Goodbye! HE Space “legend” René Demets retires - 30 years of space biology at ESTEC

René Demets started with HE Space when it was still called Hernandez Engineering GmbH, headquartered in Bonn. René is now retiring and looking back with us on his long and successful career at ESTEC.

René Demets with Biopan container at the surface of Foton-M3 capsule. © ESA/René Demets. René Demets with Biopan container at the surface of Foton-M3 capsule. © ESA/René Demets.

Way back when

René Demets started with HE Space when it was still called Hernandez Engineering GmbH, headquartered in Bonn. René is now retiring and looking back with us on his long and successful career at ESTEC. 
René is one of the few space biology scientists at ESA. He first came into contact with ESA in 1989 when he was still doing his postdoc at the University of Amsterdam. He was lucky that an experiment developed at the UvA had been selected to fly on ESA’s Maser-3 sounding rocket, to be launched from Kiruna, Sweden. That’s where he watched for the first time a rocket launch. Since then, he has witnessed another 15. 
After finishing his PhD, René was ready to do something else. After 10 years of looking through microscopes this Kiruna experience gave him a taste for more. Luckily, Dick Mesland, senior scientist at ESTEC, was very busy and needed a helping hand. He asked René for assistance and arranged a 4-month consultancy contract to prepare an accommodation study for biology experiments on the Space Shuttle. Shortly thereafter he was hired again by ESA, but now via HE GmbH, a contractor company that morphed into HE Space Operations BV. 

Adding the star

HE Space Operations BV was started in 1997 with Scott Millican at the helm. At the instigation of Scott, René designed the HE Space company logo that is still being used today. It is based on the earlier GmbH logo, but now with the addition of a star. 

Always good to have a mentor

In this first period at ESTEC René’s work was supervised by two ESA staff members: Dick Mesland (biologist and philosopher) and Wim Jansen (engineer and polyglot). He learned an awful lot from these two mentors.  They supported him, but also gave him free reign to shape the projects as he saw fit. From them he learned to see both sides of a project.: What are the scientific requirements for an experiment, and what is needed from the technical and safety point of view to make it work in space. René added his creativity in the mix. For instance, he could make illustrations really quickly (before moving to ESTEC, René ran for some time a small graphic design bureau in Amsterdam, next to his job at the university).
Dick and Wim, driven by individual ideas and visions that were not always compliant with those of ESA, left the Agency at some point to go their own way. Throughout the years, René’s task has been to focus on the experiments and to make sure they were executed in the best possible way. René found his own style by sticking strictly to that mandate without being distracted by politics or hierarchy.  He was not even focused on making a career. Looking back, he thinks his slightly ‘autistic’ attitude explains why he has never been offered an ESA staff position. He does not regret it, because it protected him from being pushed into the world of politics, strategic planning, geo-return, contract negotiations, programmatics, evaluations and bureaucracy rather than science. 
René has been working together with plenty of mission managers and technical officers like Wolfgang Herfs (sounding rockets, now retired), Pietro Baglioni (Project Manager for BIOPAN, currently in charge of the ExoMars rover) and Antonio Verga (Project Manager for Foton, now sounding rockets). 

The last few years René has been preparing biological experiments for the ISS within a ‘Biology Group’ with Jason Hatton (also a former HE employee), Leonardo Surdo, Nicol Caplin and team head Jennifer Ngo-Anh.

From Space Shuttle to ISS

In the years working at ESTEC, René had the opportunity to  support the development of experiments for widely different space vehicles such as sounding rockets (Maser and Maxus), unmanned recoverable capsules (Bion and Foton), the US Space Shuttle and the ISS.    As Project Scientist Biology, he has been involved in more than 150 experiments for the International Space Station and sounding rockets. 
Space Shuttle Colombia
René has participated in two Space Shuttle missions. In 2002, the STS-107 crew visited ESTEC and all Manned Spaceflight colleagues (René and Barbara ten Berge included) watched them delivering a presentation in the Highbay of the Erasmus Building, and meeting them afterwards
To retrieve the biological experiments packages and to bring them back to Europe, René was in Melbourne, Florida when STS-107 came back from space. On a big screen the activities at the mission operations centre in Houston were displayed. At first everything went to plan, however Houston lost communication contact and then it took about 15 minutes before signs (i.e. trails of debris, fire and smoke) of the shuttle were spotted in the sky above Texas. To our great shock Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated during the re-entry and all seven crew members were killed. To this day René still cherishes a drawing his young son made and which they all had signed during their visit at ESTEC. 

