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Interview with a Space Scientist: Prof. Martin Barstow
Interview with a Space Scientist: Hazel McAndrews
Working at the European Space Agency
BNSC Careers

Interview with a Space Scientist

Download the MP3 here

Interviewer: Sarah Bucknall (SB) National Space Centre

Interviewee: Professor Martin Barstow (PB) University of Leicester

SB:       This is Sarah Bucknall from the National Space Centre. I’m here with Martin Barstow, a professor of Astrophysics and Space Science and head of the department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester. Martin, please tell us a little bit about what you do.

PB:       Well, it’s quite a lot of administration these days now that I’m actually head of the department. My main career was involved in building instruments for satellites and rockets and then actually using those instruments in space to study distant stars and galaxies in the universe.

SB:       When did you realise you’d like to be a space scientist? Have you always been interested in space?

PB:       Well I’ve certainly been interested in space for an awful long time now and when I was young was the time that the Apollo astronauts were landing on the moon. And it was actually all that activity, the Gemini programme and the Apollo programme, that really got me excited about being a space scientist. Actually, I really wanted to be an astronaut but it wasn’t possible back then.

SB:       Is it possible now?

PB:       It’s certainly easier now than it used to be, there are many more people that can be astronauts. When I was young at school, only really fit airline pilots, jet fighter pilots could actually train to be astronauts because they had to really be able to fly the spacecraft. Nowadays, scientists can actually be astronauts as well and NASA train a lot of mission specialists to go on board the Space Shuttle and up to the Space Station to actually carry out science experiments in space. So if I was say 10 or 15 years younger I could probably apply to be an astronaut. I’d still quite like to do that to be honest.

SB:       So if there are any young budding space scientists out there right now, what are their chances of becoming an astronaut in 10 years time?

PB:       Well, to be honest they’re not very high because there are an awful lot of people that want to be astronauts and not that many places. It’s incredibly incredibly competitive but it’s always good to have a goal. But there are also lots of other jobs, working in space science, and that’s why I ended up doing what I do. Because I couldn’t be an astronaut, I thought well what’s the next best thing? The next best thing is to actually build the hardware that takes people into space, that people use in space, and actually do science with it. 

SB:       What qualifications have led you to where you are now?

PB:       I followed what you might call a pretty traditional route into science and it’s probably also the main route into science even now. So I took GCSEs, then I went on to do science A-levels at school, before going onto University to study for a degree in physics. And then I did a PhD, that is a doctorate, and that is a qualification really that gets you a permanent job in a university.

SB:       So what did you decide to focus on for your PhD?

PB:       Well I did physics as an undergraduate in York and my tutor in York knew a lot about what was going on in space and I always wanted to do research in space. So he said, go down to Leicester and work there. So I applied to come to Leicester without really knowing what it was I was going to do except that I wanted to do some work in space. And it was only while I was actually doing my PhD and actually learning about what it’s like to build instruments and what it’s like to fly instruments on board rockets that I really started to get an idea of what kind of career I could have.  

SB:       So if somebody were to have an interest in space, what A-levels would you advise them to go for?

PB:       You really have got to do physics and maths. You can’t do physics without knowing maths so those 2 go together. And the best route into space science is still physics. It gets you onto normal physics courses, where you can learn about physical sciences and space research. Or it gets you into engineering where you can actually work more closely on the space hardware eventually. It is becoming more useful to have also things like biology and chemistry. One of the hot topics at the moment is looking for life in the solar system and we’re planning to send space probes to Mars to do that. So people who also know physics and some biology or chemistry are becoming more and more valuable.

SB:       As a space scientist, what skills do you need in addition to your qualifications?

PB:       An awful lot of patience because it takes a long time to build a space mission. Some of the biggest satellites that we’ve worked on have taken 10 or 15 years to actually get to the stage from the first drawings and designs to putting them in orbit. So you certainly need patience, and you need to be prepared to plan ahead over quite a long period of time and be able to look ahead into the future. 

SB:       During your degree in physics, did you do much practical work?

PB:       I did quite a lot of practical work, I did an actual experimental degree so I got to do lots of work in the laboratories as opposed to doing theory which I wasn’t so interested in when I was a student. So I did lots of experiments and one of the things that I did was use a telescope to study sun spots as part of a project in my last year at university.

