Pierre-Yves Cousteau is a marine conservationist, professional diver and filmmaker. Prior to exploring the oceans like his father Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the famous undersea explorer, he joined ESA as a Young Graduate Trainee in 2008. Pierre-Yves shares his recollections of ESA and the space sector and his experience of now being the head of his own marine conservation citizen’s organisation.
One of his ongoing activities, Project Hermes, aims to improve climate models by supplementing sea surface temperatures from satellites with in situ measurements, to better understand and protect the ocean.
Pierre-Yves, after several years, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your YGT experience?
The amazing colleagues and friends that I met there. I also keep fond memories of casually meeting astronauts in the office hallway, how cool is that? I also remember strolling around the propulsion laboratory and seeing the amazing projects going on in there. ESTEC is such a playground for the mind, constantly stimulating!
What did you do as a YGT?
I worked on coordination between the Agency’s engineers and scientists who were planning to fly biology experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). My job was to go back and forth between the two until all requirements for both parties were met. Once done, I gathered all the information into a report, one of the many moving pieces required to take the experiment to the ISS.
What did you study that led you to this job?
I started my undergraduate degree in general biology. I was passionate about understanding the origin of life on Earth and exobiology. That quickly brought me from the stars to the oceans, but at the time I joined the International Space University to learn more about space studies.
This led me to do an internship at NASA Ames. An amazing experience. We went to the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on Earth where it rains every eleven years. Due to its surface conditions, it is considered a Mars analogue on Earth. I was in charge of finding and studying nematodes in the soil. These microscopic worms have the uncanny ability to remain dormant in a dry state (anhydrobiosis) for thousands of years until water becomes available again.
After my internship, I really wanted to understand all these processes of anhydrobiosis and evolutionary biochemistry. So I went back to university for a Master’s degree in biochemistry before I applied for a YGT position in biology at ESTEC.
And after your YGT, did you continue to work in the space sector?
I became a diving instructor just before finishing my YGT and while I was scuba diving, I realised that I wanted to focus on that. I really love diving and my name being Cousteau, I thought ‘maybe I should do something about it!’ And I did.
I founded Cousteau Divers, the organisation I’ve run for 10 years, with the aim of bringing together a community of divers and ocean lovers, and giving them a way to effectively share their knowledge of the ocean. Basically, a platform to share what we explore during our dives, pictures of the species we see, how the area evolves. Cousteau Divers has evolved quite a bit in the past ten years and this year we’re launching Project Hermes to monitor climate change beneath the surface of the ocean (www.project-hermes.com).
Tell us more about Project Hermes!
What I do now is more related to the conservation of the natural environment on Earth and specifically the oceans. There is such an emergency to protect our planet so I am trying to do my bit in that.
One of the hopes for Project Hermes is to help ground-truth satellites measuring sea surface temperatures and improve climate models.
The ocean plays a major role in the climate system, it is basically Earth’s air conditioning, absorbing 90% of the planet’s heat. In the shallow areas, there is a lot of exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean through wave action and a lot of the ocean’s biodiversity is located in the coastal areas. Dive computers are unfortunately not accurate enough to measure temperatures for scientific purposes. We are specifically looking to monitor thermoclines, the temperature layers in the oceans where change can be several degrees within a 2-3 cm depth change. There are missing pieces of information today in our understanding of how the oceans work.
How will temperature be monitored around the world?
Thanks to the work of Project Hermes volunteers including our two brilliant engineers, Brad Bazemore and Brendon Walters, our device ‘Remora’ was born this year. It can easily be fixed onto a scuba diving tank which means that any diver around the world can participate in this project. The device is a data platform collecting information with high precision and sending it seamlessly to our cloud application in near real-time. The entire project is open-source, and invites divers and engineers to collaborate in better understanding the ocean.
Has your previous experience in space helped you in this project ?
Funnily enough, to build the Remora, I came back a bit to my YGT job! I was once again the interface between the scientists and the engineers trying to figure out how to make their requirements work together. We have been exchanging a lot with Eumetsat in order to tailor our methodology to best meet the needs and requirements of remote sensing satellites (such as the Sentinel satellites). My experience as a diver has also been very helpful in understanding the user experience and to make this data collection as effortless as possible.
What’s your advice to students who would like to apply for a YGT?
Do your best and enjoy the ride. The more you put into your work environment, the more you get out of it. In retrospect (and this doesn’t apply only to my YGT experience but to most of my career and my personal life too), it is not so much where you work and who you work for than who you work with that can shape your experience. At ESA, I found really wonderful, inspiring people who helped me grow as a person, professionally and personally.
Learn more about the Young Graduate Trainee Programme at ESA
Opportunities are open until 15 December 2019 and are available in engineering, science, IT, natural/social science, business and administration services.
The Young Graduate Trainee programme offers a one-year experience at ESA and is a launch pad for many exciting opportunities in aerospace, research institutes or in international organisations such as ESA.
Apply now here!