An interview with Michel Viso

This interview of Michel Viso was conducted by Louis de Gouyon Matignon for space legal issues on Thursday, April 4, 2019 in the CNES office of Michel Viso in Paris, France.

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

Thank you very much. Yes, with pleasure. I was born in 1951 in Mauvezin, France. When I was young, I was a veterinarian. After graduating, I worked in the French countryside, mainly to treat farm animals or what we call in our jargon “livestock”. Of course, there were also pets, dogs, cats, ferrets and other rabbits.

I joined the National veterinary school of Alfort (French: École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort or ENVA), a French public institution of scientific research and higher education in veterinary medicine, located in Maisons-Alfort, Val-de-Marne, close to Paris, because I was curious and that I was offered to join the school after five years of practice throughout France; I used to replace veterinarians. There, I started as an assistant to teach students how to handle large animals and make diagnoses. And then I was asked to lead a laboratory for livestock pathology, microbiology and virology. I entered as a research engineer at the National Institute of Agricultural Research (French: Institut national de la recherche agronomique or INRA).

As I was curious, I did a lot of things including radio and I wrote in the French newspaper “The Veterinary Week” (French: La Semaine Vétérinaire). In 1984, I remember seeing in a magazine the words “veterinarian cosmonaut”. The National Centre for Space Studies (French: Centre national d’études spatiales or CNES) was looking for spationauts and had launched a recruitment program. I applied by sending a letter. I went to see a doctor so that he would testify to my fitness, my good health. I underwent the first selection of spationauts that lasted a year, until May 1985. Seven spationauts were selected: Claudie André-Deshays, Jean-Pierre Haigneré, Michel Tognini, Jean-Jacques Favier, Frédéric Patat, Jean-François Clervoy and myself. That’s how I discovered space on a personal and professional level. I was interested before, and I followed the business, especially reading the French magazine Sciences et Avenir. Moreover, I am convinced to have, in 1957, when I was only six years old, seen through the clouds Sputnik 1 pass over Belle-Île-en-Mer, in Brittany.

Between 1984 and 1985, we were working on the RHESUS project for CNES and NASA, which was designed to study animal physiology in outer space. We had to satisfy a CNES need. CNES had collaborations, in neurophysiology for example, with Claudie André-Deshays. With Jean-Jacques Favier, we were working on materials, it was the project MEPHISTO: a project to fly monkeys in outer space in cooperation with NASA. It was for this project that they had selected a veterinarian. Frédéric Patat was a sonographer: we had an ultrasound project with the Americans, that’s how he was selected. In concrete terms, we all had a profile that corresponded to a “mission profile” or “task profile”. I very quickly started working on the project, I was then somehow the animal’s advocate; the engineers did not always take into account the needs of the animals, their behaviour. I had animal expertise, I worked with veterinarians of the army, who also had a very good expertise, but I had the necessary perspective and a different practice.

I also coordinated scientific activities: there were fifteen French scientific teams working on this project: muscle, bone, brain, skin, sleep, behaviour… It was necessary to coordinate these fifteen French teams with US teams. This is what we call a “Project Scientist”. I was responsible for the scientific development of this project: our goal was to send three monkeys in outer space in a “cage” that we had developed in France and that the Americans had to take and adapt to the American Space Shuttle. I could have flown three times on the American Space Shuttle. I didn’t do a lot of training thought, I was sent only eight weeks with Philippe Perrin to Star City in Moscow, where I received a basic training on the Soyuz, and a deep training on extravehicular activity (EVA). We did a lot of training in the pool, it was exciting.

Then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, space policy changed. We did the International Space Station (ISS) to prevent the Russians who were no longer paid from going to countries like Iraq, Iran, China or North Korea. The International Space Station (ISS) is a space station, or a habitable artificial satellite, in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Its first component was launched into orbit in 1998, with the first long-term residents arriving in November 2000. Western countries have decided to make the ISS to give money to the USSR and keep people there. The ISS can therefore be considered “daughter of the Cold War”. This resulted in the lengthening of American Space Shuttle flights (7-day missions became 20-day missions). In 1993, the United States of America stopped the RHESUS project; my chances of flying then disappeared. I then participated in a few selections of astronauts, especially in the United States of America, where I was selected; I went far, but they chose Americans and Japanese who had already flown. ESA was not on this niche at the time; there were spationaut quotas depending on the countries and their contributions. We had already four astronauts, so my flight opportunities disappeared.

As I had a lot of consulting activities, especially for the FERTILE project, an animal biology experiment, dedicated to the study of the development of vertebrate embryos (amphibians), under the conditions of microgravity, I stayed in the space domain. CNES kept me for my skills. After biology, which now passed through ESA, I was asked to take care of the planetary protection, then rising occupation. Then, I was in charge of exobiology; we discovered the first exoplanet in 1995. Exobiology became a reality. Martian projects have encouraged the development of this field of scientific research. We needed people with broad skills. The advantage of being a veterinarian is that you have very broad skills. I easily adapted to the scientific environment.

What is exobiology? Could you tell us about it?

