WHEN Con McCarthy was a young teenager, he built a little radio for himself. He was fascinated by the big news at the time that Russia had manged to put the wonderfully sounding ‘Sputnik’ – the first satellite – into space.
Sputnik’s radio signals transmitted valuable data back to Earth, and, in effect, launched the Space Race.
It was 1957, but little did a young Con, then a student at St Fachtna’s in Skibbereeen, realise that he would, one day, be an integral part of Space exploration.
Now a successful engineer, his designs have been part of many of the major missions through our solar system, with several of his creations sent to orbit planets and stars which we are still learning about today.
Following a spectacular career which brought him all over Europe with the ESA – the European Space Agency – Con has come full circle himself, it seems. Retired and back at home in Skibbereen, he admits he hasn’t cut all his ties with the ESA completely.
‘From time to time I am asked back to the ESA to offer them advice on the projects they are working on now,’ he explains. ‘I suppose I don’t have to be so careful about upsetting anyone anymore, so I can tell it like it is.’
Con was recently invited back for the 10th anniversary, at the ESA operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, to celebrate the successful landing of the Huygens probe on Titan on January 16, 2005.
Con was lead engineer on that probe, which was launched in October 1997 from Cape Canaveral in Florida and took more than seven years to reach its destination. The spacecraft needed to get ‘gravity assists’ from a number of planets on the way.
Titan – the largest moon of Saturn – is about 800m miles from Earth and was of interest to scientists because they believed it might contain a primordial version of what Earth was like before life began.
A Dutch astronomer, Christian Huygens, discovered Titan back in the 1600s via a homemade telescope, and the 2005 landing is the most distant landing of any man made object to date.
It was one of the highlights of Con’s glittering career, at the forefront of Europe’s missions in Space.
It all began for Con, when he left Skibbereen for London after his Leaving Cert. He got a job as an apprentice engineer in the UK, not realising that his Pass Maths qualification was well below the A Level equivalent of his new work colleagues.
‘Really what I needed was Honours Maths, but back then, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Honours Maths – we were never told at school.’
The first few years were difficult, as a result, but he soon found his feet and began to take an interest in computer programming and software.
He found work in aeronautical engineering, and his first big project came about when his company got a contract with the Burmese government’s airforce, which would involve a trip to the Asian country, (now Myanmar).
‘Even though I was a junior engineer, the company asked me to go. I think some of the older engineers were a bit reluctant.’
Possibly a bit naïve, and then a single man, Con immediately agreed to go and as soon as he landed at the airport, he was whisked away in a government car, and brought to the Burmese airforce base.
‘I was told I needed a visa to come into the country, which I had, but also one to leave, and they would not be signing that visa unless they were happy with my work,’ he recalls. Not only that, but no civilians were allowed to stay at the airforce base, so he was given the honorary rank of ‘major’ in the Burmese airforce!
Needless to say, he did a good job, and his exit visa was produced without any issue.
A later project saw him working on aeronautical equipment for Nato’s Air Defence Project, which involved re-equipping all the Nato bases across Europe.
The UK-built equipment had to be compatible with its Dutch equivalent, so again Con was on the move – this time to Holland, where the correct functioning of the equipment was verified, which took almost seven months.
But while he was away, his UK firm was sold and he found he had to move to the new parent company in Chelmsford when he returned. He had been working on radar equipment for some years at this stage, and was keen to broaden his horizons. Some time later, he spotted an ad in the Daily Telegraph, while travelling on the ferry from Cork to the UK after a holiday in Skibbereen. The ad was for engineers to work on Spacelab – a project in conjunction with the US Space Shuttle, and it would represent Europe’s first manned space effort.
‘I had my application written before I left the boat. Although I didn’t have any Space experience, I was an engineer, and I had experience of working on different international projects, which is what they were looking for.’
He began working in Germany, and brought his young family with him.
