An interview with Jacques Arnould

This interview of Jacques Arnould was conducted by Louis de Gouyon Matignon for space legal issues on Monday, April 15, 2019 in the CNES office of Jacques Arnould in Paris, France.

Hello Jacques Arnould and thank you for receiving me. Could you introduce yourself, tell us about your career?

Thank you very much. Yes, with pleasure. My name is Jacques Arnould, I was born in March 1961, a month before the first flight of Yuri Gagarin, who flew on April 12, 1961. So if you calculate well, in July 1969, I was eight years old and like all little boys I guess, maybe not from the whole world but almost, at the time, I knew the names of astronauts, Apollo missions, I drew rockets… But actually, this is not the reason why I have been working for the French National Center for Space Studies or Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES), nor why I have been interested by outer space. Outer space has completely left my horizon quite quickly, because I was certainly not ready to become an engineer, and then an astronaut… Especially since I was very tall and it would have been difficult for me to become an astronaut (because of the size of the capsules).

I instead turned to the fields of agronomy and biology, thanks to my rural roots. These topics were the first I studied. I worked in an environment that fascinated me: the forest environment. I have thanks to this profession touched “living matter”. When you touch a living being called a tree, you are touching time. You always say to yourself: the tree that I plant, I will never harvest it, the tree that I harvest, it was planted not by my predecessor, but by the predecessor of my predecessor. So modesty, patience, but at the same time, responsibility: the tree that I plant will surely serve in a century or more.

My only responsibility, working in the fields of agronomy and biology, in contact with trees, was to make sure that what I had planted was planted in the best conditions so that it would give all its potentialities. And that whoever would come in a century or two centuries, may use, perhaps for something else, a living being who would give all its potential. When we admire the “oaks of Colbert” (the Forest of Tronçais is a national forest in the Allier department of central France; its oaks, planted by Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert to supply the French Navy, constitute one of the principal stands of oaks in Europe), more than three centuries old, they are magnificent; they were planted as needed to make wood that would be used by the French Navy. So there is a very interesting time in forestry. We cannot do faster than the alternation of seasons. You have to go year by year to add a ring.

My interest for outer space began with meetings. The first one, with a NASA researcher who was doing a lecture about life on Mars. Twenty-five years ago, life on Mars did not have the current media stakes. We spoke little about it. In the 1990s, the whole debate around the Viking missions (the Viking program consisted of a pair of American space probes sent to Mars, Viking 1 and Viking 2: each spacecraft was composed of two main parts: an orbiter designed to photograph the surface of Mars from orbit, and a lander designed to study the planet from the surface; the orbiters also served as communication relays for the landers once they touched down) was over. We had not relaunched new exploration missions.

I was fascinated by what he said, by his interest in life on Mars: basically, by questioning the question of life on Mars, to calibrate his devices, his measuring instruments and observations / experiments, he went on tours of land on Earth that resemble, in their geological, climatic, atmospheric, Mars. In places where it was said that it was the desert, in which one thought that there was no life. But looking for life and putting himself in the shoes of an explorer, he found life. He is one of those who developed all that is now called the extremophiles. An extremophile is an organism that thrives in physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are detrimental to most life on Earth. In contrast, organisms that live in more moderate environments may be termed mesophiles or neutrophiles. His research concerned basically life forms in extreme environments.

We discovered like that, in the 1990s, a whole biological population in unexpected places, and thanks to Mars. An interest in space issues is a way of returning to the Earth. This is Sirius’s (in Greek mythology, Orion was a giant huntsman whom Zeus placed among the stars as the constellation of Orion) point of view: to take a distance to look at the Earth. I go elsewhere, I develop a thought, a scientific analysis, a particular instrument… If I work well, it will move me forward in my earthly knowledge. This is true for science, technology and therefore for law.

We are celebrating this year the 50th anniversary of Man on the Moon; it is both a step forward, but it is also a step aside from the Earth. I learn things about the Earth and myself. This is one of the biggest benefits of Apollo missions. Our view of the Earth has changed, thanks to the Apollo missions. And that was unpredictable. This consequence of rediscovering the Earth is fabulous.

Jacques Arnould, isn’t that when we’ll have the first picture of our planet?

Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that we move away from the Earth. Initially, we only had mosaics of images. Then, an artist will say: when will you give us a total picture of the Earth? “Earthrise” is a photograph of Earth and some of the Moon’s surface that was taken from lunar orbit by astronaut William Anders on December 24, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission. Nature photographer Galen Rowell declared it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. This had been preceded by the crude 1966 black-and-white raster image taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 robotic probe, the first American spacecraft to orbit the Moon.

Then, “The Blue Marble”, an image of Earth (mainly showing the Earth from the Mediterranean Sea to Antarctica) taken on December 7, 1972, from a distance of about thirty thousand kilometres from the planet’s surface. It was taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the Moon, and is one of the most reproduced images in history. This was the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap, despite the Southern Hemisphere being heavily covered in clouds. In addition to the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar, almost the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible. The Asian mainland is on the horizon.

The effect is real. We have an image of the Earth as a whole. This is one of the interests of outer space, the fact that earthlings have been able to get out of the gravitational well, which is rooting us to the Earth, did not make us forget the Earth but invites us to create new links with the Earth, talk about it differently and try to act differently to it. We must demand that space helps us to be even more responsible tomorrow than we already are.

Jacques Arnould, in parallel with your interest in life and outer space, you are a priest. Can you tell us about it?

