Katie Hassell (@khassellspace) is a Spacecraft Thermal Engineer at Airbus Defence and Space, based in Stevenage. Since joining just over four years ago, she has worked on EarthCARE, Solar Orbiter, PLATO and LISA PathFinder; as well as being an active STEM Ambassador. Find out below how she got to where she is now; why spacecraft engineering is her dream job and why spacecraft are a girls’ best friend. Katie will be on her Soapbox on Saturday May 28th 2-5pm in London, showing us how engineers are “Keeping Space Cool (But Not Too Cold)”.
SS: Katie, how did you get to your current position?
KH: I’ve never really known what I wanted to do, so I just went with what felt right at the time. That lead me to A levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. An inspiring teacher later and I found myself reading Physics at the University of Warwick. I don’t think I made the best student, but I had a great time and learnt so much; I look back on my notes now and wonder how on Earth I used to know even half of it! I worked out a career in academia wasn’t for me; but that left me being unsure of what I did want. At that point, I was doing pretty much anything, one of the big employers where I lived was the local County Council, I had 3 different roles there over nearly 4 years. At that point, I missed science so much, I sat down and reviewed what I liked about each job, what I was good at and what I was really interested in. The answer (now I look at it, it’s obvious): I like space; actually, I love space. A bit more reading around and I learnt that my ideal job was as a spacecraft engineer, using physics to create structures that will help scientists learn more about the universe. To boost my confidence, I saved a lot of money and studied Aerospace Engineering MSc for 12 months and applied for the job I’m currently in now. I can’t describe how nervous I was that first day: I’d spent all that money and time, relocated, paused the career path I was already on, what if I didn’t like it? I loved it, I still love it and I’ve never looked back.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
KH: I think various teachers along the way gave me the spark for science. In particular, my A level teacher pointed me at a book: “Mr Tomkpins in Wonderland” by George Gamow; I became hooked on Physics.
I also couldn’t have done it without my family; they don’t have a science background at all, so some of my options must have looked like I was deliberately taking the hard route, I wasn’t, but they supported me whatever I was up for doing next.
I find space fascinating, as a really easy starting point, the images are incredible; then you delve a bit deeper and learn about what it going on to create that; and so on, it’s such a huge subject and contains everything. It’s mind-boggling and totally wonderful.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your work?
KH: Space gives us an opportunity to look at the universe (including specific things within our Solar System) from a different vantage point; it removes a lot of the obstacles that we come across on Earth, e.g. the atmosphere! To do all that though, we design the spacecraft to do things automatically, we’ll still talk to them once they’re in space, but generally once a satellite is up there, we ask how it is doing and it just gets on with whatever it’s meant to be doing. Of course, the other cool thing about my job is that things I work on end up in space.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
KH: I do a lot of activities with schools as a STEM Ambassador, I’ve also done a lot with other age groups, but always at places where people are already interested in what I can tell them (e.g. the Science Museum); Soapbox Science is totally different. I believe that anyone can do anything if they want it enough, the hardest part of that though is: what does “anything” look like? I hope people will come away with an understanding that even if something it’s hard, it doesn’t make it impossible and that a bit of hard work goes a long way.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
KH: Eeeeeeeeeee! (OK, I know that’s not a word, but it’s both me jumping up and down for joy to get to do this and running circles everywhere trying to work out what to do, how to do it, how not to be boring and also trying to remember that not to speak at a million miles an hour)
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
KH: That it is for the really smart, or those who come from certain backgrounds, that it’s boring! That’s not one thing… I would like to change the perception that science is boring. I agree, sometimes the way it is delivered is dry, but that’s more about the delivery than the science itself; science is what happens when you start asking lots of questions, and everyone can ask questions.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female student considering pursuing a career in engineering?
KH: Engineering is such a broad subject, it’s likely that anything you’re interested in you can probably do engineering related to that. To me, it’s also a different thought process compared to science: science is “what does that do?” and engineering is “how can I do that?”; they both use the same starting points fairly often too.
As engineering is so all encompassing, it does mean that there is something for everyone. I like to think that I have one of the girliest jobs around, because spacecraft are very expensive and I get to make them shiny. It’s all a matter of viewpoints.