So what do our employees do all day? Here, Nick James, an executive engineer in our space team, tells us about his typical day in the office and explains why there’s never been a more exciting time to be involved in space
I’m lucky enough to be able to cycle to work – five miles there and back. I’m definitely no lycra cyclist, though, so I don’t need to change when I get to the office. That said, back in 2019 BC (Before Covid) and customers were visiting us on a regular basis I kept smarter clothes in the office. Nowadays, as more people are working from home, we’re a bit more relaxed.
I normally get to the office between 8:30 and 9am. First up is a quick triage of my emails. Normally there are no surprises, but every now and again there will be something really important. At BAE Systems we’re particularly strong on satellite ground station equipment, such as high performance signal processors. These allow our customers to receive and process very weak signals from spacecraft a very long way away – sometimes over a billion kilometres.
Occasionally, there is an email letting us know about an operational problem requiring a rapid response. When that happens the day I had planned completely changes but I have a team of highly capable engineers who can help me do a lot of Sherlock Holmes-style detective work on the information we have received. In those cases we’ll get logs and recordings from the ground staff about various events. It’s our job to go through them and try to figure out what happened and understand if the problem is associated with the way they are using the equipment, or of it is an issue with the spacecraft itself or with our software.
When this sort of thing happens it makes the day not go to plan. However, in more normal circumstances I have a set of things I need to do every day. I work on a number of different projects for a range of customers but I am also working on BAE Systems-related work connected to the security of small spacecraft in earth orbit.
There’s a lot of work we’re doing to harden access to these small lightweight satellites which are quite vulnerable to attack. We’re currently working with partners to make sure their satellites are cyber secure, given the importance of space assets to both defence and commercial use.
My calendar has got fixed meetings but I also try and leave quite a large amount of time free to focus on the technical work. I’ve managed to be reasonably successful in keeping myself at the technical end of things – I like getting my hands dirty and get involved in a lot of the technical design as I think this is the area I am most valuable.
For example, what we’re really enjoying at the moment is our work on ‘new space’. This is where we’re developing payloads for shoe-boxed sized, relatively inexpensive satellites to perform communications and surveillance work that previously required satellites the size of a bus. Combined with plummeting launch costs – you can now launch a small satellite for about £300,000 – this means we can do things far more rapidly and cost-effectively than before.
This shows how the systems that we work on have become much more complex than previously. Now, my contribution can impact whole systems rather than just one or two elements of particular spacecraft – we’re now working on high level design of missions and communication systems. This involves talking to a lot more people than I would have done in the early part of my career, where I was largely working in small teams.
The way I communicate with colleagues is now very different and this was significantly accelerated by lockdown. Now, my day is marked by regular conference calls with team members all over the UK, as well as with colleagues across Europe, the US and Australia too. I’m much more aware of time zones than I used to be since I am working on missions and projects that are spread around the world, rather than those just in the UK – my horizons have been broadened, quite literally, and it’s great to get international colleagues’ perspectives on shared interests, issues and projects.
Take one of our key product areas, which are Software Defined Radios, or SDRs, for example. In ‘old space’ you needed to do most of your computational work on the ground, given the expense of putting suitable processing power into space. Now, though, we can make SDR payloads for satellites that can actually process information in space rather than bouncing signals to ground stations to do that work. This has the potential to speed up comms and surveillance by reducing the massive volumes of data that need to be transmitted.
Lunch is normally a sandwich at my desk but if the weather is decent I do try and get out for a walk just to clear my head. I’m lucky that our office at Great Baddow is surrounded by some lovely countryside and, just like on my cycling commute, I get some of my best ideas when I’m away from my laptop screen – it’s particularly good for solving a particularly knotty problem you might be stuck on.
The afternoon continues in the same vein as the morning. Things can come in which can tip you off course but ordinarily my afternoons are much the same as the earlier part of the day, with the addition of calls and catch-ups with colleagues in the US due to the time difference.
Before the pandemic there was quite often travel to Europe and the US and I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know colleagues in person, before we all switched to remote work – it’s much harder to have that same rapport with someone you’ve never physically met.
I occasionally do talks for local schoolchildren as well. I’m a STEM ambassador so go into schools to encourage an interest in engineering and space – something that I had at an early age and want to pass on. As soon as you bring space into the conversation it really brings it to life, as children are just naturally interested straight away.
I try to get away by 6pm most days. I stay longer if I need to but the work is flexible – sometimes I finish earlier – and we try to ensure a good work/life balance. People aren’t so worried about how many hours you work but rather the quality of your output.
I’ve always managed to include space in my career and can only see that continuing, given the increasing number of opportunities we’re seeing. There has certainly never been a more exciting time to be involved in space at BAE Systems – I’d recommend it to anyone.
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