From American to Russian Cooperation

When in 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, the shuttle programme was halted and a lot of experiments, accepted and approved by ESA and planned to be flown on the shuttle were left on the shelf. In 1987 Russia approached ESA, asking if they wanted to participate in the Bion satellite programme. As this was during the Cold War, these early steps of co-operation with the Soviet Union were kept out of the spotlights. In 1987 and 1989 several small-sized biological experiments from ESA were flown on the unmanned Soviet Bion-8 and Bion-9 capsules. Called ‘joint experiments’, the preparations were made together by ESA-affiliated and Soviet scientists, and the data obtained were shared after the flight and jointly published.

When René started working at ESTEC in 1990 the collaboration between ESA and the Soviet Union had grown tighter, with ESA planning to fly newly developed, sophisticated experiments on Bion and Foton. Rene learned to work together with Russian scientists and engineers who were struggling to keep their focus in the middle of a chaotic situation: in 1991 the Soviet Union fell apart, leaving Russia in disarray. In the end, however, René’s experiences in Russia have been very positive. After gaining their trust, his Russian colleagues turned out to be extremely helpful, inventive and supportive once the ice had been broken.  
During his first visit to the Russian launch site, Plesetsk, René was invited to climb inside the Bion-10 spacecraft to measure the temperature inside. During later visits to Kennedy Space Center, René was never allowed to come closer than 5 kilometres of the Shuttle. 

To conduct biological experiments on the unmanned Bion and Foton capsules, ESA developed between 1989 and 1992 two new multi-user facilities. One was to study the effects of microgravity on cell cultures (BIOBOX), the other (BIOPAN) was designed to test the influence of the harsh space environment on small biological organisms. René contributed to the development of both. Over the years BIOBOX and BIOPAN turned out to be ‘frequent flyers’. BIOBOX completed five missions, BIOPAN six.  

Closely involved in the pre-flight preparations of BIOPAN, Rene had the unique opportunity to install a personal ‘souvenir’ in each of the six BIOPANs, consisting of a photo of his son.  In this way he collected a range of pictures of his son taken at different ages. Each of them has been flying around the Earth for 2 weeks.
In the autumn of 2002, René was at the Plesetsk launch site in Russia when the Soyuz rocket that would carry BIOPAN-4 into space exploded just after leaving the launch pad. René and his colleagues were watching the liftoff – and the subsequent explosion – from  800 m away, standing outside.   A Russian soldier, standing inside a nearby building behind a window was killed when he was hit with glass shards. René was wondering if his experiment and his memento survived.   
Parts of the exploded rocket were only recovered months later when the winter snow had disappeared. Among the fragments that were returned to ESA was the almost intact, but heavily damaged and scorched BIOPAN-4. Inside was the photo of René’s son. The experiments from BIOPAN-4 were later repeated on BIOPAN-5. 

History in the making

René has witnessed quite some changes first-hand. When he was at a science conference in Saint Petersburg in 1991, a coup removed Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, from power. All ESA personnel had to take the first flight home. When René arrived at Schiphol reporters were approaching him to get more information. They asked if there were already tanks driving through the streets.
Back home he followed the news on Dutch television and understood that they got a better picture in Europe from all the different sources than in Russia itself where the tv was off air and everyone was completely confused.

From Bion to Foton

First ESA worked with the Russians on the Biological satellite BION. After three missions (BION-8, -9 and -10) ESA changed to a comparable Russian spacecraft called FOTON, which offered some technical and operational advantages over BION. In the end ESA flew scientific payloads on nine subsequent FOTON capsules. Rene explains that once he had gained the trust of the Russians it was great to work together, every mission offered new possibilities. FOTON was a reliable satellite and ESA could design and perform new experiments at a high pace. Step-by-step ESA became the main customer of FOTON, loading the satellite full of ESA experiments. If you want to know what a FOTON satellite looks like, the FOTON-12 capsule is on display in the Erasmus High Bay at ESTEC. It looks like (and was directly based on) the Vostok capsule in which Yuri Gagarin went to space.  
René became more and more an expert in astrobiology. As project scientist for BIOPAN on FOTON, he was directly involved in a pioneering scientific project that had no parallel elsewhere in the world. 

International Space Station

After 2007 ESA stopped flying on FOTON to focus the attention primarily on the ISS. There was no budget available to feed the ISS programme and the FOTON programme.  René was transferred to another division and started working on experiments for the International Space Station (ISS).  The change from unmanned flights (BION, FOTON) to flying experiments on a manned mission means a very different way of working. Safety for the crew comes first. It means that the hardware needs to be designed in a more complex and therefore more costly way. The safety documentation is larger, and the approval cycles are much longer in comparison to unmanned missions like BION and FOTON. All together this leads to a higher price tag per experiment, and thus to a lower frequency of flight opportunities. Human spaceflight (ISS) may be more glamorous than robotic flights (FOTON), but from a scientific perspective the ISS offers few advantages and many drawbacks. Nevertheless, after 2007 ESA’s astrobiology experiments have been continued on the ISS, using a new exposure platform called EXPOSE. Three EXPOSE missions have been completed since then, with a remarkably high output of scientific papers.    

