Credit: Yvette Hopkins

Interview

Yvette Hopkins

Executive Vice-President at the Shetland Space Centre


Who are you, and what do you do?

I am an American-Shetlander and Executive with Shetland Space Centre focused on the establishment of a spaceport complex in Shetland (launch & data services), global development, community outreach, education, and employment. I am currently attempting, along with a group of wonderful folks, to create the first vertical launch spaceport on the Shetland Islands. 

I am part of the senior management team and a combat warrior, having spent 28 years in the US military. I am also an intelligence practitioner, having spent my career in the intelligence arena. The thing that I am most proud of is that I am an entrepreneurial leader and have had the opportunity to lead and be a part of teams since the day I was born.

How did you get to where you are today?

There are several key things that helped me, including taking hard jobs, leading from the front, surrounding myself with great people, being curious, and not being afraid of failure.

Practically, I spent almost 30 years in the US military in successive roles of leadership in and out of combat. More specifically, I was a career intelligence officer who took a non-traditional path, and took positions of increased leadership and accountability. As an intelligence practitioner, the integrated use of space based data was and is paramount to our tradecraft as it is the critical component to all military decision-making.

It was not always easy to get to where I am today. I was not a particularly great student, but I liked to learn. I was not always the fastest runner, but I liked team sports. I wasn't the smartest, but I was an avid reader and surrounded myself with smart people.

You have worked all around the globe and have ended up in Scotland, can you explain what drew you to the U.K. and the space sector?

I was extremely tired from being in the US military for 28 years and came home to Shetland to rest for the summer, then decided to stay. One week, the local newspaper, “The Shetland Times” arrived, and I read an article about a visionary who was trying to set up a spaceport on Shetland. 

I immediately went into military mode and had many different questions about whether they had considered certain things or not. I reached out on LinkedIn, and I asked if this visionary, Frank Strang, had any time for a coffee. After missing him a couple of times, I explained my military experience. He was then in my kitchen within two days discussing his vision. He asked if I wanted to be part of the team, and I was ready to say yes. 

Opportunities will come your way, and you just have to be ready to jump at those opportunities, which is what happened at the Shetland Space Centre. I am a firm believer in being a part of a team and something bigger than yourself. Building a spaceport on a tiny island in the North Sea is truly being a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s a great mission.

What do you think the future of the Shetland Space Centre, and the wider UK space sector, holds?

There will continue to be blood, sweat, and tears put into making this happen as the UK finds its foothold in an industry that has been going on for 50 years. This is a new, emerging space, and the government has said that it will put resources, time and energy into this, so we can create a space-based economy.

Scotland has a long history of innovation and Shetland is no exception. Because of its geographical location in the middle of the North Sea, it’s a sub-arctic archipelago. People have had to make do, which requires them to live with what they have, invent, and reinvent. That spirit of innovation lives on here. Scotland is a phenomenal location, not just for orbital access, but also in terms of the people, and the culture here.

Scotland still has a story to tell to capture the global imagination. Until people globally are starting to pat us on the back, and we become the destination for new space, we still have some work to do to raise its profile and the work that is going on here.

What does an ordinary day in your life look like?

I try to start the day with physical training and I walk my dog, an old Great Dane named Malakai. Workwise, every morning usually starts with a standing meeting. I wear several different hats as I work on different things.

With my operations hat on, I am working on real issues to advance the UK's first pathfinder launch, whether that is discussions with Shetland Space Centre clients, local authorities, the UK Space Agency, or local communities. 

With my Global Engagement hat on, I speak with global partners. This ranges from Australia early in the morning, Africa in the Afternoon, the US in the evening, and Europe throughout the day. 

With my public speaking hat on, I am bringing the story of resiliency, space, and innovation to the fore.

In the evenings, I check LinkedIn, finish emails, and engage with space related mediums to continue learning.

On a personal side, and in this pandemic, I try to increase communication with family and friends around the globe, volunteer in my community, meet regularly with fellow senior women colleagues and mentors, cook a good meal and have a very good glass of wine. 

What would you say is the biggest highlight of your career?

Becoming a launch officer for the first space based operation at the Shetland Space Centre. As well, trusting my instincts to join the team at Shetland and ending up with an incredible team of people.

What skills would you say are most important for young people to develop if they want to pursue a career in space?

Number one is problem solving. You don’t just take a course in problem solving, it comes with experience. Whether you’re a communicator or an astrobiologist, you have to problem solve. Wherever possible, understand your technical craft, whether that is physics, engineering, aeronautics, and have a baseline of a craft. 

The space sector is one of the most educated sectors and generally requires you to have a degree. That does not mean it’s exclusive to those people, the space sector just requires a lot of technical applications. 

From a skills perspective, whatever your passion is, follow it. There will be a place for you in space, if that’s a place you want to work. The most important thing is a technical baseline. 

Then you need to go out and get experience. Whether it’s specific groups at university, volunteering, moving around multiple companies, the more experience you have, the better you will get at problem solving.

The other skill is developing tough skin. Failure is how you learn. Sometimes we’re afraid to fail, and as long as it’s not immoral, unethical, or dangerous, we have to fail. That’s how we learn, adapt and overcome. 

To me, it is admirable to see people go, “okay, that didn’t work” but get back on the horse. Over time, that challenge brings character and resilience, which is what you need when you’re really in the thick of things. 

What advice would you give young people who may want to pursue a similar career to yours?

Understand that space is for everyone, and it is an interdisciplinary team sport. Also, tomorrow's jobs are in space, as Scotland and the United Kingdom have paths available into the sector. Basically, follow your passion, gift, or skills, and then see how it applies in the space sector. 

If you take a look at the space sector, there are astrobiologists, artists, educators, medical personnel, communicators, and more who are all working in the space industry. You do not have to be a physics expert or an aeronautical engineer, although we definitely need those too.

There’s such a place for everyone in space. We’re going to be living in space in our lifetimes. Younger generations’ jobs will be in space. It’s a really exciting place to be. Not only in time, but in literal space.

Make sure you find your tribe. For me, the army was exactly the right place for me, and later the special operations community. The military will train you to the highest standards. Therefore, I'm excited to see an impending UK space command which will provide amazing opportunities for young folks should they desire that path.

Finally, before you "see" space, see the world!

What are you most excited for in the future of your career and in space?

In the short term, I am wildly excited to see the first vertical launch take place in Shetland, Scotland, and in particular, on the island of Unst, where the community is amazingly supportive.  We are all going to learn so much and we will meet unforeseen challenges, solve them, adapt, and make all parts of the space ecosystem better and for good.  Space is for good!

In the mid term, I am excited about not only the people who will move to Shetland and enjoy all that it has to offer, but to see the global movement of young folks moving in and out of multiple space ecosystems.  Folks will be able to live, work, and play in “new space locations”, bringing and sharing knowledge.  When one benefits, we all benefit.

In the longer term, I see a world that benefits from space.  We will learn more about ourselves and our universe. I hope that brings us together.

However, in the most impactful way, I am excited for the day when accessibility to space is for the ordinary person, when my nieces and nephew are not only citizens of the UK and America, but are productive members of the space community.

Author

Christina MacLeod

Christina is an undergraduate student studying towards an MEng in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

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