Graduates meet Christer Fuglesang

A CERN physicist, a European Space Agency astronaut that participated in two missions to the International Space Station, and a professor at KTH are just a few of Christer’s credentials and now he has been a space consultant for Saab for 3 years, working on how the company can develop within the space sector in the future. 

We sat down with him at the Saab Headquarters in Stockholm to talk about his career as an astronaut, his work within Saab and his vision for the future, as well as what was his first meal back on Earth, after his first flight.

 
How did you become an astronaut?  What was the process? Did someone come up to you and offer you a chance or did you apply yourself through the European Space Agency (ESA)?

It was kind of a funny start, it was actually an ad in a newspaper “The European Space Agency is looking for new astronauts! Apply through the Swedish National Space Agency.” At the time I was working at CERN and living outside Geneva but I was in Stockholm for a conference and I was visiting a friend and he said “Hey, I found a new job for you! They are looking for new astronauts!” I thought he was joking until the next day when he gave me the cut-out from the newspaper. This was long before the time of the internet, in 1990. I wasn’t convinced that I would have any chance because I have done nothing related to space, I was working with the micro cosmos, so I called the Swedish National Space Agency and asked them. I told them my background and they thought I was an interesting candidate. It was a long process, it took almost 2 years actually.

Have you always had a clear plan of where you want to go in life, or has it been decided by what opportunities have emerged?

Well I only thought that I could become an astronaut when I got this ad and I talked to the Swedish Space Agency. Before that, I was thinking of how I could maybe go to space. This was towards the end of my PhD studies when I thought I should try get a job at NASA or I should try to come up with an ingenious idea for an experiment in space which is so smart that they have to send me to do it. At the time they were actually sending so-called “payload specialists” on the (Space) Shuttle. But going to space is a one-time shot, so to say. I wasn’t thinking of becoming a professional astronaut but if there was some way to go to space at least for just one trip.

What was your best memory on the International Space Station?

It’s hard to pick one memory. I did enjoy the space walks very much, being outside and seeing the wonderful views of the Earth. I remember when I was on a spacewalk, I was high up on the top of the space station and I saw it from above, with the Earth below, and it was night time so I could see the lights in the cities and there was also an aurora on the horizon. That was quite amazing. It was also very interesting to see what you can do in weightlessness, so many fun things.

What personality traits have you benefited most from during your professional life?

From an astronaut’s point of view, certainly being social and a team player and an all-round person that you can do a lot of things at least fairly well. You are not selected if you are the best at something but rather you are deselected if you are not so good at something. And this also applies from a medical point of view. Some people have some minor medical problem which normally wouldn’t matter at all but they [ESA] want to have very healthy people, psychologically stable.

What do you consider to be the most difficult thing you had to do in your career?

Probably to learn Russian. When I started at ESA in June 1992, my new boss said “By the way you probably have to go to Russia.” and during the first two years after I applied no one said a word about Russia. This was just after the fall of the Soviet Union and this was an opportunity to work with Russia. So sure enough, a year later I had to go to Russia and I had some Russian language training at the Astronaut Center in Germany but that was definitely not enough. You are sitting there in a classroom and they talk to you in Russian, you have no interpreter and you write on the blackboard in Russian and you barely understand what the subject is. The first months in Russia were pretty frustrating, trying to learn Russian on the fly. It’s like throwing someone in the sea to force them to learn how to swim.

We know there is some development within Saab towards the space industry so we were wondering what you consider to be the business opportunities that you see in the future in general, but also for Saab specifically.

The space business is growing tremendously. The global space business today is estimated at 350 billion dollars a year and the expectation is that it will grow to 1 trillion dollars by 2040. In general the opportunities are related to the launch business, sending things into space. Smaller and smaller satellites are now being developed and there are, of course, businesses focused on taking the data from space and analysing it, manipulating it, to sell a product. There are many areas in which you can earn money.

One of the areas we are looking into at Saab is a solution for satellite data fusion. The idea is to  gather data from space and, using smart AI/ machine learning, fuse it with sensor data from almost any other platform. To take one example, we could to incorporate it with our command and control solution so that it could be used for example on ships. We are looking at how we can expand that to a more general application.

