A career in space technology may well seem a bit ‘far out’, but a role in this truly fascinating industry could be a lot closer than you think. Moving On found out what it takes to be a real-life rocket man or woman.
BY Sam Worth
Space technology presents a fantastic opportunity to forge a career that really is out of this world, but what does it take to successfully blast off into the unknown?
To find out, Moving On and young students Alex (first year of BSc Mathematics) and Joe (second year GCSEs) travelled to the Culham Science Centre in Oxford to speak to Reaction Engines Ltd – a UK-based firm that is one of the world leaders in space technology.
The team at Reaction Engines Ltd, is certainly well qualified to advise on what it takes. It is headed by Managing Director and Founder Alan Bond, Reaction Engines Ltd, who has worked at Rolls Royce, British Aircraft Corp and BAE Systems (amongst others).
The team at Reaction Engines has been researching and developing a revolutionary new engine called SABRE, which combines elements of jet and rocket engine technology, in order to make single stage to orbit space vehicles possible. By air-breathing during the early stages of the flight, the amount of liquid oxygen the vehicle has to carry, and hence the weight of the vehicle in comparison to rockets is greatly reduced. The answer is SKYLON – an unpiloted, and most importantly, reusable spaceplane which will provide reliable, responsive and more cost-effective access to space.
After a tour of the Reaction Engines’s offices and a sneak peek at the test facility where components of SKYLON are being developed, budding space engineers, Alex and Joe, put questions to Anthony Haynes, Senior Development Engineer.
Alex: I’m studying for a degree in maths at the moment; I’ve always been interested in physics but I was doing better in maths at A-level. How would I get into something like this now?
Anthony Haynes: In our company at the moment maths would probably serve you quite well actually. Alan Bond (Founder and Chief Engineer) is very mathematical. He’s quite happy working through equations, if that’s what it takes.
There is always a large theoretical aspect anyway so there’s no reason why maths would hold you back. Perhaps you could choose some physics-based modules.
What we look for is whether you can apply those skills. It’s one thing being good at the theory, but if you can’t apply that to a model or something like SKYLON then you might struggle.
Joe: I’m studying for my GCSEs right now, what sort of A-levels did you take and what would you advise as best?
Anthony Haynes: Well I took maths, physics and computing – at the time PCs hadn’t really taken off when I did computing, so that would be a lot different nowadays.
But, I knew I wanted to do a physics degree – so today, I would suggest generally maths, physics and one other A-level. Perhaps one of the other sciences would be a sound option.
I sort of wish my third choice had been engineering because when I moved into the real world and started building real things it became clear that I needed to know a lot more about the engineering side of things than I actually did.
A more practical engineering degree or apprenticeship may be just as useful.
Engineering was still an option for me at university with the A-levels I had taken, but I had already set my heart on physics. Looking back, I would have benefitted from at least taking on some more engineering-based modules.
Moving On: What is the space engineering industry like as a whole? Is it quite a big community?
Anthony Haynes: The space industry isn’t very well known, because the UK has never developed its own consistent launch system. A lot of people think because there aren’t regular rockets taking off that the UK must have a small space industry and that if you want to be an astronaut, you have to be American. But we have a healthy state of satellite technology in particular.
At Reaction Engines Ltd we have employed quite a lot of people through knowing them already, with us being part of a small team – how we work together is really crucial.
That’s why networking and space societies are so useful.
Joe: Has this sort of thing always been a hobby of yours?
Anthony Haynes: Yeah, I started getting more and more interested during university when I was actually building proper rockets.
Anything ‘Science Fiction’ was an instant hit with me, so to get a job like the one I have now is a dream come true. It doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like fun!
Moving On: What advice could you offer to young people interested in a space career?
Anthony Haynes: One thing I didn’t do enough of was join relevant societies, for example Alan is part of the British Interplanetary Society which is Britain’s leading think tank on space development.
The UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (UKSEDS) is a national space society for students and is a great one for young people to get involved with. It gives you the opportunity to meet with like-minded space enthusiasts and learn from each other.
For information about memberships visit: http://ukseds.org/membership/