Credit: UK Space Agency


Anu Ohja

Executive Director of the National Space Centre, in charge of the National Space Academy programme

Where do you work and what is your job?

I’m an Executive Director of the National Space Centre in Leicester, and specifically responsible for the National Space Academy programme. I’m also an Advanced Skills Teacher in physics and currently working with Loughborough College in designing a Space Engineering course which started teaching in from September 2012.

What does your job involve? 

My background is as a physicist and my passion is teaching – I’m fortunate in that I use both as essential parts of my job. The National Space Academy has a network of outstanding teachers and project scientists across England who focus on using ideas from space science to teach secondary STEM subjects – and geography – to students and teachers. My role is to lead the programme and involves working with the major stakeholders (UK Space Agency, ESA, STFC) as well as industry partners including Astrium Geo-Information Services, Logica, Vegaspace, Inmarsat and Rolls Royce. In addition, I teach student and teacher masterclasses and am also working with the ESA’s Space Science and Exploration Directorate on new ways of using data from missions such as Mars Express and SOHO in schools and higher education.

The National Space Centre is the UK’s Near-Earth Object Information Centre and I’m one of the team members. We monitor the output from a network of automated telescopes searching the skies for newly-discovered asteroids and comets that might pose a risk to Earth in the future. Our role is to keep Government and the media informed – and no, the world’s not going to end in 2012, Mayan calendar notwithstanding!

What interested you in working in the space sector?

I am what Brian Cox refers to as a “Child of Apollo” – my earliest memories are from the Skylab programme (the first US space station – 1973) and the original “thawing” of the Space “Cold War” with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). This fuelled a lifelong love affair with astronomy, space exploration, science and ultimately a career in teaching and now in the space sector. I still occasionally pinch myself – there remains a slight dreamlike sense of disbelief that I am lucky enough to have this role.

What do you do in a typical day?

Meetings, emails, teaching, data analysis, media interviews if a space-related story breaks, more meetings, more emails…I spend a lot of time travelling – mainly in the UK (the Academy has an office on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus near Oxford ) but also to Spain, Holland, Norway and occasionally to the US.

One of the joys of my role is its variety – and in the way it regularly stretches me outside my comfort zone. Critical to success in science or engineering is developing a complementary set of what are often called the “softer skills” – those associated with communication and personal diplomacy. Dealing with politicians, academics, senior business leaders and the media has made me much more aware of this.

Are there any other interesting aspects to your work?

Through work, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with colleagues at iconic locations that have been at the very heart of some of humanity’s greatest endeavours in both space exploration (NASA’s Johnson and Dryden Centers, ESA-ESTEC) and astronomy (the European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid). Closer to home, working with personnel at the heart of the UK’s own space industry has given me a greater understanding of the world-class sector we have here.

On a personal level, highlights have included teaching student and teacher masterclasses with astronauts Piers Sellers, Jeff Hofmann and Apollo 13 Flight Director Gene Kranz. The latter was a “gotcha!” that was played on me by the Education Director of Space Center Houston, who interrupted my A-Level masterclass by bringing him in unannounced. It’s probably the only time in my life when I temporarily yet totally lost the power of speech!

I’m currently working with the Red Bull Stratos team’s (Felix Baumgartner’s) upcoming high-altitude skydive record attempt from 130 000 ft. The record he’s trying to break was set in 1960 by US test pilot Joe Kittinger who leapt from a balloon 102800ft above the New Mexico desert, above 99% of the atmosphere. Aeromedically, this is pretty much “at the edge of space”. Learning about Joe’s jump when I was young was as big a science inspiration to me as the Apollo programme – and as a skydiver myself (with over 1200 jumps) my role will be to explain the levels of aeromedical, engineering and aerodynamic challenge that this record attempt will have to contend with. It truly is a leap into the unknown and will transform our understanding of high-altitude aerodynamics.

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

If you have a job based on something you are passionate about, then you’re on to a winner. In my case, although my interest in all things “space” dates back to my oldest childhood memories, my deepest understanding had always been focused on Solar System exploration and human spaceflight. In my lifetime, Jupiter’s Galilean moons have been transformed in human consciousness from mere points of light in a telescope to worlds of fire, and ice, and perhaps life. Theories – about planets, stars, the Universe itself - that would have been dismissed as the wildest speculations of science fiction just a few decades ago have been confirmed as solid scientific discoveries. As a species we have always wondered what is over the horizon - that intellectual journey that humanity finds itself on has its greatest expression in space science. Who wouldn’t - or couldn’t - be inspired by this?

Since my direct involvement in the sector began four years ago I have been completely blown away by the discoveries relating to understanding our home planet through Earth Observation (EO) science. Data from satellites such as ENVISAT have transformed our understanding of the oceans – of water and atmosphere – that swathe our planet and which ultimately have allowed life to flourish here. If we are to truly understand the role that human activity is having on our environment, the data from EO satellites is akin to having a planetary health monitoring system in orbit.

Why is what you do important?

The National Space Centre’s 220 000 annual visitors is testimony to the inspirational power that “space” has. When we consider the discoveries that have been made even in the last forty years (my lifetime – approximately!) it’s clear that for every question we answer about the Solar System, the Galaxy or the entire Universe, another ten arise. We need the next generation of scientists and engineers to not only push our boundaries of knowledge further but to also act as the drivers of our entire economy. Science and technology are fundamental to the progress humanity has made as a species – and many of the applications that have embedded themselves as essential components in the fabric of our lifestyles originated in purely theoretical research ideas.

More philosophically, if we turn our backs on our innate thirst for knowledge of where and who we are in the Universe to just concentrate on the material benefits that science can give us, we run the danger of stultifying as a society.

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

Mathematics is the language of the universe – so a good grounding is essential! I’m biased, perhaps, but physics qualifications open all sorts of doors – including the engineering disciplines that are at the heart of so many space endeavours. Ultimately, there are facets of the space industry encompassing all sorts of subjects – from those you’d expect to more surprising ones such as Law, Political Science and even Art.

One common theme throughout the industry is that it’s characterised by having personnel who have a deep passion for the subject and who’ve often actively sought out opportunities for involvement – so I would recommend looking out for work placements and pro-actively getting in touch with space sector organisations rather than just waiting for employment opportunities to be advertised.

I’m fortunate in that at the Space Centre itself and in the wider National Space Academy programme we have an extremely talented group of scientists, engineers, teachers and other personnel from an extremely diverse range of academic and professional backgrounds. In my experience, this is the case across the entire UK space sector. I’m constantly learning new “stuff” - and to me, that’s what life is all about. Working in the space industry is a pleasure and a privilege.


UK Space Agency

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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