Another interesting and growing field is keeping track of all the satellites in orbit out there. This is of military interest of course, as you want to make sure there are no enemies spying on you and that, if you have some assets up there, you make sure no one sneaks up to it and does something bad with it. This is part of what is called space situational awareness. One way to do this is to use radars on the ground to track the satellites that pass above you. You can do this quite efficiently as you don’t need to look at it all the time, if you have observed for a short time you can predict how it will behave for a while. Saab has very good radar technology and we have a demonstrator in Gothenburg with  technology that would suit this purpose very well. We can tell our customers “we have this (technology) just tell us what you want and we can make an offer!”.

Saab is also looking into the area of producing equipment that can be put on satellites. We don’t intend to build satellites, there are other companies that already do that. But we could build the ‘bus’, so to say, on which we could place surveillance or communication equipment and things like that. Saab TransponderTech in Linköping is world leading when it comes to Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), for ships. The ships have outgrown the available bandwidth and recently the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), decided to expand the bandwidth of channels and to move into something called VHS Data Exchange System (VDES). Saab TransponderTech is a world leader in this technology and has foreseen this and they have been developing and building these boxes to be mounted on ground stations and, later on, to ships. I think there will be a great interest to do this by satellites and then you can cover ships anywhere in the world, all the ships. Today there are some satellites that can do it for AIS but we want to show that we can do it with our system for VDES. In general, I think there is a market in the future for general sensors, more in the defence, picking up signals, signal intelligence or even in the future to track other satellites while in space.

Should we become a “space species”?

Yes, I think we always need to expand and evolve, if not we will kind of stagnate and eventually go backwards. A way we can evolve is going into space, it will just open new possibilities for us and there is no limit of the space. It would be much harder if we want to reach other stars but the solar system is within reach for us. Of course, we think for us it will be slow, “Damn, we should have been there 30 years ago!” but of course, on a huge scale, it is just a very short time and I like to make the comparison with America. Columbus arrived in America in 1492 and there was no real migration from Europe for the next 200 years and then it kind of started. The time it took to travel there was similar to the time it will soon take to go to Mars. Today it is too long, to get this going in a somewhat good way we need better propulsion systems which could bring humans to Mars in weeks instead of a couple of months. Now, when you send cargo up there, sure, do it the cheap way, it doesn’t matter if it takes a long time. So to come back to the question:  Yes, I think it is a natural development. It is not about “Oh, we are all going to Mars!”, it is more like if there is opportunity to go to Mars, well there will be people who will do it and start a new kind of economy, new possibilities, great new inventions, which will help us who are continuing to live on Earth.

Do you have an advice for us Graduates?
In general, I tell people to do what interests you most, but of course, you cannot switch what you are doing too often. If you set a goal, you should definitely try to reach that goal, don’t be too concerned. Things work out, don’t worry be happy.
 

Some bonus questions from us ...

What was the first meal you had back on Earth after your first flight?
Hamburger with fries and a beer.
If you can only bring one personal thing with you on the ISS, what would that be?
A photo of my family.
When you watch Sci-Fi movies, do you look for mistakes?
Yes, even if you are not continuously doing it you see some of them anyhow. It depends on the general attitude of the movie. If it is a fantasy, like Star Wars, then it does not matter but if they pretend that this could be real and then they put things in there which are not, then that annoys me.
If you had to pick just one topic to talk about in your lectures for the rest of your life what would that be?
The future of human space flight is an interesting one, it’s a moving target although it is frustrating that it is going so slow. Last year I started the year by saying “This year we will have four new vehicles debuting with humans in space.” Well, none of them did.
Can you tell us a fun fact about astronauts, something we would not think of?
On the topic of beliefs, in the US astronaut office you had people with religious beliefs which have the entire scale from absolute atheists, like myself, to people who believe every word of the Bible. I am not sure everyone realizes that [about astronauts].
 
 

Lukas and Adina with Christer at the Saab HQ Showroom

 

For more information about the Saab space offer click here.

 

Your reporters,

Lukas & Adina