Chief Engineer at the UK Space Agency and expert on Near Earth Objects
What does your job involve?
Until April 2008 I was Head of Space Technology at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. My primary research interests are man-made orbital debris, planetary protection, and near Earth objects (asteroids and comets that pass close to the Earth). I am currently Head of the UK delegations to the Inter-Agency Debris Committee and the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS), in the past acting as Chair of the UN Working Group on Near Earth Objects within COPUOS. I also lead the UK delegation to the European Space Agency's International Relations Committee, and ESA’s Space Situational Awareness Programme Board. I am also heavily involved in the regulation of space activities derived from UK obligations under the Outer Space Treaties.
I am a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.
What interested you in working in the space sector?
I actually started off wanting to be a pilot. I was fortunate enough to receive a Royal Navy Flying Award while in sixth form and at the age of 18 qualified for my pilot’s licence before my driving licence. I was a Volunteer Reserve pilot in the Air Squadron at Southampton University, and it was during my degree course that my interests moved from Aeronautics to Astronautics. I completed a PhD at Southampton studying the motion of satellites and inferring information about their characteristics which led me to work in the Space Department at MOD Farnborough (the Royal Aerospace Establishment). I am very interested in the politic dimension of space, and enjoy working with colleagues from many countries.
What do you do in a typical day?
There is no fixed pattern to my day, which is one of the things I like about it. There are always meetings to attend with different agencies around the world. Beforehand I need to agree with colleagues what the UK wants from the meetings and how we can deliver it. I maintain my interest in technical issues, particularly in matters of the surveillance of space, and consider regulatory issues ranging from the hazards posed by rockets to the safety of experimental space-planes. I need to prioritise what I do because there are so many interesting topics I could spend time on.
Are there any other interesting aspects to your work?
I work with a range of people, from engineers and scientists to lawyers and diplomats. From 2007-2009, I chaired the UN Group responsible for responding to an asteroid impact. It was a sobering task but also very rewarding intellectually. I also enjoy outreach activities when I try and communicate my passion for space to the learned societies, schoolchildren and the general public.
What is it about your job that fascinates or inspires you?
Firstly, it is the subject, the wide ranging nature of which means one can never be bored. Second, it is the people I work with, they are the brightest and energetic people I’ve met. A number are now in their seventies (and even eighties) and have worked throughout the space age. They are the most inspirational people I have met (very few people stay retired from the space field!)
Why is what you do important?
First we need to ensure that we comply with our international responsibilities under the Outer Space Treaties. Second, we need to ensure other States fulfil their obligations. Space, or at least that region around the Earth, is a limited and unique resource. We are now so reliant on space-based systems for many critical aspects of our everyday life that we need to ensure that our use of space remains sustainable for many generations to come. Space debris presents a real and increasing hazard to space operations which we need to address from a scientific, technological, legal and political standpoint. The UK is at the forefront of that work internationally.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in space?
The STEM subjects are clearly important if you want to work in a technical environment but I work with diplomats and lawyers who have limited technical background. The key ingredient to success is hard work and enthusiasm.