Exobiology is (1) trying to detect a form of life elsewhere than on Earth (in our Solar System and possibly beyond), to understand the contribution of interplanetary or interstellar chemistry (there are many chemical reactions in these environments: these compounds are quite similar to those embedded in the terrestrial living world), (2) understand how these compounds may have been useful or determinant for the emergence of a form of life on Earth and finally, (3) understand the functioning of certain planets and some satellites that might have similarities with Earth and thanks to which we could find the origin of life on Earth. On Earth, the emergence of life happened roughly four billion years ago. The emergence of life is related to circumstances and prebiotic chemistry. Unfortunately, we have no more traces on Earth of this emergence of life. All this has disappeared because of plate tectonics, which conditioned the emergence of life and the maintenance of life, but which now hides all potential traces. All that was on the surface at the time was cooked, covered or compressed. Everything that has been on the surface has gone under the plates at some point. There is no trace of this period on Earth. If we dig, we would find traces of these forms of life, but we cannot dig because under the Earth, it cooks, it heats. Indeed, beyond six hundred degrees Celsius, the carbon (at the base of life) disappears. Organic molecules in a fluid mixture of lava do not hold. In some very old places, we find traces altered, modified: in South Africa, in Australia, in Island, in some parts of Canada…

There are worlds, like Titan (the largest moon of Saturn and the second-largest natural satellite in the Solar System), on which there are chemical reactions that make one think of what could have existed on Earth. These are proxies of what exists. We are looking for fossil or living life forms. The only plausible place to find life today is Mars. It will however be necessary to select the interesting places. I remind you that on Mars, we travel only twenty kilometres in eight years… The next projects are ExoMars, a two-part astrobiology project to search for evidence of life on Mars, a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and Mars 2020, a Mars rover mission by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program with a planned launch on July 17, 2020, and touch down in Jezero crater on Mars on February 18, 2021; it will investigate an astrobiologically relevant ancient environment on Mars and investigate its surface geological processes and history, including the assessment of its past habitability, the possibility of past life on Mars, and the potential for preservation of biosignatures within accessible geological materials. Everything is done to bring back the right samples. We must choose where we will go. We could have chances to find something.

There are also other projects to explore Enceladus for example, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, in which there are releases of water and mineral salts, so an activity and perhaps an ocean. Enceladus was discovered on August 28, 1789, by William Herschel, but little was known about it until the two Voyager spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, passed nearby in the early 1980s. In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft started multiple close flybys of Enceladus, revealing its surface and environment in greater detail. In particular, Cassini discovered water-rich plumes venting from the south polar region. Cryovolcanoes near the south pole shoot geyser-like jets of water vapour, molecular hydrogen, other volatiles, and solid material, including sodium chloride crystals and ice particles, into space. In 2014, NASA reported that Cassini found evidence for a large south polar subsurface ocean of liquid water with a thickness of around ten kilometres. These geyser observations, along with the finding of escaping internal heat and very few (if any) impact craters in the south polar region, show that Enceladus is currently geologically active. Like many other satellites in the extensive systems of the giant planets, Enceladus is trapped in an orbital resonance. Its resonance with Dione excites its orbital eccentricity, which is damped by tidal forces, tidally heating its interior and driving the geological activity. This is very exciting because if there were geysers, this would involve energy releases that, to the mixture of liquid water, would be conducive to life. There is an active heart in contact with the water which brings new matter and all that can be favourable to a chemistry.

Regarding Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the second-largest natural satellite in the Solar System, the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere, and the only object in space, other than Earth, where clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found, there is an active atmosphere; if there was an ocean of ammonium, it would be wedged between two layers of ice.

Finally, Europa, the smallest of the four Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter, and the sixth-closest to the planet of all the seventy-nine known moons of Jupiter, interests us. This will be the subject of the JUICE mission. The JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) is an interplanetary spacecraft in development by the European Space Agency (ESA) with Airbus Defence and Space as the main contractor. The mission is being developed to visit the Jovian system and is focused on studying three of Jupiter’s Galilean moons: Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa (excluding the more volcanically active Io) all of which are thought to have significant bodies of liquid water beneath their surfaces, making them potentially habitable environments. We must find tips to conquer these worlds. There is not a single path.

Could you define life?

We do not know how to define life well. We know how to recognize it but not define it. Life, we know manifestations. The first manifestation is “to make more of oneself by oneself”. We have a chemical system with interrelated reactions, capable of taking simple compounds to turn them into more complicated compounds that make up the system itself. Take elements to make more organic molecules. “When I eat salad, I do not become salad”. I take outside and I transfer inside. This is one of the most important things.

The second manifestation of life is the appearance of the individual. All this can be done in a pocket of water. This is the moment when this set of reactions, happens to be enclosed, included in an envelope built from manufactured products, including lipids. When we have an individual, we have two solutions: either the blob, it grows and it never ends, or it begins to divide into two and makes two individuals. From the moment that there are two individuals, who will begin the operation again, first they form a population, then they take away all the other elements to make another individual; whose system they code, the genetic system. As soon as a population makes genetic systems and not photocopies, each individual is different. It therefore becomes likely to evolve. It is not the individuals who evolve but the populations. In a population, there are individuals who are different; this difference is often marked by a mutation of a gene. When there is a change in external circumstances, if some individuals are more successful, they will develop faster than those who perform poorly. A new species is created. Evolution is the environment that selects in a population the individuals who are the best performers of this new physico-chemical environment.

