Spain’s new science minister is truly an out-of-this-world appointment

7 Jun 2018

Former ESA astronaut and Spain’s new minister for science, innovation and universities, Pedro Duque. Image: ESA/E Fletcher

Moving from space exploration to politics seems an unlikely career trajectory, but the new Spanish science minister, Pedro Duque, is up for the challenge.

As Spain’s government gets ready for a bunch of new faces – including a new prime minister – few have caught as much attention as Pedro Duque, the country’s new minister for science, innovation and universities.

What makes him different is that, unlike his peers, he has actually had the privilege of leaving Earth’s atmosphere as a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut.

He became the first Spanish citizen to leave Earth’s atmosphere as part of the crew on board the space shuttle Discovery between 29 October and 7 November 1998.

The nine-day mission was dedicated to research in weightlessness and the study of the sun. Duque was responsible for the five ESA scientific facilities and for the computer system on the space shuttle.

With experience that many on the planet have only ever dreamed of, Duque hopes to bring this knowledge to the role with the aim of guiding Spain’s cutting-edge research.

“It is a great privilege to be able to transfer my experience as an astronaut, project manager and space sector CEO to my new role in the government,” he said.

“I am looking forward to increasing awareness in science and technology among Spanish citizens.”

Joining a diverse cabinet

While his last spaceflight took place in 2003, Duque went on to take up a position with Deimos Imaging, a private company that runs a commercial Earth observation system with its own satellite and ground stations, in 2006.

A few years later, he returned to ESA to head the flight operations office, located at the Columbus Control Centre near Munich, Germany.

For the last three years, he has worked in the Astronaut Corps with responsibility for the control and review of future ESA projects.

Now, he is to join a cabinet already making waves across the world not only for his inclusion, but for the fact that it is made up of predominantly women (11 women to six men).

However, Duque is not the first astronaut to delve into the world of politics, with dozens having also made the transition. Most famous of these is former US senator John Glenn, who became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic