She's an Engineer- Abigail Hutty

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Route into engineering

I studied Mechanical Engineering at University, with a sandwich placement year which I did at a company that makes small satellites. Once I graduated I took a job on Airbus' Space Division Graduate Scheme, and since then have moved between various roles and missions, before taking a lead role on ExoMars, Europe's first rover mission to Mars, which I worked on for 7 years.

Job description

I have worked on various space missions in my career so far, but my current role is on the Sample Fetch Rover Mission - a Mars rover mission built by Airbus in the UK, as part of a bigger mission being run jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA), with NASA. This will be the first ever mission to attempt to bring samples from Mars back to Earth for analysis - we are trying to find out if life ever existed on Mars, or if it is still there!

My role in the systems engineering team is to understand how the whole mission works, and to make sure that everything works well together as a complete "system". This means understanding how each area of the rover, like the body structure, or the power generation, or the on-board computers and software etc, all work, so that if any area has to change part of its design, you can tell what impact that will have on all the other parts, and be able to plan any updates that are then required in those other sections.

My day involves talking to a lot of people! It is primarily an office job, and with quite routine working hours, so I normally work from 8:30 - 4:30pm. I normally get into the office and immediately read my emails, to find out if anything important has happened since I was last in the office. Being part of an international project, people work in lots of different time zones, so often people will have been working and sent emails to you throughout the night.

Once I've replied to anything urgent, I start planning and attending meetings to discuss all the topics that we have to address at the time. These are often involving lots of specialist engineers from different specialisms, trying to see how to make each of their subsystems work together, and understand what changes or impacts each of those systems will have on each other. Sometimes I will be talking to specialists at ESA or NASA, or suppliers at other companies around the world, as well as just the expert engineers within Airbus. These will often be workshops, where we will be drawing out our ideas for each other to discuss, and be very creative and interesting learning about the details of each others' specialist areas.

I do occasionally travel to these other suppliers or customers' sites for the more important meetings, or go to oversee testing that is going on or other important events in the project like that, which sometimes involves travelling for a few days - my trips are normally within Europe or North America.

Dream big! When I was 15 I had no idea this job existed, and there is no way I would have thought that someone like me would be able to achieve it, even if I had heard about it. Part of the challenge is to find an idea of a career that excites you, to even decide what subjects to study. If you've found WES, you're obviously already in a better position on this than I was!

Next you just have to do your research to work out what subjects you need to study to follow the path that suits you best. Apprenticeships look like a great route nowadays - if they had been running like they are now when I was studying I think they could have been a great option for me, although I went to University and I loved that too!

Then I guess eyes on the prize- sometimes when you are working on exam revision or submitting coursework it can be easy to lose sight of the end goal and get dejected about the short-term challenges facing you, but trust me, it will be worth it in the end!

And then stay curious and keep following your interests! If you decide as you go through your studies and training that something that you've just found out about is actually more interesting to you than your original plan - then go for it! Keep your eyes and ears open for new opportunities and don't be afraid to jump on the exciting ones as they become available to you - you might just find that you end up in a place much better than you would ever dared to dream is possible! :o)

Teachers who suggested Engineering to me, and seeing a British Engineer on the news talking about a mission to Mars they were working on - I never knew that engineers got to do things as cool as sending missions to other planets - especially right here in the UK!

The space industry is definitely going to keep growing both as technology develops and as we create ever more ambitious plans with what to do with it!

Space definitely is the final frontier- in terms of exploration, and understanding our place in the universe, and all of the science of how the universe formed, and what created life, and all of the other forces and science theories that we have not yet proven or understood. But space is also a great way of driving innovation - because the conditions there are so extreme it forces us to innovate - we have to solve problems that have never been solved before, but then those solutions often turn out to have useful applications right here on Earth, like new materials, new manufacturing techniques for medicines, or producing energy, or all the other challenges we have here on earth.

Spacecraft are also one of the only ways that we can observe and measure our Earth accurately, which is very important for things like monitoring and addressing climate change, assessing disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, or tsunamis, and planning the disaster relief effort afterwards. It also allows to communicate across large distances, which enables a lot of other important technologies like distance learning in rural and developing areas, remote operation of robots for medical operations in areas without adequate medical expertise, and many other exciting new fields that could have huge benefits for people's lives and livelihoods.

I was once driving a prototype (model) of our Mars rover out onto a stage, for a special event involving two heads of state and the CEO of Airbus. The Rover was meant to carry a big red button out to them, which they would jointly push to open a big event. It had worked fine in rehearsals, but then for the actual event loads of TV crews turned up and all their equipment was jamming our signals.

We hastily attached a booster aerial to the rover, and we could get the rover to start driving, but we didn't know if the connection would work or not when the rover reached the centre of the stage and it was further away from my controller. I couldn't send it out onto the stage to check as the event had already talking and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, was already making her speech! I had to just point the rover at these three VIPs, and hit go, and cross my fingers that it would stop when it got to them and not just keep going and run them over!

If I'd run over the head of state of Germany and Poland, AND the CEO of my company, I'm not sure I'd ever have lived that down! Fortunately after frantically mashing the stop button over and over again it did finally stop, just where it was meant to, and nobody was any the wiser...

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