Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wubbo Ockels, gone too soon

Wubbo Ockels, 1946-2014 (Photo: HP Photography)
A cruel thing about cancer is its randomness. There's no justice, no explanation. The tumors are like snipers that randomly seek out their victims. Everyone a target. You feel it when a dear one is hit, like happened last year when the news got out that Wubbo Ockels was diagnosed with an aggressive kind of kidney cancer. Two years the doctors gave him - one year it was. Today, after a year of relentless fighting, his body could no longer. My thoughts go out to his wife Joos and their children and grandchildren.
In 1985, Wubbo became the first Dutch astronaut, flying aboard the Spaceshuttle Challenger. His space flight launched him onto the national stage. He never left. He leveraged his fame to advance the issues he deeply cared about: sustainability and new technology. It never tired him to explain how his experience in space had made him realize that his mission was on the ground. From space our planet looked so beautiful yet so vulnerable. Looking down from the shuttle it sank in that the earth is our only home and that it is habitable only thanks to an atmosphere that, as seen from space, is ridiculously thin. There is no escape planet. Earth is our spaceship and we are all astronauts, so we’d better not break it. That became his mission, which he pursued until this day he died. Too soon for all of us.
Wubbo displayed an uncommon kind of optimism and drive to act, which, I think, he recognized in young people much more than in adults. He had a strong love for and believe in technology. Young people developing spectacular sustainable technology, that is how Wubbo thought the planet was to be saved. And that is how I met him.
When I was a student at Delft University of Technology, studying Aerospace Engineering, Wubbo was a (the part-time) professor and adviser to the Nuon Solar Team, a group of students that had just won the World Solar Challenge in Australia with their self-designed and self-built solar-powered race car. I joined the project for its second campaign to develop a brand new car with a brand new team. Afterwards, Wubbo became my thesis supervisor and enabled me to write it on the solar car project. The collaboration has impressed me indefinitely. His drive to win, his intelligence, and the calmness to manage crises I had never experienced before. When he couldn’t make it to my graduation ceremony, he made a little video clip in which he spoke to me sitting in our solar car and dressed in his professor's gown. It made me feel proud. When a few of the solar team had the idea to take the car on a tour through Europe, from Greece to Portugal, Wubbo made it possible for us to work on it. He helped to attract sponsors and arranged assistantships so we could pay our rents. At one point, the Austrian road authorities were refusing to grant permission to drive on their roads with the solar car. Wubbo then picked up the phone and called his well-connected Austrian astronaut friend, to explain what was the problem. Shortly after we got the OK to drive in Austria and would even be escorted by police into the city of Vienna.
The solar team now has completed seven campaigns and many parallel initiatives have sprung from Wubbo’s mind, always revolving around young people and sustainability. Solar powered boats, a super fast electric bus (Superbus) and an energy self-sufficient yaught to live on now grace the roads and waters. His innovative ‘laddermill' wind power concept is in development. Ironically, when the system’s abilities were demonstrated by making it power an open-air performance of the Jan Akkerman band, it weren’t the energy companies that showed interest in the system but bands from all over the world that wanted to use it for their own gigs!
Over the years, Wubbo has grown a small army of techno-entrepreneurs, instilled with the drive to make a difference and the conviction that they can do it, because they have seen it and they have done it. The best thing they can do to remember Wubbo is to continue his work, to do what he has always done: go create the solutions for a sustainable tomorrow and have fun doing it.


  1. Nathalie7:17 PM

    Thanks for your comment in de Volkskrant about Wubbo!

  2. Anonymous3:27 PM

    A beautifully written comment and a mark of honour to Wubbo!