Preparing the way: Keavy Larkin interview

Keavy Larkin

An ESA Young Graduate Trainee for the last year, Keavy Larkin has been present at the creation of Clean Space, participating in trial environmental audits including applying the Life Cycle Assessment tool to space technologies, up to and including an entire launcher.

Having been awarded a degree in environment and development from the London School of Economics, Keavy saw an advert on the European policy and debate website EurActiv for an ESA Young Graduate Traineeship in the Directorate of Launchers to help study the environmental impacts of the space industry.

Effectively the role combined two of her interests: “I’d always been interested in space anyway, and here was an opportunity to apply the skills learnt in my degree.”

To begin with, her role involved devising methods of assessing environmental impacts, including working with specialist environmental consultants such as BIO in France.  

Ariane 5

“I’d applied Life Cycle Assessment analysis during my college courses, but typically LCA is used for manufactured items such as plastic bottles or chairs. To apply it to such a large, complex item as a rocket, with parts sourced from all over Europe, was a real change of scale so we were learning as we went along.

“It’s a learning process that has continued into the Clean Space programme itself. It involves going through endless technical requirements and checking the documentation of subsystems and components, following the documentation paper trail to see where they were sourced from.

“The space industry is highly specialised in nature so the people involved didn’t always know the answers we were looking for – we really needed a broad understanding of everything.” 

Life cycle assessment

The engineers Keavy worked with found themselves engaged by the process however: “There’s an solid engineering basis to the LCA, it isn’t just empty talk.”

This initial launcher study was performed before the Clean Space began, but influenced the initiative that followed, seeking to measure the environmental impact of ESA and Europe’s space industry as a whole.

“It’s a quite new initiative that hasn’t really been done before in the space industry. We were talking with industry about environmental impacts and people didn’t really know – though they were very interested to know, and gave a lot of help to get at the right data.
Most of the responses were very positive – it’s a subject that interests everyone, and environmental sustainability is something that the public is increasingly asking about. People wanted to help.”

The Clean Space initiative is being presented to ESA’s Ministerial Council for approval this November. The initial work done has helped define the initiative’s central concept and the various branches involved, including tackling the problem of space debris.

“From very early on people were saying we needed to implement this in Clean Space. It’s quite shocking when you look at the extent of man-made debris in orbit. There was a time when we thought we could put whatever we wanted up in space, but it catches up with us.
“It’s similar to the way we once thought of the terrestrial environment – with issues like landfills and ocean dumping. But as on Earth we’re learning that this behaviour can’t carry on forever, and space debris is now subject to legal regulation as well.”

Keavy will now follow the progress of Clean Space from afar, her time at ESA coming to an end this month. 

Last update: 11 September 2014

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