How I got into space

How I got into space

Shaun in the clean room at the Space Research Centre

I mean, how I got involved in space engineering.

As a child, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut and exploring space. It seemed that the only way to achieve this dream was to design and build my own rocket. With a completed design (ha!), I applied to a couple of companies for sponsorship – Castrol and ICI. Of course, they did not sponsor my 10 year-old self, but they were kind enough to send some inspiring letters in response, and they kept me motivated.
I have not forgotten those letters, or the kindness of those companies and staff, and I suppose they engendered my philosophy of usually saying yes to the first initial enquiry from someone, and in particular, a desire to motivate future generations.

1990-2003: Research Engineer, Space Research Centre, University of Leicester, UK

So my space career really began in 1990, at the Space Research Centre within the University of Leicester.  To be honest, before I saw the position advertised, I had little idea where Leicester was, and I certainly had no idea that we were doing cutting-edge space engineering and science in the UK.

I signed up for what I thought was a 3 year-project and ended up staying just a bit longer!

Joint European X-ray Telescope (JET-X)

My initial role (1990-1995) was mechanical engineer on the Joint European X-ray Telescope (JET-X).  This was to be launched by the Russian Space Agency, and the collaboration was with the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Engineering Department of Leicester University.  One task was to specify and oversee the development of the 4m long Carbon-Fibre Reinforced Polymer “optical bench” telescope tube that was being manufactured in Moscow. Barnes Wallis would have loved this modern application of his novel “geodetic” structure design concept.

I also designed the mirror module mounting system, and was responsible for a lot of the environmental testing.  Very interesting, considering that the whole telescope had a mass of ~450kg and was over 4m tall – imagine that shaking around on a vibration test table.

The project involved trips to the pre-perestroika and glasnost Soviet Union– it was fascinating to watch the changes.  By the way, if anyone knows where to obtain the “Soviet Champagne” that used to be available in Moscow in the 1990s, please let me know – Christmases are not the same without it!

European Photon Imaging Camera (EPIC-MOS)
XMM-Newton (image: ESA)

From 1995-1999: I was mechanical systems engineer for the European Photon Imaging Camera on the highly successful XMM-Newton space telescope mission.  This was the first opportunity that I had to take components from initial concept through to manufacture, assembly, test and launch.

XMM-Newton was launched in 1999 and continues to send back amazing images.  Our instrument is especially built to grab images and spectra from X-ray sources, and where X-rays are being generated, you can be sure that there is something amazing happening, usually due to very hot gases moving very quickly.  So we’re looking at nebulae – the birth places of stars, black holes (being energetic, X-rays are often the last signs given off by something falling into a black hole) and binary star systems, where two stars are orbiting around each other, dragging hot gases between them.

Beagle 2 Mars lander (Beagle 2 project)

1997-2003: In the late 1990s, the Space Research Centre hosted a visit from Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University.  While I watched him presenting, I suddenly realised that I had not been inspired by space for quite a while, and his presentation awoke the feelings that made me dream of going into space in the first place.  He was talking about an adventure story – scientists in the desolate wastes of the Antarctic had spotted something sitting on the sterile white surface – a dark object.  They took it back to the lab, and years later it was analysed, and found to be a meteorite that had originated on Mars.  More excitingly, it appeared to have “micro-fossils” in it.  But nobody could decide if these were truly signs of life having existed on Mars at some point.

The only way to know for sure would be to go there, and Colin happened to be developing a “chemistry set”, a miniaturised mass spectrometer that could look at rock samples and sniff the atmosphere to determine whether there were signs of existing or past life on the Red Planet.  A year or so later, we heard that he had managed to cajole the European Space Agency into letting him put a small “probe” on the side of their Mars Express spacecraft that was leaving for the Mars in 2003.  For planetary missions, launch dates are selected because of the relative orbital positions of celestial bodies, so we needed to jump at this chance.  Colin appropriately named the mission Beagle2 after the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed, gathering data for his pioneering work on the origins of life.

I began as mechanical engineer for the whole concept.  The problems were that the project had very little money, very little time, and very little mass.  The budget for the entire project was less than half that for the film The Martian.  We had just 120kg for the complete “probe” – this is everything from heatshield, backshell, parachutes, airbags and the actual part that would land on Mars and carry out experiments.  And then half-way through our development, the European Space Agency turned around and said that, oh – by the way – you only have about half that mass now.  I clearly remember receiving a telephone call from Colin Pillinger when he had received this news.  He asked me if we could still do the project with the reduced mass.  I said yes.

We did re-engineer the design to something that was very capable and mass-efficient, and had lots of science compared to any previous Mars missions.  The clamshell arrangement that I designed was a very neat way to package everything while maximising area for solar heat and light energy absorption, for maximising the length of the robot arm, etc.  Sadly, the Department of Trade and Industry decided that if they were to provide funding for the project, it must go to industry, and so the task of completing the lander development fell to someone else.

The Beagle2 PAW – a “Swiss army knife for the 21st Century”

I became Chief Engineer for the Beagle 2’s PAW (the suite of tools and instruments at the end of the robotic arm), responsible for the engineering management and co-ordination of the design and construction of this complex piece of equipment. I also carried out detailed design, analysis, test and integration work. Described as a ‘Swiss army knife for the 21st century’, the PAW was a highly optimised package created in collaboration with teams around the world.

