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An Asteroid
Named Axford

"Having an asteroid named after you is no big deal," says eminent space scientist Dr (William) Ian Axford of Napier, "there are 5,000 of them out there". The naming of Asteroid Axford (5097) was announced at a recent symposium in Germany to celebrate Ian's sixtieth birthday.

Ian, Chairman of the Board of New Zealand's science funding agency, the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, is internationally recognised for his contributions to space physics, and is currently the President of the International Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).

COSPAR was set up in 1958 by the United Nations to help control international tensions and promote collaboration in space research. Ian became the first elected President in 1986, and thinks his neutrality helped him get the job. After 35 years living in foreign countries he has dropped a nationalistic way of thinking -- except when it comes to rugby.

Ian would like to see science more centrally placed in New Zealand culture, and for the associated technology to play a more central role in our economy. "I would like to see us develop our ingenuity. New Zealand needs a cultural change in the direction of technology. The real challenge is to get our exports on the same technological level as our imports."

Ian didn't start his career with a view to becoming a space scientist. He studied engineering at Canterbury University, but had such a keen interest in maths that he took extra papers and ended up doing a BSc at the same time as his BE. In his senior year, Ian won a Senior Scholarship for Science -- much to the displeasure of the Chemistry Professor at the time who was chagrined to think a senior prize in science could be taken by an engineering student!

In 1957, Ian, now married with two children, went to Manchester to undertake a PhD in aerodynamics. This turned out to be a study of the aerodynamics of gas in interstellar space, an interesting topic to be studying when the first Sputnik was launched. Ian recalls the new and very popular astronomy programme on TV at the time hosted by Patrick Moore, and the interest and excitement generated by these first voyages into space.

After a year in Cambridge in 1959, he moved to Ottawa to the Defence Research Board of Canada. It was during this time that space research became really exciting. Ian says it was "like being in an Aladdin's cave when you could pick anything up and find it exciting to work on".

Two years later, Ian came back to Wellington briefly before accepting a position at Cornell University. Some time later, he decided to move somewhere warmer, to the new University of California in San Diego which had recently recruited many distinguished scientists.

Ian sees one of the real highlights of his career as "the excitement of being involved with space committees and missions." He views the Voyager missions, and the later mission to Halley's Comet, as being among the most important cultural events in modern science. Galileo, with his small telescope, discovered the four satellites of Jupiter and got himself into trouble with the Church by his suggestion that this was a model for the planetary system. Within three hundred years Voyager was taking detailed, close-up photographs of the objects Galileo could barely see.

In 1974 a job as Director of the Max Planck Institut fr Aeronomie took Ian and his family to Germany. He feels his approach of leadership through providing encouragement, a little inspiration, and opportunities, and then leaving the people to get on with the job was successful and that the Institute has turned out to be an exciting place. With the advantages of independent funding, Ian made an unwritten rule that the scientists could follow their own inclinations as long as the projects proposed were new and at the cutting edge of research.

Among the projects which have been developed is the Galileo mission, a joint US-German project where the Institute's scientists are attempting to detect thunderstorms and investigate the radiation belts on Jupiter. Another current project is Ulysses. This spacecraft recently passed Jupiter and is currently moving out above the plane in which the planets orbit, where space is dominated by the solar wind, cosmic rays and interstellar gas and dust. Scientists at the Institute and elsewhere will follow Ulysses for at least the first four years of its life and hope to continue for many years.

The Institute was also one of the driving forces behind Giotto, a European spacecraft sent to take a close look at Halley's Comet. Ian recalls how incredibly difficult politically the mission was to manage. But it turned out very successfully with the Institute being responsible for the camera and several other experiments.

Ian returns to Germany regularly to maintain his involvement with the Max Planck Institute. He is the third New Zealander to be elected to both the Royal Society of London and the US National Academy of Sciences.