Marcus Watkins, NASA: ‘We have to learn to live in outer space’

The space agency delegate in Spain warns about the brain drain suffered by his organization on account of low salaries

Marcus Watkins NASA
Marcus Watkins, NASA representative in Spain, photographed at the U.S. Embassy.Claudio Álvarez
Nuño Domínguez

Space engineer Marcus Watkins is a delegate in Spain of the U.S. space agency NASA, an organization where he has worked for 30 years. The Robledo de Chavela space station, 70 kilometers from Madrid, has been in service for 60 years. It was from its antennas that the signal Neil Armstrong used to land the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the Moon was received for the first time. Almost 55 years later, NASA is preparing to repeat the adventure, this time with a woman and a person of color as the protagonists, both of whom will set foot on the satellite in 2026.

Reaching the Moon requires not only engineering, but also a lot of politics, and that is the reason why Watkins has been sent to Spain: he has been the main negotiator of the new agreement between Spain and the U.S. to extend space collaboration in order to maintain and improve the facilities at Robledo de Chavela in the coming years. The agreement was approved on June 4 by the Spanish Cabinet and is expected to be signed on Monday, June 10, in Robledo. In this interview, the engineer explains the details of the pact, which is essential for the 2026 Moon landing. One of the main issues is to stop the brain drain that the agency has been suffering for some time due to low salaries and bureaucratic problems.

Question. What does the agreement between Spain and NASA consist of?

Answer. We are at a critical moment. The current agreement was due to expire in November and we had to renew it to lay the groundwork for the next 60 years. It was especially important because we are now embarking on the Artemis program. Our deep space network has three nodes: Spain, Australia and California. We are also building new antennas. It is important that we get more flexibility in our agreement with the Spanish government to ensure that we can maintain and sustain our workforce in the future. After the agreement is approved, we will sign a more detailed contract. For the time being, the agreement has solved many problems and creates the way for future space exploration.

Q. Is NASA having trouble hiring people?

A. We have been in Spain for 60 years. There were many employees who had to retire and we had to hire young people. Since the contract is linked to a public entity [the National Institute for Aerospace Technology, under the Ministry of Defense], in many cases the salaries were below what the market offered. So we had the problem that we hired young people, trained them really well and, after a few years, found they were going to other companies because they were offered better pay. That’s why we need more flexibility. This is crucial. We can’t get to the Moon without Spain.

Q. Isn’t it possible to control everything from the U.S.?

A. Our three stations are 120 degrees [longitude] apart. The station that is active at any given time, on the Earth day side, not only receives all the signals from all our spacecraft, but controls the entire deep space network. As technology improves, we can’t be prevented from hiring the best. And Spain’s universities have a lot of talent.

Q. Where will the new antennas for Artemis be located?

A. In Australia, South Africa and New Mexico. There will also be a commercial sector from which we will buy data.

Q. You have been working at NASA for 30 years in different positions. Do you think much has changed since the first Moon landing?

A. In the 1960s and 1970s, the public face of NASA was white and male. But even in those days, the workforce was much more diverse; there were Black women doing mathematical calculations, for example. They didn’t appear in public, but they were part of the NASA family. Now, if you look at the heads of the agency, almost 50% are women, and there is a lot of diversity regarding backgrounds. I’ve been in the senior executive echelon myself, and I wasn’t the only Black guy. One of the latest examples of diversity is the tremendous success of Ingenuity, the little Mars helicopter. No one was confident they could do it, but a small team that included a lot of young students led by MiMi [Aung, a Burmese-born engineer] pulled it off.

Q. As well as space exploration missions, NASA also devotes a lot of resources to monitoring the Earth’s climate and global warming. Do you think these programs could be jeopardized if Donald Trump wins the election?

A. No. Our mission has been the same under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Our job is to launch satellites and collect data. We stay out of politics. The good news is that we have a robust system that shows us how greenhouse gases are acting, how the planet is warming and how glaciers are melting. This data, along with that from other international players, will help the world make a decision on what the next step should be.

Q. Why is NASA going back to the Moon?

A. Largely because we have to learn to live in outer space. We have to create a habitat. If you ship to Mars and the technology hasn’t been well-tested, no one is going to be able to save you if something goes wrong. The Moon is the intermediate step; we can get there in about two days. If we have any problems, we can save people. Beyond the Moon, it becomes complicated.

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