Indeed, I was a Dominican for almost twenty-five years. From the beginning of my religious education, without having ever been a scientist, but as an agronomy engineer with a sensitivity for biological affairs, I became interested in some questions, in the relations between science and faith. For me, science has never posed a serious problem in relation to faith. I was sometimes jostled in my certainties but that was good. I was recently reminded that in 2020, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity: Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (French: Le Hasard et la Nécessité: Essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la biologie moderne). It is a 1970 book by French Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod, interpreting the processes of evolution to show that life is only the result of natural processes by “pure chance”.

The basic tenet of this book is that systems in nature with molecular biology, such as enzymatic biofeedback loops, can be explained without having to invoke final causality. When I was a young Dominican, in Lille, in the first part of my studies, I remembered that this book was in the family library. So I read it, and remember especially the ending sentence: “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The Kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose”.

In this book, Jacques Monod attacks animism, especially Christianity. I read this book and I stopped at this end. We must not take this end negatively. It is always the situation of the Man. What can faith say about this? We have never been in a conflict. We are nothing, the universe around us is perfectly indifferent to who we are. What is this Kingdom and this darkness? He puts a capital letter to Kingdom, which is also for him the ideas, the extraordinary human capacity.

Man has developed and continues to develop an intelligence, means, an intellectual audacity, and for the moment is singular in the universe. We have not yet encountered an equivalent consciousness. This reminds me of Psalm 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the Moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”. This psalmist, in this little piece of Palestine, understands that Man is nothing. Why be afraid of one another, the science of faith, and the faith of science?

There is a greatness of French secularism which unfortunately has made many contemporary French scientists dare not speak of religion. Unlike many scientists in other cultural regimes, who, in unknown areas that science cannot explore, sometimes use metaphysics. In the physical and metaphysical relationship, there is still a place for metaphysics, which questions. There is a metaphysical question which the physicist cannot escape. Religion must not be afraid of science and vice versa. It is the essence of Man to ask questions, to explore. Why are we exploring elsewhere? Maybe it’s the quest for origins.

It seems obvious to say, but it’s not immediately obvious. In outer space, that’s it. Everything is structured in exploration as to the “quest for origins”. Especially in outer space. This dimension of origin is less present in the past of human exploration, but it is not absent. There is a search of Paradise. Introducing the reason for the quest for origins is noble enough to justify the budgets – the contribution of each European to manned flying is the equivalent of one cup of coffee per year; little by person but accumulated, it ends up making a budget.

Jacques Arnould, is there an ethic of space?

The most obvious trace that there is an ethical interrogation in outer space since its birth is the existence of space law. For a formal interest in matters of ethics and morality, we must wait until the 2000s. The fact that there was from the outset a legal concern requiring a minimum of interrogation, is ethical, with the then establishment of principles, of a conduct. Space has moved to a form of applied ethics without going through a long philosophical phase. Apart from space law, ethic in outer space remains extremely modest today. In the space field, CNES is the first and only agency to question ethical issues.

Ethic starts with your work. Not in the sense of an opinion but rather, am I aware of what I am doing? I remember one of my first encounters at CNES, when we started to think about ethics in space, I went to see one of the directors of the Toulouse centre (I had spotted his name in a magazine where he talked about space debris). This gentleman asked me if I was going to make a report, explaining that if I made a report, it would serve no purpose. Then, I decided to tell him to forget about the word ethics and that he tells me about his last big program. He told me he was responsible of a certain type of capsule, and as an engineer, he was proud. At the end of the interview, I told him that we finally talked about ethics and that he had taught me something; the choices he had made were in the realm of ethics. The question of ethics is always the same: why this choice, why this goal; am I being wrong?

There is another important moment in the history of space ethics, the Augustin report (the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee), published in 2009, and asked by Obama who had just arrived at the White House and wanted a report on the state of inhabited flight. His predecessor, George W. Bush, had launched a program to return Americans to the Moon, the Constellation Program. In this Augustin report were many technical, economic and political elements; it is this relationship that will help the birth of New Space as we know it today. This is also the moment when ethics will return for the first time in an official administrative report. The author simply says: “it is essential to distinguish between purpose and destination”.

In space, there are extraordinary destinations: the Moon, Mars, asteroids… Yes, but what is the purpose? If there is not a goal, a destination has no value in itself. Return to the Moon, a beautiful destination, but to do what? If you cannot answer the purpose of your program in a clear and precise manner, do not go there. That’s what you have to keep in mind. This is obvious in the space field.

Jacques Arnould, what about the future of space law?

The big issues lie in the way we understand ourselves as humans. We must remain reasonably human in all that. What will become of us humans in the face of space? In the New Space, with the question of exploiting asteroids, or rather scratching some stones, there are so many… But what will it change on Earth? In our relationships to others, to the planet? In space, it takes quite new dimensions that can have consequences. I quote the question also of transhumanism. There is a very strong link between transhumanism and space. The first cyborgs were born in the space explorers’ imagination. Even today, in transhumanist writings, space exploration is strongly present. As a conclusion, I’ll say that we have to think about the consequences of outer space on us, human beings.

Thank you very much Jacques Arnould. This interview of Jacques Arnould was conducted by Louis de Gouyon Matignon for space legal issues on Monday, April 15, 2019 in the CNES office of Jacques Arnould in Paris, France.

But when the whole universe has been made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also become subject to Him who has made the universe subject to Him, in order that GOD may be all in all” – 1 Corinthians 15:28.