Maggie Aderin-Pocock goes boldly into space exploration

5 June 2014

Space travel could become widely affordable within the next 30 to 50 years and astronauts could one day live on Mars, scientist and The Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock told a lecture audience at the IOP’s London centre on 3 June.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

To live permanently on Mars would have been her “dream come true” until she became a mother, she revealed, and she believes commercial space exploration and space tourism are the way of the future. “Science fiction can become science reality, and really quite quickly,” she said.

Like the creators of the privately-funded Mars One mission, she believes a manned trip to Mars would make great material for a Big Brother-style television show. But instead of people voting to choose astronauts for the trip, as the company plans, they would vote for the winners to be returned to Earth while “everybody else lives out the rest of their lives on Mars” she joked. “It’s crazy, but possible. We have found water on Mars, and people could live there.”

Although she failed to be accepted for the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) astronaut programme, she hopes one day to go into space and believes that like air travel, the costs of sending people into space will drop dramatically over time. “I like to be optimistic; I think it will be reasonably cost effective in the next 30 to 50 years. That would be my prediction and I hope it will come true.”

In her lecture, “To boldly go: the three eras of space and when will we all get out there?”, Aderin-Pocock described how a childhood fascination with space travel and the stars had inspired her to take up a career in science. But being dyslexic, she said, she found “school and I didn’t get on at first and I just felt dumb. Finally I was put in the remedial class with the glue and the safety scissors”. However, she was “saved by physics” when being able to answer a science question correctly changed her view of herself. “It was a moment that changed my life. Perhaps I wasn’t so dumb and suddenly school wasn’t boring. I got high marks in science and I started to do better in my other subjects as well.”

Later she did a degree in physics at Imperial College London, followed by a PhD in mechanical engineering there. She then worked in landmine detection and on ground-based telescopes, as well as ESA’s Aeolus satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope. “The space industry is booming globally,” she said, and encouraged audience members who were interested in any aspect of the industry to tailor their studies towards it.

She believed there were three eras in space exploration: the post-war period based on military confrontation; an era of collaboration; and the current era of commercialisation in which private companies were realising the benefits of space. In the UK, for example, Reaction Engines Ltd were developing the Skylon rocket, which uses oxygen from the air as fuel, enabling a leaner and cheaper design.

Describing the advances in exoplanet research and the possibility of interstellar travel, she said even the Voyager space probe, currently moving at more than 10 miles a second, would take 76,000 years to reach our nearest star. “I find that slightly disappointing; how else could we get out there?” she asked. One solution was a “space city” with perhaps 1000 people travelling through space over several generations, she said, but it seemed unethical to make such irreversible choices for one’s children. Another was to use a wormhole to connect with other parts of the universe, but immense amounts of energy were needed to create one, she said.

In a question and answer session, she agreed that female bodies were probably more suited to space travel than male ones and that a shortage of natural resources might drive future space exploration. Impressionist and comedian Jon Culshaw, who is part of the Sky at Night team, was in the audience and asked about the possibility of sailing methane lakes on Titan. “We’ve been to Titan relatively recently and budgets are tight, but when money becomes less tight it would be a wonderful idea,” she said.

Speaking of extra-terrestrial intelligence, she said: “I think there’s life out there but I don’t believe in alien abductions or little green men. We home in on our differences – on race, gender, colour and religion, but when we look at the size of our universe, what are we arguing about? My motto is ‘make space, not war’, because it makes a lot more sense.”

Following her lecture, Aderin-Pocock was presented with fellowship of the Institute of Physics by the IOP’s associate director, programmes and performance, Philip Diamond.

The talk was part of the Opportunity Physics 2014 lecture series. The next, by Prof. Dame Athene Donald, is on 24 July. To find out more, visit http://publiclectures.iop.org.