we state that we really want everyone to feel connected and we want everyone to get all the information, that does help with the percolation of that information and the sense that people do feel connected. So that's those are some of the things that we're doing our best on.
Briefly on the other question, what do you do when there's a great big disappointment or a failure? I mean, we had plenty of disappointments and issues and, my gosh, the schedule issues we're facing right now with COVID. It's hard to build a spacecraft when people can't go to work, you know? You can't do this virtually. We're doing okay. Our schedule still closes; we're still on our way to launch, but there are daily crises. The thing that I'm worried about, that I hope that I would weather, is a really big crisis. I had a high school student ask me once, "Well, what happens if the spacecraft blows up on the launch pad? Do you get a do-over?" And the answer is no, you don't get a do-over. So we've been working on this for 10 years, which isn't very long in space exploration, but still, it's ten years. I hope that we've made every step of the process a learning experience and a joy, in as much as great challenges and great pleasures can both be a joy, so that it's all been as worthwhile as possible and we could set our sights on the next thing. That's my hope if we had a really big disappointment, God forbid. Sarah, do you have more profound things to say in response to that very good question?
Sarah: I would absolutely agree with you in terms of how to deal with the disappointment. It's really important that the journey is valuable and rewarding because what happens at the end is uncertain. You do not want to be miserable and hating life for 10 years, hoping that at the end of it something good will happen. It's true also—as a supervisor of students, it's the same thing. You should not hate getting your PhD. That should be a process. I mean, it will be hard and challenging and there'll be disappointments but the process overall should be something that is rewarding and challenging and exciting; otherwise you shouldn't do it, you should do something else.
Lindy: You're learning something if you hate it. You're learning something right there.
Sarah: Exactly, exactly. That you should be doing something else. But I do know people who've had horrible losses. There's a particularly unfortunate series of X-ray missions. The first version of it never made it into space. The second version, one of the key instruments was destroyed within a month. And then the third one, the third time, the whole thing fell. I mean, it was terrible, and so that's the reality of it. It's hard and as Lindy said, you don't get... Space is very unforgiving, so you have to be crazy careful. And some of these things where bad things have happened, it comes down to a failure of communication. Somebody knew something that didn't get shared with the right people. Or they tried to share it and those people didn't listen. So often that is what happens and it's why communication is absolutely essential. And I think culture is really important, as Lindy was saying, that people feel safe bringing things up and sharing what may be bad news. And also just having processes. I think it's also important when you have really big organizations, especially when people are siloed, is that you have mechanisms for connecting the silos at many levels. Because that's often when you get lots of great ideas, but also that's where things that are—something's starting to bother somebody… The person you who is soldering the breadboard that Lindy mentioned, there could be someone else at a similar level in a different sector that could help them. And so those horizontal structures are really, really essential, as well as the vertical ones. You don't want to just funnel information up and down. You have to have mechanisms for sending it across as well.
Walt: Thanks very much to both of you on those. We have a number of questions and I'm not sure how much time we have left here, and I'll get the cane coming in here for a second but there's one question here that I think is really important and that is, "women have tended to be underrepresented in the STEM fields. Has that been noticeable for you over your careers and are you seeing that changing?"
Sarah: Hey, Lindy, have you noticed?
Lindy: I don't know what you are talking about! No, absolutely, I've noticed this. It's kind of unavoidable to notice it. And of course, it's not just women, but it's people of colour and there are problems with diversity on every level that you can imagine. And I do think it's improving. But I will say that for myself I really didn't experience that as a problem until I hit leadership. Then it became a big problem. There was a major glass ceiling, a series of things around that. And something had become—two things, if I could just boil it down to two, because I suspect Sarah would say the same thing. The effects of diversity and the effects of implicit bias about people's abilities really does affect me every single day and through the whole career there's ways that it affects you. Proposal reviews, paper reviews, who's picked for jobs, who's brought on to committee, who is expected to do the service, who's allowed to do the research? Every different aspect, there's implicit bias. I'm not pointing the finger at anyone because every single one of us has implicit bias in our own ways about these people. Whoever they are, whatever group it is, we have implicit bias about people.
I believe these are things that need to be solved together as a group, not by dividing people according to categorizations. One thing that I think about all the time is issues of harassment, because that is the way that people really get excluded. And I've become fairly radicalized on this, even though it's risky: I think you have to report. I think reporting is the only way we can make progress. We need people to report and then we need the leadership to listen and to protect both people who are innocent and people who have been victimized. And so this is something I just can't stress enough. It's very hard to make progress without reporting.
