The wonders of space

9 April 2015

Warwick Holmes

Former ESA avionics systems engineer Warwick Holmes will give a free public lecture at the University of Waikato this month.

The Australian avionics systems engineer who helped build, test and launch the Rosetta space craft that successfully landed a probe on a comet (Comet-67P) says New Zealand and Australia should be investing much more heavily in science and engineering.

Warwick Holmes spent 29 years working on European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft projects and missions including four-and-a-half years on the Rosetta project.

He recently returned to his home-town Sydney and says he's disappointed to find that engineers and scientists 'down under' are so poorly paid, when to his mind they should be one of the world's most highly paid professions, "as indeed they are in some other parts of the world".

"These are the people who have ideas and are making things, creating things, and solving problems for the benefit of all members of society and yet in Australia the government seems more interested in promoting and supporting sports, the arts, and the finance sector, and I don't see it being any different in New Zealand. Are we too stupid to be doing the clever stuff? I suggest we're stupid for not doing it."

Free public lecture

Mr Holmes will be in Hamilton later this month to give a public lecture at the University of Waikato about his career and the Rosetta project, and he'll also be showing secondary school students "how to cook a comet".

It was in November last year that the Rosetta landed the  Philae probe – a  100kg robot laboratory "about the size of a washing machine" on the comet.  Mr Holmes helped build, test and launch Rosetta which then took ten years to travel the 6.4 billion kilometres to reach the comet. The craft had to orbit the sun four times to synchronise with Earth and Mars in order to get the gravitational assist it needed to build up speed to catch the comet.

Rosetta Lander

Warwick Holmes worked on the ESA's Rosetta mission that soft-landed its Philae probe on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the first time in history that such an extraordinary feat has been achieved.

Once he saw and celebrated the landing at the ESA control centre in Darmstadt Germany, Mr Holmes thought it was time to retire from working in the European space sector and with ESA.  "After Rosetta, everything else was just uninteresting," he said. "The time seemed right to return to Australia." He just wishes engineers there were paid more.

The best career ever

"I never wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to build the rocket that got launched into space, to understand the technology and complexity.  I had the most interesting job in the world.  I can't believe how much fun it was.  When we were integrating Rosetta to the Ariane-5 rocket we were based in the Amazon jungle in French Guiana, and I used to pinch myself every morning, realising I was there working on this incredible project."

Mr Holmes wants to encourage young people to get into science, engineering and technology. "These people make things like space exploration possible.  And yet in Australia and New Zealand they're paid a fraction of bankers, lawyers and financial industry managers: why is that?

"So we're effectively telling people 'don't be engineers, you don't bet paid enough to do the best and most interesting job in the world'.  The belief is not there.  Those who can do it go off shore. I've worked the whole 29 years of my professional life in Europe and North America, but I wish it could have been in Australia.  I wish I could have been giving my knowledge, expertise and experience to the benefit of Australia."

He says it's important that space exploration continues and we increase our understanding of how the planets were formed.  "There are also more important economic reasons that Australia and New Zealand would benefit from direct involvement in space engineering, including agriculture, security, weather, and even earthquake monitoring for New Zealand from space."

Cooking a comet

Mr Holmes will have all the ingredients with him to make a comet for the talk he gives to Waikato school students – and he'll also talk about their importance.

"Comets are the cake mix of the solar system – they form the basis as life as we know it today. It's hard to believe that they have very exotic chemistry, amino acids in particular, the majority of which do not exist naturally on earth. Amino acids make up the DNA and RNA structure, essential for human life.

"We still don't know, no one knows, where all the water on Earth came from and the comets may hold the secret of how life began. All this crazy life-forming chemistry seems to have come to Earth from deep space via comets."

While he's in Hamilton Mr Holmes will catch up with Jonathan Scott, one of his lecturers from his days as a student at Sydney University and who's now a professor of electronic engineering at the University of Waikato.

Mr Holmes' free public lecture will be at 6pm on Thursday 23 April in the Academy of Performing Arts. If you'd like to attend RSVP to with Space lecture in the subject line.