If we find life on Mars, Enceladus or Titan, what would be the global impact?

People are convinced of the existence of a form of extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately, people do not relate the size of the universe to this hypothesis; geometric and temporal size. Our chances of finding life are in the Solar System. In case of find, it will be very impacting. As for extraterrestrial life on exoplanets, we do not know enough yet.

The “habitable zone” is the question of taking the Earth, moving it near or far from the Sun, and seeing if there is water in liquid form. If too close, spray, if too far, ice (Snowball Earth). . In our conceptions of life, we need liquid water. A life without water, in a gaseous environment for example, seems difficult. We must follow chemical reactions, a closed environment. Water is a catalyst. The water molecule is the first catalyst of all the chemical reactions, because it is polar, it is not symmetrical (a polar molecule has a net dipole as a result of the opposing charges); it clings in a particular way to the molecules. Chemistry in water is richer than chemistry in liquid methane or liquid ethane. Hydrocarbons are not polar molecules. Also, the notion of acid and base only makes sense with water. The other liquid of the same type would be ammonia. It is however very rare in the universe. The conditions of its liquidity are limited.

The most present elements in the universe are hydrogen and helium, those which are formed from the beginning, in the stars, in the supernovae. Hydrogen is a proton, an element formed at the time of the Big Bang, of the original matter. This hydrogen formed stars, then nuclear reactions; it then made elements until iron. Then the stars explode in supernovae, and there, the energy is such that we can do the rest of the elements, from iron to uranium. Nowadays, we can synthesize new elements in particle accelerators by developing one of energy higher than that which can be developed in a supernova: they are rings of twenty kilometres, we accelerate as much as possible and the energy is directed to an atom; it’s invisible, and it’s extremely unstable.

What are the future challenges of space law?

Space law is the normal thread of international law. It was formally established by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which enacts a number of rules without binding sanction. This treaty was intended during the Cold War to avoid making space a place of conflict. One of the fears at that time was that of polluting the lunar surface, with uranium for example, so as to prevent some from going there. Space law has demilitarized, in the offensive sense of the term, outer space. There have, however, been spy satellites; there were only photos at the time: small launches were made and photos were taken. Then, the photos of 600 millimetres by 600 millimetres were recovered. Space law also has an ecological aspect: Article IX and Article X are very interesting, one must be careful not to modify the environment of the Moon or the planet visited.

Then there is a Private Space Law, concerning insurances, contracts… In case of accident, the state is responsible without fault. This is very important and it is what characterizes space law. This is a rather unique point. Space law could be compared to Antarctic law, except that there is no such notion of liability concerning Antarctica. Finally, there is the fact that one cannot appropriate all or part of a celestial body. And you can only exploit the resources to use them on the spot, not to market them. Space law has allowed scientific exploration and scientific cooperation. If there was no space law, it would have been the Wild West. Today, outer space, thanks to space law, has a connotation of neutrality, benevolence, progress, mutual assistance… Space has a good aura; thanks to the law, the processes of collaboration and agreements are accelerated.

Thanks to space law, the Cold War remained peaceful. There was no Dr. Strangelove of outer space. It is the political grandeur to have signed these treaties and to have federated all these countries. Thanks to space, the competition has become that applying on a sports field. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are in a friendly match, thanks to the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) conducted in July 1975. Outer space remains one of the few places where cooperation remains possible, without much ulterior motives. I think the 1967 Outer Space Treaty allowed that.

Are we going to terraform Mars?

We are already damaging the Earth, we are deforming it. We must fight global warming. Then there is exploration, as in Antarctica, but for Mars, it seems too expensive for the expected scientific return. Finally, there is colonization, which means sending people who will stay and create a resident local population. I do not believe it. We cannot live an eternity in cans. Adaptation is not three generations but one hundred thousand generations. Could we generate an atmosphere on Mars and warm the planet? I do not believe it. It takes an unimaginable amount of water to send, it seems impossible. To have geological effects, it takes a geological time.

Martian colonization, geologically and technically, seems impossible to me. Moreover, going to colonize Mars is criminal, as well as spreading the idea of a spare Earth. We cannot leave the Earth. There is nothing on Mars. What about transport? Also, people think of an elite. They just think of saving an elite. Exploration makes sense, knowledge makes sense, making stations, it can make sense. But there is only one spaceship for terrestrial biodiversity: the Earth. We must save the Earth. We have the right to dream, it speeds up the search. But Mars cannot save humanity. We must protect humanity.

Can we create genetically modified species to live on Mars?

We can send living beings on other planets. There are forms of terrestrial lives that can survive, including bacteria spores. For other species, they need the rest of the living to live. And they need liquid water too. On Mars it would be very difficult. On the Moon, because of alternating temperatures, it would be impossible. Lyophilisation is used in biology: some organisms may revive after lyophilisation. They would only be micro-organisms, not cows. So, not currently possible.

Thank you very much Michel Viso.