Then the other thing, which is maybe a lighter topic, which I've become extremely personally passionate about, is trying very hard not to condescend to other people. Don't assume before you talk to them what they know and don't know. Don't start explaining things to them that they may know a thousand times better than you, and you can have a fantastic experience and learn something. And so just policing ourselves a little bit in how we speak to others can go a very long way. Those are two of my personal passions in this area where we have so much work to do.
Walt: Absolutely agree with you, Lindy. Thank you so much. Sarah?
Sarah: Sure. I'd just add two things to that. One, something that I'm very passionate about, and Lindy brought this up earlier as well. I think we're doing a much better job with recruitment in terms of diversity. And now we need to focus on retention. That means that people feel welcome, that they feel supported and that they have the tools. We have to acknowledge we have not fixed systemic racism in our institutions. This is something that people are going to encounter. And so we need to give them the tools. What happens if you see it? What happens if you experience it? Who is your network who will support you and let you know how to handle it and how to report and all of those different tools? I think we need to really focus on that so that we're able to keep all this amazing talent that's coming into the system and is leaving at alarming rates. It happens in the tech industry. It's happening in science as well, that people are not staying. And part of it is as a consequence of implicit bias, people are treating them as if they're not as good. Often people underperform when you set low expectations for them. And so it is really important that is not part of it.
And I would say also in terms of the issue of condescension, I do public talks all the time, I visit elementary schools and do that kind of activity. And I have gotten some of the most amazing questions from eight-year-olds. So when you see that kind of level of curiosity and thoughtfulness in really young people, I think it's really affected how I communicate with the public as well as people who may be professionals in your domain. Just in terms of recognizing that there can be brilliance at all levels and it's definitely worth listening to people because even if they're not necessarily an expert in something relevant, they still have things to contribute. And so that's something that I definitely have learnt over the course of my time in this domain.
Walt: Thanks so much for what I think are absolutely essential, indeed vital messages from both. Our time is running towards the end here. And I am just wondering, from concluding remarks, there's one question here: "Do you see space travel research and exploration as a necessary condition of our human society and existence?" And it'll be a great concluding remark from both of you. And then I'll just have a couple of words and then we'll close. Who would like to start on this one? Perhaps Sarah?
Sarah: Sure. I think it's totally natural as humans for us to look out at the world, of the world on the ground as well as up in space, and wonder what it's like and where it is. That's something that I think is a natural human endeavour and I think it's hard to imagine that curiosity going away in terms of in the future. I will say I think it's pretty unrealistic to think that we can all just move to Mars. It's a small planet, it's not ready for people. And so in that sense, we need to be caretakers of the planet that we're on because there is not in the near term any sort of future in which we can all just leave. And so one thing I learned as being someone who studies extreme phenomena in the universe like black holes and million degree plasmas and all that sort of thing is that we have this beautiful special planet and we need to look after it. It's so unusual in the solar system, in the world and in the universe. And so I would say that that experience for me as someone who studies exotic things out in space is really to be very grateful and appreciative of the world that we have.
Lindy: Yeah, that is so exactly right. There is literally nothing we could do to the Earth that would make it less habitable than Mars. This is our place. It's a wonderful place. And by going out into space, we both give ourselves something to aspire to and we put ourselves in perspective. We understand the beauty and uniqueness of this planet and our place in the universe. And I think it's a way to mentally readjust from squabbling over things that don't matter to aligning ourselves to acceptance and perspective. And that, I think, is the ultimate beauty of space exploration, is that it helps us appreciate who we are here on this planet.
Walt: Thanks so much to Sarah and Lindy, and I would just want to conclude here today's session. This is not enough time! We need another hour with the questions that are rolling in and the rich conversation. But on behalf of everyone in attendance today, I would just like to offer our collective appreciation to Lindy and Sarah for what has been an absolutely fascinating and insightful discussion. We're very cognisant and thankful of the time that you both made for us today to share your knowledge, your experience and your energy for space research. You have inspired us to reach further into the unknown. I'd like to thank our audience as well that have joined us today virtually and posed some excellent questions. Thanks to everyone who joined us for our meeting and also to those who asked great questions.
Please stay tuned to the Canada School of Public Service Twitter page and please register for their email newsletter to find out about and to register for future Virtual Café sessions and other great courses and events. Please visit the Twitter account of the School of Public Service to learn more about the Virtual Café. Thank you, everyone.
Folks, again, thank you so much, and to everyone who made this session work as well as it did, to our technician Veronique who led us through, thank you so much. And if you can just give a virtual round of applause for Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton and for Dr. Sarah Gallagher. Thank you so much for an outstanding session.