Working on Spacelab was an exciting project. Spacelab components flew on 22 Shuttle missions between November 1983 and April 1998, allowing scientists to perform experiments in Space.
By the time of the shuttle’s launch in 1983, Con had already moved on to his next project. The second Spacelab mission was to carry a large telescope in the shuttle cargo bay, and he worked on the redesign of some of its systems. He recalls the Americans being worried that the European telescope’s position, if subject to a malfunction, might block the door mechanism on the shuttle, and so a re-design was ordered, to keep both sides happy.
He also worked on the first Earth Observation Satellite (ERS1) – the technology that lets us watch ourselves from space night or day, and also through cloud cover. It’s used for mapping, weather, and environmental projects.
For example, Earth was able to observe the leaking from the faulty nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986, using this technology to measure the temperature profile of a nearby lake, into which the reactor had leaked.
In ’91 Con began work on another very ambitious project – the Huygens probe. The probe was built by the ESA for the Cassini-Huygens mission.
It landed in 2005, and transmitted data from the surface of Titan for 90 minutes. It is the furthest landing from Earth that any spacecraft has made to date – at 800m miles away.
It was a hugely significant mission, as scientists were keen to study this moon of Saturn, which they believed to have similarities with the early Earth.
As a result, we now know that Titan is mostly made of water, ice and rocky material. The Huygens probe also discovered liquid hydrocarbon lakes on Titan. The probe took photographs of the surface, showing brownish soil. It appears to have landed on a shoreline, but Con points out that his design team also allowed for it to have landed in water.
Although Titan is much colder than Earth, and the days are much darker too, the climate – including wind and rain – creates surface features similar to those of Earth, such as dunes, rivers, lakes and seas, and has seasonal weather patterns, just like on Earth.
I have to ask Con if he believes, after all his interaction with other planets, that there may be alien life out there. ‘Well, not in our own solar system anyway,’ he says, quite confidently, but admits that it’s not a question that takes up a lot of his time.
Of course, not all missions are a success, in such a relatively young industry. The Beagle 2, a probe which was launched in 2003, landed successfully on Mars, but experienced a malfunction.
It was a huge disappointment for Con, who was the ESA manager of this project. He remembers travelling to the UK that December for the craft’s scheduled Christmas Day landing, and waiting in vain for a signal from the craft. Firstly – at the operations centre in Leicester – and throughout the following day at the Jodrell Bank 80m space telescope, but no signal was received. The Beagle was given up as lost.
The ESA wasn’t sure where the lander was until it was spotted by an American Mars orbiter in January of this year.
The MRO orbiter was able to take a high definition picture of the Beagle on the surface of Mars, showing that one of its four solar panels had not deployed correctly, and was unfortunately covering the radio antenna with which the Beagle should have ‘called home’.
With that setback put to one side, the ESA straight away began work on another two missions to Mars – to land another craft on the surface next year, and to land a ‘rover’ robotic vehicle there in 2018.
Con has also found a new ‘mission’ – after retiring, he decided to divert some of his energies to something completely different.
He has become involved in charity work in Guatemala – after researching various projects that piqued his interest. Along with his wife Maria, he is helping a village with education and the supply of clean water.
Each year he spends a few months there, organising a workshop they have set up so villagers can learn skills like woodwork and metalwork, which are in some demand in the cities.
He has also used his engineering background to set up a solar-powered water pumping and filtration system in one of the villages.
As well as financing some of the work himself, he also fundraises among the contacts he has made during his own career, and has found people very supportive. ‘People know that 100% – in fact, maybe 110% – of their donation, goes directly to the project, and that is very important to people today.’
Although Guatemala is taking up quite a chunk of Con’s retirement, he is still happy to continue to offer his input to the ESA’s forthcoming Mars missions and, as he describes the projects, his enthusiasm is infectious.
The little boy who taught himself how to build a radio in 1957, has never stopped being fascinated by life beyond Earth.