Idsall School, Shropshire (1995 – 2002); University of Durham (2002 – 2006); University of Cambridge (2006 – 2008)
GCSEs; AS Level (Geography); A Levels (Maths, Physics, Chemistry); MEng Hons First (General Engineering); MPhil (Turbomachinery Research)
Summer project at University of Durham (2005); Ministry of Justice (2008 – 2009)
Principal Mechanical Architect – ExoMars Rover Vehicle
Airbus Defence and Space (2009 – )
I am an artistic rocket scientist.
I am a spacecraft engineer (or “rocket scientist” if you will), working in Stevenage and living near-by. I am enthusiastic about anything academic (all types of science of course, but also history, politics, literature etc.)
My interests outside work are:
writing / playing music;
trying to get at least 5 questions right on University Challenge each week;
being silly with friends.
I live with my wife (who is also a science type, a doctor of medicine) and 3 month old daughter (so, for now, I have NO time to do any of my interests outside work . . . new babies take up ALL of your time).
I work on the design, manufacture and testing of spacecraft; specifically, I’ve been working on a Mars Rover for the past couple of years.
I work for Airbus Defence and Space. When the European Space Agency (or another customer) wants a spacecraft to be built to take one of their scientific instruments into space, we are one of the few companies in the world which can do that for them. We define what the spacecraft will look like, how it will behave and what it will be able to do before we find suppliers from all over the world to make parts of the spacecraft for us. We then put all the parts together and test it to make sure it works.
My role is Mechanical Architect which means literally “Chief Builder of the Mechanical System”; it is my responsibility to define the overall concept, size, materials, build sequence and to organise the various technical experts that design the spacecraft (teams of analysts to do the maths, teams of designers to create the computer models, teams of materials experts to control the technologies etc.). There are other architects for the thermal system (how hot and cold each bit gets), the electrical system (how the spacecraft is wired) and the guidance systems (how the brains of the spacecraft think) amongst others. We all have to work together extremely closely to ensure a large, complex project like a bespoke spacecraft will work and be delivered on time.
Right now I work on the ExoMars Rover for the European Space Agency.
Other projects that I have worked on previously include:
ESA’s Sentinel 3 spacecraft in-orbit now around the earth performing climate science;
ESA’s LISAPathfinder spacecraft between the earth and the sun, 1.5million km away, detecting gravity waves;
A joint development of a unit shared between the ExoMars Rover and the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander which went to Mars last year!! . . . and crashed!! :/ . . . but I technically have stuff on (or rather “in”) Mars!
Re-entry impact system concepts (i.e. smashing spaceships into Austrailia) for possible Martian sample return missions;
NeoShield, an early concept of how we might deflect “earth-killer” asteroids.
My Typical Day
Reading / writing reports / holding meetings to check that the design works and that the team is working together to deliver the correct stuff at the correct time.
Arrive in the office and check e-mails for anything new / urgent, whilst having a coffee. Then I will attend a bigger meeting of experts / managers to discuss the progress that each of us are making and highlighting issues that require focus from the team.
I will then work at my desk for a few hours defining required design modifications / build instruction to make sure the Rover is going to go together correctly and work (e.g. refining parts of the Rover internal layout to account for a problem with the design of an electronics box or the temperature of a scientific instrument).
After that, perhaps, then I will attend a meeting where I will have to defend / justify / communicate such design changes to higher management / technical teams (all changes cost time and money so we have to all agree they are necessary).
In the afternoon, I may spend a good few hours reading design reports from our suppliers highlighting any mistakes, problems or clarifications before picking up the phone to talk them through any corrections or improvements that might be required.
To finish off, I may have to write a report to explain our design to our customer (the European Space Agency) and give them confidence that we will finish the rover on-time and at the agreed cost.
But days will vary quite a lot depending on what is going on at the time:
I often have to travel to our suppiers’ premises in Europe to hold big, review meetings. We have suppliers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweeden, Poland, Canada . . . and some of the scientific instruments are from Russia.
Our customer (the European Space Agency) may well have questions of their own, so some days (or weeks) will be completely dedicated to holding meetings to address their concerns.
Some days, large bits of equipment will arrive from suppliers so I will have to dress up in a hairnet and gown and spend the day inspecting the build in the cleanrooms.
And, soon, we will start the Rover testing where we will bolt the rover to a (very) big loud-speaker and vibrate it to simulate the forces on the top of the launch rocket, before putting it in a big oven / fridge to simulate the hot / cold environment of space. That will involve spending weeks away in Europe, working 7 days a week until the testing is finished.
What I'd do with the money
Fund the creation of a new outreach activity for Airbus Defnece and Space Stevenage
Airbus D&S in Stevenage holds outreach sessions for school trips to introduce pupils into the basics of spacecraft engineering. I would use the prize money to fund a new activity attempting to demonstrate the design / build of spaceships in a simplified, fun way For example, an interactive mock spacecraft models for pupils to build test out their engineering ideas (how to wire up a spacecraft, how to fit all the instruments / components together whilst not becoming unstable). Perhaps we could get some real space hardware for the pupils to handle.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
1) Creative; 2) Pedantic; 3) Laid-back (Does that count as one word (see number 2)?).
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I have things that I’ve worked on in space! And technically on the surface of Mars! And I’ve worked on ideas to save the human race from catastrophic asteroid impacts! See “My Work” for more.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
I’ve been interested in Science since I can remember so can’t think of a particular “Eureka!” moment; instead, my interest has been a constant part of my life. It is probably something that my father instilled in me early on. But some specific scientific inspirational people / things that I’ve noted throughout my life are: Star Wars, Apollo 13, Richard Feynman, Jacob Bronowski, Beagle 2 . . .
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes! I once got kicked out of Chemistry A-Level . . . but was allowed back in eventually.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Well . . . if I wasn’t an Engineer then I would probably be a Physicist . . . but if I was neither an Engineer nor a Scientist then I genuinely have no idea . . .
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I like all music but have a soft-spot for The Smashing Pumpkins (before 2000).
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Going to Univeristy and learning / qualifying / having a laugh all at the same time.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) For the ExoMars Rover to be a success; 2) For health and happiness for my friends and family (and everyone else too, why not?); 3) To become really good at watercolour painting.
Tell us a joke.
Why did the cow jump over the moon? Because the farmer had cold hands!