The team included the unique Dr TC Ng, who led Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Corer/Grinder package development, alongside Professor KL Yung.

My challenge was to bring the PAW design together within very tight constraints of mass, volume, extreme environmental conditions, radiation and electrical interference. I also spent many hours in the aseptic facility. In this sterile room, the lander could be assembled without contamination from humans.  This is incredibly important, because if you find signs of life on Mars, you can be sure that someone will ask you to prove that you didn’t carry it there with you!  Suiting up to go into the aseptic facility was very much like preparing for a spacewalk – not the most comfortable working environment, but a great life experience.

Once my work on Beagle2 was complete, I decided that it was time to do something different – anything.  WhenI left the University of Leicester Space Research Centre, I experimented with various tasks, careers and businesses, to learn and to become refreshed.  Nonetheless, I continued to be involved in space along with my other creationeering and crimefighting roles.

2003-2006: Technical Director (Astro Pioneer Ltd)

Platform for High Altitude and Space Exploration (PHASE): Designed, built and tested a high altitude flying robot (aerobot) platform for a variety of uses including simulation of Mars atmospheric flight.

Electranut: Identified an epoxy developed in the USA, which debonds when a low current, high voltage supply is connected to it. On its own, it is not suitable for space use, (because of the variability of different adhesive joints). Designed a set of components that used the epoxy in a controlled manner, to give an ‘off the shelf’ bonded joint that can be debonded very reliably.

Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) Pinpuller: Developed the pinpuller as one of several creations based around Shape Memory Alloys. These alloys contract with significant force when heated beyond their transition temperature. Though not very electrically efficient, SMAs pack a lot of force and displacement in a very small and lightweight package, and so are ideal for space release devices – particularly where cleanliness and shock are issues, for example when deploying optical components. Conventional space release devices are based on pyrotechnics and can cause significant shock and a lot of debris when operated.

Led the further miniaturisation of the hold-down and release mechanism developed at Astro Pioneer Ltd. Device is now one quarter of its original size and mass, (<20 grammes) and can hold down 1kg masses at accelerations up to 20 grms.

The pinpuller was quarter the mass of the competing commercial product and was launched on a sounding rocket as part of the Despun Rocket Borne Imager (Derbi) payload.  I like to point out that the pinpuller was actually on a sounding rocket that blew up, and when we recovered it, it was still functioning perfectly!

SMANut: Another novel release mechanism, this time based on a bi-directional Shape Memory Alloy annulus and collet, that enables passive, automatic release of space mechanisms.

SWIFT X-ray Telescope: Carried out configuration design and early orbit thermal analysis, as a consultant to the University of Leicester.

2006-2009: Systems Engineer, Magna Parva Ltd

I was instrumental in converting Magna Parva Ltd from a small motorsport business to a successful SME in the space industry, by leading a successful proposal and subsequent ~€350k project to develop a novel Ultrasonic Drill Tool for Planetary Exploration for the European Space Agency (ESA).

I led the development of the Rock Abrasion Tool candidate for the ExoMars mission, and also a Smart Sun Sensor concept for martian use.

I was also systems engineer for the ESA BepiColombo MIXS X-ray Fluorescence Telescope Optics Module – I led the technical development to pioneer a robust optics mounting method for delicate Micro-Channel Plates destined for the harsh environment of the planet Mercury. Interestingly, this project very neatly book-ended my involvement with the Leicester Space Research Centre. It’s not easy to focus X-rays – you have to bounce them off a heavy metal at a “grazing incidence”. On JET-X, we did this with huge sets of steel shells that were gold-coated, each weighing 75kg. It was my job to ensure that they were mounted on a structure that could withstand their high g-loading during launch, and that was a tough job, given the mass limitations. On Bepicolombo, some genius had worked out that you can take square glass channels and pull them like a stick of rock until the channels are tiny (“microchannels”) and arrange them in a geometry that is similar to a lobster’s eye. Once gold-plated, they focus X-rays very well, and they work out about 1/1000th of the mass of the mirrors that we used on JET-X! But the challenge changed – now the modules were so delicate that we had to work out how to protect the mirrors, rather than the structure the mirrors were mounted on.

At Magna Parva, I was responsible for identifying business opportunities and leading space project proposals, and mentoring new staff in all aspects of space engineering.

Between 2008 and 2009 I decided to become a student again myself, at least for a little while – it’s important to stay fresh. I attended Cranfield University (I love the fact that the campus is on an active airfield) and completed MSc modules in Astrodynamics and Mission Analysis and Space Systems Engineering. I completed Exec MBA modules in Accounting, Strategic Decision Science, Strategic Marketing, Operations and the Supply Chain, Economics of Organisations and Strategy. Also completed short modules in Systems Engineering, Technical and Report Writing.

In the meantime, the Great Pyramid was calling, and that would subsequently lead to the formations of Scoutek Ltd.  Among other things, Scoutek helped to define the payload of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s ambitious Chandrayaan 2 lunar rover, and my favourite space missions so far, ThumbSat and the Vitae Project.  It has been an incredible ride to space!