What is astrobiology?

Astrobiology deals with the origin, development, and distribution of life throughout the universe. The term astrobiology was coined in 2000. Initially this domain of science was called exobiology, but this word suggested that the focus was confined to extra-terrestrial life. It, is not: understanding the limits of life on Earth is also part of the plan. Rene feels that cosmobiology would have been an even better term, but it never stuck.
René explains that most of the astrobiological experiments he has been involved with were exposure experiments, whereby a variety of terrestrial organisms, known for their robustness under extreme conditions, were subjected to a combination of five space factors:  vacuum,  full-spectrum solar light, cosmic radiation, microgravity and wide  temperature fluctuations. Unexpectedly, several terrestrial organisms in a desiccated state were found to survive in open space when exposed to this set of five. Examples are particular species of lichens, plant seeds and tardigrades (a.k.a. water bears), diminutive microscopic animals. For biology scientists the question of why these organisms are resilient to such severe circumstances is still open.  These findings were completely new and would suggest that in principle, life wouldn’t necessarily be killed if carried on the outer surface of a spacecraft from one planet to another. It underpins the importance of ‘planetary protection’, i.e. the prevention of contamination by living organisms from other planets.
These experiments were carried out on two exposure platforms developed by ESA: BIOPAN (short-duration flights, FOTON spacecraft) and EXPOSE (long-duration flights, ISS). René has supported 37 experiments on BIOPAN and 25 on EXPOSE. 
The last ESA Bulletin that was published on paper (#172, published in 2018) was largely about astrobiology and Rene participated heavily in this edition. 

Fond memories

Rene is looking back at his time with HE Space with good memories. When the company was still small he knew everybody personally (at the very, very beginning René was for some time HE Space’s only employee!), but with the growth of the company there are a lot of new faces and it’s hard to keep track of everyone.
He mentions that HE Space took a lot of things out of his hands; he didn’t need a lot of time to do his administration like in the first years. He enjoyed the social part as well, the New Year’s dinners and summer parties. One of René’s fond memories is his 25th year jubilee at HE Space. For this celebration he and his wife were invited by Keith and Leanna to dine together at ‘La Tour’, a posh Michelin star restaurant in Noordwijk.

Will you get bored? What will you do when you retire?

In all his years at ESTEC René never took a long holiday. He would take two weeks and the rest of his vacation days divided over the year for long weekends and extended stays in the interesting places he visited during his missions for ESA. Rene has travelled a lot over the years for work and finds getting into a plane not so attractive anymore. René has had time to get used to more free time, as the last couple of years he has reduced his work to 16 hours a week. Since then he has picked up, much to his surprise, cooking as a hobby, to the delight of his wife.
Rene also has been active in the music club at ESTEC and performs with the ESTEC band Double Trouble on guitar and bass. He plans to continue to play.

COVID-19, a spanner in the wheel

René and I talked about the fact that due to COVID-19 it is a strange time to leave ESTEC. HE Space had planned a farewell drink, but this had to be cancelled. We hope that it will not take too long for us to still organise this.
René’s last proper working day was on April 30. The following morning, he paid an exclusive visit to the desolated ESTEC premises to clean up his office. On May 4 he met Jennifer Ngo-Anh, team leader of the Biology Group, on the boulevard of Noordwijk. She gave him a ‘Pensioners Book’ with 25 farewell greetings from his ESTEC colleagues and a bottle of champagne. No party, but nevertheless a memorable event.

Publications in ESA periodicals

Biological Experiments on Bion-8 and Bion-9 
R. Demets (author and illustrator)
ESA SP-1190, ISBN 92-9092-359-8 (1996)

Life Science Experiments performed on Sounding Rockets 1985-1994
A. Cogoli, U. Friedrich, D. Mesland & R. Demets (co-author and co-editor)
ESA SP-1206, ISBN 92-9092-423-3 (1997) 

Biological Experiments on the Bion-10 satellite
R. Demets (lead author and illustrator), W.H. Jansen & E. Simeone
ESA SP-1208, ISBN 92-9092-431-4 (2002)

ESA payloads and experiments on the Foton-12 mission
P. Baglioni, R. Demets & A. Verga
ESA Bulletin #101, pp 96-107, February 2000

Astrobiology – The search for life
René Demets, Jon Weems, Ruth McAvinias & Carl Walker
ESA Bulletin #172, pp 2-11, February 2018

Extremophiles – Choosing organisms to study
René Demets & Jon Weems
ESA Bulletin #172, pp 12-18, February 2018

From Eureca to Expose and ExoMars
René Demets, Jon Weems & Ruth McAvinias
ESA Bulletin, number 172, pp 19-28, February 2018

How to live in space without a spacesuit?
René Demets, Jon Weems & Carl Walker 
ESA Bulletin, number 172, pp 29-35, February 2018

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