SB:       What kinds of occupations are available to a person with a degree in space science?

PB:       There are lots of things you can do. There is what I would call the route into academia, that is into a university. People who want to work in universities have to have a PhD really. And then they might go on and spend a few years working as a research scientist and then if they’re lucky they might get a permanent job as a lecturer, where they will do some teaching in space science and also some research of their own. There are plenty of opportunities, if you’re not interested in that kind of career, to go and work in industry. The UK space industry is actually very big and there are lots of large and small companies who employ people with those kind of skills. Companies like EADS Astrium, which is the main space company in Europe, they employ a lot of people.

SB:       So if you gain your qualifications in the UK, is it easy to adapt and get an occupation abroad?      

PB:       Yes, lots of British scientists go and work abroad, especially at NASA and the European Space Agency. And a British degree is good for doing that almost anywhere in the world. The standards of degrees are actually maintained internationally and people spend a lot of time making sure that UK degrees are as good as degrees in Europe. So it’s very easy to move around. And actually it works the other way as well because we have lots of people coming to work for us from other countries in Europe. So space work is very international and one of the nice things about is it you get to work with lots of people from very very different countries.

SB:       Are there a lot of opportunities to travel? Do you get to go to lots of conferences?

PB:       I would say that’s one of the perks of the job. Yes we do go to conferences and most of the time they’re in quite nice places. Sometimes they’re in England, which is not so good. But also if you’re working in space research you have to go abroad to do the work because it’s all international. We do have a good space programme in the UK but we do have to work with lots of other countries because we can’t afford to do it all on our own. Satellites and space missions tend to be collaborations of different countries, sometimes European Space Agency countries, sometimes we work with the USA through NASA. Sometimes we work with the Japanese or even the Chinese and we’re just starting collaboration with India. So there are lots of different countries that we work with and therefore we’ve got to travel to those countries and work with those scientists, and that’s one of the nice things of the job.

SB:       So what would you say the best thing is about being a space scientist?

PB:       The best thing is the excitement of getting something up in space and to see it work. It’s a real eureka moment when it actually does work properly for the first time. It’s very hard to describe how you feel; it’s just the best feeling in the world. But to get there you actually have to go through some of the worst feelings in the world when you actually see someone stick your very nice satellite on top of this gigantic firework and you know that it might not actually get into orbit, it could all blow up on the way up and you could lose 10 or 15 years in the space of a few seconds. So at the same time it’s gut wrenching and exhilarating.

SB:       What would you say is the worst thing about being a space scientist?

PB:       The worst time is when something does go wrong. If you lose a mission or if a rocket blows up and you see several years often many years of work go down the tubes, that’s really really bad. It’s almost like the end of the world’s happened at the time.

SB:       Can you give us an example of one of the projects you’ve worked on, one of your missions?

PB:       I’ve worked on lots of things. At the moment I’m working on a small rocket programme. These rockets don’t actually go into orbit but what they do is put an instrument just above the atmosphere for about 5 minutes so that we can actually test out our new ideas. That’s a good example of the highs and the lows because the first time we tried to fly this rocket, the rocket went off course and they had to blow it up for safety. So we lost our instrument and had to start all over again. But the second time we had an absolute perfect flight and we got fantastic data from a very new design of telescope that we were trying out and we’re now working hard to fly that instrument again towards the end of this year in 2006.

SB:       So, from the first attempt when it failed, how long was it until you could try again?

PB:       Well we did get quite a lot of our hardware back. Although the rocket blew up, we were able to recover the instrument on a parachute. It was a bit battered but it wasn’t too bad so it took us about a year to actually essentially get it back into the shape that we needed for it to fly again. But if we’d have lost the whole thing it would have taken 3 or 4 years to actually rebuild it from scratch.

SB:       What would be your advice to someone currently at school who had an interest in science and was considering pursuing it at a higher level?

PB:       Do it! There’s nothing more exciting than being a scientist. You learn things that nobody else has ever known, if you’re doing science research. You find objects in space that nobody ever knew existed. And almost everyday you’re learning new things so it never gets boring. It’s always a tremendously exciting thing to be doing.

SB:       Great. Thank you very much, Martin.      




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