Credit: Toby Harris

Interview

Changing Careers: Toby Harris

Toby Harris is the Global Head of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) at Astroscale, and has previously worked at the UK Space Agency. Toby initially worked at the Atomic Weapons Establishment before moving to the space sector.


Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Toby Harris and I am currently the Global Head of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) at Astroscale. Previous to this I was Head of Orbital Systems within the Chief Engineer’s Office at the UK Space Agency. I studied mathematics at the University of Nottingham before moving into a career of computational physics and modelling, starting at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston. After more than a decade there, I moved to the UK Space Agency (UKSA), where I oversaw the development and use of tools and models to quantify in-orbit risk, as well as headed up UK delegations to UN COPUOS STSC and represented the UK on the policy group of the Interagency Debris Coordination Committee. I now lead on developing SSA strategy at Astroscale.

What does your role involve?

My role is quite varied, but my main responsibility is to develop and put in place a strategy regarding Space Situational Awareness. A key part of my job is about ensuring that we have the right SSA capabilities and services we need to meet our mission goals. Astroscale’s mission is focused on providing Active Debris Removal (ADR) services –removing failed spacecraft or other large objects from orbit so they can’t collide with other spacecraft – and this requires the accurate surveillance and tracking services that SSA can provide. As well as this, I am responsible for considering how the technologies and missions that we develop can be used to support SSA capabilities and potentially provide new services to other users in space. 

What’s your background and career path?

After studying maths at university, I decided I wanted to carry on with what I might call technical work - understanding the world with the tools of mathematics and physics. It was through my time at AWE that I realised the power of computer modelling and learnt how to develop simulation codes that could model real-world events. At AWE I learnt a tremendous amount on how to understand complex systems, particularly the logical process of going from a difficult real-world problem that you want to predict to a computer code. Being able to understand challenging problems enabled me to apply my skills to space, particularly astrodynamics, and eventually space surveillance and tracking, a key part of SSA.

What did you do to go about changing career?

I had always wanted to get into the world of space, but at the time when I left university, the space ecosystem in the UK was not as healthy as it is now. After a few failed attempts after university, I stayed at AWE learning new skills that I felt would be useful should I choose to move. Eventually, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a new role as spaceflight technical lead at the UK Space Agency. Whilst not directly aligned with my experience, I managed to persuade the interviewers that my ability to problem solve, adapt quickly and work well with other people was sufficient to give me a chance. UKSA gave me immense experience in the ‘world’ of space and enabled me to quickly move into the role I wanted within the industry.

What resources, organisations, events, etc. were most useful to you?

In changing career, I found LinkedIn to be a key resource. It helped me get to know the community, see what opportunities were out there, and it was eventually the key reason I ended up at UKSA. Get a good profile and get involved! I think careers fairs are useful to speak to people face-to-face about how they got where they are, and they are a good place to get the 'insider knowledge' on the best way to get into a company that you are after. My move to Astroscale was very much a product of my networking and meeting people in a wide range of companies within the space ecosystem. 

How did you get your first job in the space sector?

This was a combination of luck and tenacity. At the time I decided to move on, I began using LinkedIn heavily to build a network and to start engaging. Don't be afraid to 'cold message' people about yourself and your goals. I messaged dozens and whilst I got very few responses, it was within those few that I found my golden ticket to space! Turns out that UKSA was looking for someone like me at the same time I was looking for someone like them, but I would never have known if I hadn't sent out some messages!

Why did you want to move to the space sector? When did you decide to try?

I always wanted to be in the space sector, but it wasn't until recently that the job market felt healthy enough that if space was something you wanted to go into, you probably could. I decided to try when I felt like I needed a change. Whilst I enjoyed my time at AWE and learnt a huge amount, life was too short, and I wanted to see if I could make it in the world of space. I made a New Year's resolution at the end of 2016, and by June 2017 I was working for UKSA!

Did you feel like there was a job for you in the sector?

At first, I didn't know. Certainly, when I finished university in 2002 it felt like there was nothing for me in space, and even 10 years on there felt like very little. As the UK space sector has grown, a lot has changed, and it's much easier for someone like myself, who has a background in computational modelling, to find a role that I enjoy and is relevant to my experience. Now you can be an engineer, an economist, a mathematician, in cybersecurity or insurance, and all of them can get a job in the heart of UK Space.

Were there any barriers you had to overcome? How did you overcome them?

There's always a knowledge barrier. A new job that has a fundamentally different knowledge base is going to have a steep learning curve and demand some dedication. Luckily, everything in space, even insurance, is interesting so I never felt it was too much of a problem! For my own part, moving from a very self-sufficient organisation like AWE to something which is fundamentally collaborative and externally engaging was also a challenge. However, the change in the ways of working, whilst significant was good and refreshing.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The diversity of the work and the range of groups of people and organisations I have been able to work with is fantastic. Astroscale has a great culture, like many small to medium-sized companies in the UK space sector. There is a huge amount of exciting work to do, and because of what we’re trying to achieve there’s always a can-do attitude. I also very much enjoy the breadth of work, from working on some very technical issues at the level of writing code one day, then supporting discussion on future global policies at the highest levels of government. I think the fact that the work I do is interesting and that it matters is something I find very rewarding.

Do you have any other advice for people wanting to make a similar change?

Work out what you want to do, set a date and just go for it! I must say, after making the move I did have some cold feet moments, particularly after being in such a comfortable position in an organisation I had been in for so long. But at the time I felt like I would have regretted it if I hadn't of tried, and now I know for a fact it was the right decision.

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