Home | Working in the Space Sector – part 2

Jamie is a recent graduate of BSc Mechanical Design & Manufacture at the University of Plymouth. He grew up in Cornwall and always had a passion for space and understanding how things worked. Read on to get a more in depth experience of what it’s really like working in space!

Hi Jamie, can you give us a brief history of how you got to your job now at Goonhilly?

My name is Jamie Williams, I’m a University of Plymouth alumnus. Between my second and third year I completed a 14-month industry placement at Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd (GES). I was born in Cornwall and have lived here my whole life. I grew up in Camelford where I went to primary and secondary school, after which I attended Truro college to do two BTEC extended diplomas in Forensic Science and Engineering. I have a passion for anything to do with space and I enjoy learning about how things work. This led me to study engineering while, at the same time, starting a quest to merge my two passions into a career. Thankfully, I found that in my role at Goonhilly.

Can you tell us a bit about your role at Goonhilly?

My main role at Goonhilly is in deep space communications, using the GHY-6 antenna. This is the world’s first and only commercial deep space communications antenna and our team are the world’s only deep space operators doing this outside of a government owned Deep Space Network (DSN). Sometimes I have to take a mental step back to remind myself that at the other end of the antenna I’m controlling is a spacecraft orbiting Mars, or another spacecraft in deep space – it’s literally out of this world! While the antenna is entirely owned and operated by GES, we are part of the European Space Agency’s augmented deep space network. We currently offer services to ESA to downlink data from their spacecraft and uplink commands. GHY-6 is also compatible with NASA’s deep space network and their spacecraft as well as most commercial deep space spacecraft.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day might involve an operational mission for the European Space Agency, downlinking and uplinking to their Mars Express spacecraft or to ESA’s Integral spacecraft (to name but two of the missions we are involved in). Ensuring that the station is configured correctly is critical for mission success, to ensure that our customer gets the data downlinked in full, and to allow them to send commands through our dish to their spacecraft. If one setting is wrong, it could result in the commands not reaching the spacecraft, or the spacecraft not being able to decode the signal. The expectation for success is very high.

Outside of deep space operations, I’m involved in a host of projects across the company which typically involve mechanical design or computer-aided design. My focus involves designing parts which will be used on our antennas and helping to maintain them. One project I am currently working on continues a theme from my university dissertation. It is a project to design a cryogenically cooled receiver for our GHY-6 antenna to further improve its already impressive signal-to-noise ratio. This is achieved by cooling the low noise amplifier to -253 degrees Celsius in a vacuum to reduce the electrical noise in the components. This allows a cleaner signal to be received.

Jamie standing in front of satellite at Goonhilly Earth Station
Jamie at Goonhilly Earth Station

Has your education helped you in your job?

Knowing that my dissertation has a practical application in a real-world environment is extremely rewarding and exciting. Hopefully, working with our suppliers, we will deploy similar designs across other antennas at Goonhilly as well as future antennas around the world. With this design in place, it will further enhance the capabilities of our GHY-6 antenna and we’ll be able to receive signals from spacecraft that are further away or satellites with smaller transmitters.

What do you love most about your job?

What I love about my job the most is that I get to work in the space industry. I love that I get to communicate with spacecraft around other planets, like Mars. Every day is different, and it keeps the job fresh and interesting.

If you were to think about the skills you have, what would you say are the imperative ‘soft skills’ you need for your job?

The skills you haven’t learned necessarily through education, things like communication and networking. Communication has been key in my day-to-day role. We not only need to professionally communicate with our customers but also with industry partners and when engaging in public outreach. It is a skill of mine that is forever evolving and has significantly improved since starting at GES. Now, standing up in front of room of space professionals isn’t as daunting as it was just three years ago. Networking has been very important too – we host many prestigious events in the space community every year and the ability to speak to guests is a big part of the role in both representing Goonhilly as a company but also being warm and welcoming to everyone present.

Jamie in equipment room standing by computers
Working in GHY-6 Main Equipment Room

Now for the technical skills, what qualifies you for your job?

To be a Goonhilly DSN operator, we first undergo rigorous training to familiarise ourselves with the system. The role requires being methodical in following procedures to correctly configure the antenna to the parameters our customers require, and being good at calmly solving problems under pressure if an issue arises. Often, any issues that occur during a mission are time-critical and we have minutes to resolve them if the ‘pass’ of the spacecraft is to be a success. This requires exceptional teamwork from the Operations team at GES and the second-line support engineers at our Farnborough office.

How do you get to this point in your career?

It’s difficult to become qualified to operate a DSN antenna through only an academic route – it would require you to have existing experience in spacecraft operations through past work experience. At Goonhilly, we created the system from the ground up, and this allowed me and the other operators to learn as we went along. In addition to that, having an engineering academic background helps with problem solving, enabling you to understand the mechanical systems of the antenna and, more importantly, how to maintain them for longevity.

What do you want for your working future?

I intend to stay with Goonhilly as long as I possibly can, I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else, with anyone else. I’m very fortunate to work in one of the most interesting departments in the company, and hope that this will bring more opportunities and variety within the role as we take on more spacecraft and overseas locations. If I was to stray outside of my current role within the company, I’d be most interested in learning more about how the business operates and perhaps being involved in business development.

Can you give us some top tips on how to get into the Space industry for people who don’t have any experience and maybe are unsure if they are suited to the sector?

My advice would be, pursue what you’re most passionate in. If you’re fortunate enough to find a job you love and enjoy, it doesn’t feel like work at all. I was fortunate enough to find my path into to the space industry through going to engineering events and speaking to people in who work in incredible and innovative companies in the sector. If you’re able to, do a work placement or gain work experience to get a first-hand feel for the job and industry. This will allow you to apply knowledge learned from study and apply it in the real word. You can then determine if the job or industry is right for you. I would also recommend creating a LinkedIn page. It may sound cliché, but it will help make you visible to industry professionals. LinkedIn can be a great platform to be headhunted for jobs through your relevant qualifications and interests. Creating a professional-looking page will create a great first impression for prospective employers. Apprenticeships are also a good way to get into a role without experience, allowing you to learn as you work.

Did you think that you’d be able to do what you’re doing now and achieve what you have, in Cornwall?

I never thought that I would be able to find my dream career in my home county. I always thought that I’d have to move away to find the perfect job for me. Getting to still live in Cornwall and have an out of this world career is most fulfilling.

Lastly, what was your dream job growing up?

Like most children, my dream job was being an astronaut. While I haven’t achieved that yet, getting to work with satellites in space is a very good compromise. With the acceleration of commercial space and commercial astronauts, a civilian going to space is no longer an impossible dream. One day, I hope that I’ll still be able to fulfil that childhood ambition with a commercial trip to space.

Jamie sat at his desk, commanding Mars Express around Mars
Commanding Mars Express around Mars

How can the People Hub help?

We’re here to help you find out what it is you’d like to pursue! We can provide advice, guidance and also funding towards training! Get in touch with us and we can get the ball rolling.

We can’t wait to hear from you!