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Spotlight On

Felicity Sheasby (née Higgins), Hopeman 1997 - Project Controller ESA

Steering Through the Stars

As a teenager on expedition, I was more likely to be found looking down into the dubious contents of my Trangia than looking up at the stars. Fast forward (quite) a few years and here I am focusing on those stars every day whilst working in Satellite Operations for the European Space Agency. Just to dispel any illusions you may have, I’ve yet to see anyone wearing a space suit at work, our canteen doesn’t serve space ice cream and we don’t drive around the site on moon buggies.

Having said that: My boss is the German astronaut Thomas Reiter who holds the European record of 350 days in space. After that kind of experience I’m amazed he finds my financial reports interesting. I do get to help drive satellites, but more about that later; and Does anybody actually like space ice cream?

What is the European Space Agency?
ESA works on the same theory as Gordonstoun, in that we can achieve far more together than as individuals. By combining the financial and intellectual resources of our member states we can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country. Our aim is to provide and promote space science, space applications and research & technology for exclusively peaceful purposes. We do this by developing satellite based technologies and investing in our industrial partners.

We’re split over eight main sites across the world from our main launch site in Kourou, French Guiana to our Headquarters in Paris. Here’s a short summary of just some of them: At the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Holland we design and test satellites, and come up with fantastic new concepts for missions. Here’s where you’ll find the best chance to drive that moon buggy If you head to the pool at the European Astronauts Centre (EAC) nearby you’ve a good chance of seeing someone practicing a spacewalk in a spacesuit. Perhaps you can also test the food before it’s sent up as dinner on the on the International Space Station? The European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany is where I am based. We control most of the ESA satellites from here, sending and receiving signals via our network of ground stations based all around the world. You might have seen us most recently controlling the landing of Philae on Comet 67P from the Rosetta Satellite.

Felicity Sheasby

What do you do there?
Like any large organisation, ESA requires support in the areas “behind the scenes”. I’m a Project Controller, responsible for the budget and manpower planning for the operations of all of the ESA Astronomy satellites. I plan and control budgets from missions that have been in orbit for 15 years to “back of the envelope” calculations for concept missions. Trying to plan the operations costs for a mission that will be launching 10 years in the future is definitely interesting, but when the mission launches and the science data begins to flow down, it makes all those challenges worthwhile. I know it’s a cliché, but I genuinely enjoy my job. I work with people who are at the top of their fields and most of them have wanted to work ‘in space’ since childhood. Sometimes it can test of all my people skills to try to focus the attention of a fantastically intelligent engineer on finance questions rather than orbit calculations, but it’s all part of the job. In satellite operations, everyone is motivated towards our common goal, to get the satellites working in space, and producing the best data that it can, on time and (most importantly for me) on budget. I am very proud of our all of our achievements ranging from the headline grabbing comet landing to the smaller technology demonstrating satellite Lisa Pathfinder, recently in November 2015.

The question is ‘how did I end up there?'
In 2003, my (then) boyfriend and I relocated to Germany for his job. As I had previous graduate experience working with the financial services company Skandia Life, I came to work at ESOC as a financial planner, initially as working as a contractor through Serco, and later as an ESA staff member. Twelve years, one wedding, one house build and two kids later I still love living and working here.

What about the future?
The future for me is working on more new missions and trying to extend our existing flying missions for as long as possible. If the moon buggy development team need a controller, perhaps I may move to Holland. For now though, the next time you glance up at the night sky, take a look out for one those satellites working above you, and think of us in Darmstadt steering it through the stars.


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