Spacecraft Structures Engineer on the ExoMars Rover Vehicle Team at Airbus Defence and Space
What do you do each day? What are the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of your work?
My job is as technical lead on the ExoMars structure Development and Manufacture. This is a bit of a dual role - it involves co-ordinating the work of the team working on the structure (Design office, Stress, Materials and Processes, Testing, AIT, etc) and also managing the budget, schedule, risk and so on for the structure, which I see as quite a project management type role. However I am also responsible for making technical decisions on the development, coming up with novel solutions for problem areas, and representing the structure design team externally to our customers, Thales Alenia Space Italy and ESA, as well as our manufacturing subcontractor. I like having this breadth of responsibility - it means that no two days are the same! I have a lot of meetings and have to communicate with a variety of different people and groups, but I also get to come up with concepts for new features or ways of meeting our requirements, and developing those into manufacturable solutions, so it’s a very creative role at times. I have to keep a lot of balls in the air at the same time, but I enjoy the feeling that every day I am incrementally bringing order to the chaos, until finally we will have a complete and functional frozen design!
What inspired you to choose the space industry? Do you feel your work fulfils this?
When I was a teenager, seeing that “British Engineers and Scientists” were working on the Beagle II mission to Mars was the thing that first inspired me to find out about engineering as a career. I always felt that Space was the most exciting area that I could work in, so chose my University and placement year with a view to getting into the industry. I got a graduate job at Airbus Defence and Space, and then the role came up on the Rover structure, so of course I couldn’t let that opportunity pass me by! I love the fact that I’m working on a British-led Mars mission – which was just what inspired me to go into engineering in the first place!
How did you get your job?
I started off by applying to the Airbus Defence and Space Graduate Scheme as a Mechanical Analyst, and then kept my eyes peeled for other opportunities to move around within the company, until I saw my current role become available. I applied, and I got it!
Were your degree and qualifications important to securing the position? What about in your everyday work?
My degree was definitely important – without a strong mark in a relevant degree I would never have been called for interview. However, the thing that I think made me stand out from the other applicants and gave me really valuable industry and role related knowledge was my industrial placement year, which I did at SSTL. There, I worked in a similar role to my graduate position, so I’d used all the software before, and knew about the mechanical design and testing stages that spacecraft are required to go through. Whilst I use the knowledge that I gained during my course, that year gave me the perfect introduction to the industry. I’d highly recommend internships to anyone thinking of following a similar path!
Do you think the recent NASA findings [of water on Mars] might affect your work?
The recent NASA findings are definitely interesting and could have an impact on which landing site gets chosen depending on whether these RSL areas get designated as “special regions” in terms of planetary protection. It will be interesting to see if it initiates a discussion about the current planetary protection regulations- currently we have to sterilise our spacecraft to the limits of what is possible, and it still isn’t considered sterile enough to go to, and especially to drill subsurface, in certain areas. On the other hand, various different groups are talking seriously about sending humans to Mars - but the second we do that, planetary protection becomes essentially impossible to control to the existing regulations. At some point a discussion will have to be had with all the current signatories to the outer space treaty about whether we stick with the existing rules and don’t send humans, or whether the rules will be permitted to change…
James studies Electronic Engineering with Space Systems at the University of Surrey.
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