Interview: Helen Webber - SpaceCareers.uk
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Dr Helen WebberCredit: Helen WebberDr Helen Webber

Interview

Helen Webber

Technical Designer at Reaction Engines


Where do you work and what is your job? 

Reaction Engines’ primary focus is on the development of an advanced propulsion system that would enable low cost access to space, specifically, by means of a reusable spaceplane. The engine is known as the Synergetic Air-Breathing and Rocket Engine or SABRE, and is a unique cycle, combining both air-breathing and rocket propulsion system technologies.  With a background in aerodynamics and thermodynamics my job is to help in the design, experimental test and performance optimisation of specific engine components as well as considering the optimisation of the engine cycle as a whole.

What does your job involve? 

A major part of my work at Reaction Engines has been to investigate methods which could lead to improvements in the thermodynamic performance of a large heat exchanger that forms a critical part of the SABRE engine cycle. This has involved the development of an ultra-low speed transient heat transfer wind tunnel in which to evaluate the baseline performance of this component and carry out tests on alternative design solutions.
As with other projects I am tasked with the steps involved often include:
• Initial research into practical solutions which could lead to enhanced performance
• Design of  scaled test articles
• Design of an experimental test facility and/or equipment in which to carry out the performance characterisation of a component, including outlining the instrumentation and diagnostics required to gather the necessary experimental data
• Outlining an appropriate test procedure
• Conduct experiments, post processing test data and analysing results to draw conclusions on the design.

What interested you in working in the space sector?

My ambition of becoming an astronaut was the initial driving forces that lead me to pursue a career in space and aeronautics. From studying aeronautical engineering at university, I found I naturally migrated towards the field of propulsion, and fortunately, following university, I was immediately able to gain direct experience working in the space propulsion field through a Young Graduate Traineeship in the Chemical Propulsion Department at ESTEC in Holland. This was followed by a short summer at EADS Lampoldshausen’s rocket propulsion test facility in Germany. The combination of getting to work on both air-breathing and rocket propulsion systems, however, at Reaction Engines, for me became the real attraction and I relished the opportunity to undertake research at Reaction Engines, working on their heat exchangers for the SABRE engine cycle. I am now very fortunate to be pursuing a career in propulsion on one of the most innovative projects around.

What do you do in a typical day? 

Depending on the status of a project on which I am working will determine the activities I undertake each day. For example, at the start of a project I would conduct thermodynamic or fluid dynamic calculations to first understand the workings of a component and how it performs under different flow conditions. I may then be required to size the component for test and calculate the necessary test conditions to ensure the experiment will replicate the behaviour of the component at full scale.

Once the calculations have been done I will typically be working alongside a Mechanical Designer to develop the component into a design which is structurally sound, can be accurately assembled and manipulated and which can also interface with the specific test rig in mind.

With the component in manufacture, I write up the design report and ready a test plan.
After having carried out a test plan I analyse the test data and write a final report. 
  

Are there any other interesting aspects to your work? 

As the project progresses Reaction Engines is working more closely with other companies and universities to make use of their specific tools and expertise, for example, computational simulations of fluid flow though different parts of the engine cycle or over the vehicle itself. Each of these detailed studies gives us new insight into the engine and vehicle performance, and helps to steer us towards a more optimised design solution. 

What is it about your job that fascinates or inspires you? 

The propulsion technology that Reaction Engines is developing is ground-breaking and would lead to some truly remarkable changes on how we get into space and what we do in space. I would enjoy doing engineering in any application but to be able to do it on something so innovative that captures the ‘bigger picture’ is fantastic.

Why is what you do important? 

To develop a more economic means of travelling into low-Earth-orbit is an essential next step towards mankind’s long-term future prosperity.  What we have achieved in space already is remarkable, but without advancement on today’s propulsion system technologies we cannot possibly hope to enable the exploitation of space resources.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in space? 

I was unsure of how my career would evolve, but fortunately, by simply pursuing the things I am passionate about led me eventually to work at Reaction Engines. Throughout my studies I made a conscious effort to seek industrial experience, and each experience was both exciting and rewarding. They may not all have covered the fields that I would eventually end up working in, but they each gave a new insight and helped me decide on where to head next.
The space industry is just as accessible as other industries and covers all manner of subject areas. The best advice I can give is take the time to select a leading University in the field for your studies, work hard and gain relevant experience. Just research which part of the industry suits you best and go for it!

Author

UK Space Agency

The UK Space Agency is an executive agency of the Government of the United Kingdom, responsible for the United Kingdom's civil space programme.

This article contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

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