Blast off for jobs in space science

The European Space Agency recruits up to 80 graduate trainees each year
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The Independent Online

With a little more daring, the European Space Agency (ESA) might have called its post-university training scheme the European Space Cadet programme. It would thereby have created the false, but engaging, image of gormless recruits stumbling around in tin foil suits and misunderstanding each other in different languages. Channel 4's recent hoax series, Space Cadets, in which nine gullible victims were tricked into thinking they were being trained to go into space, would have, inadvertently, created a bit of free publicity, and highlighted ESA's sense of fun.

But, no. Understandably perhaps, the organisation that coordinates 17 different countries' space programmes went for a more straightforward title: the Young Graduate Trainee (YGT) programme. This is the principal means used by ESA to recruit new waves of scientific and engineering talent from European universities.

ESA's mission is to "shape the development of Europe's space capability and ensure that investment continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe."

It does this in numerous ways, most notably by sending satellites into space, often carried by Ariane rockets, launched in French Guiana, South America, and training a group of astronauts to take part in space missions in collaboration with either the Americans or Russians.

Every year, ESA recruits between 60 and 80 new trainees, each one earmarked for a specific role at one of the agency's four main sites: Paris, the headquarters; Noordwijk in the Netherlands, where ESTEC, the design and technology hub for most spacecraft, is based; Darmstadt, in Germany, home to ESOC, which controls the satellites in orbit; and Frascati, near Rome, where ESRIN, the organisation that collects, analyses and distributes data sent back by satellites, is located.

Around November or December, ESA publishes on its website ( www.esa.int) a detailed list of training posts for the following Spring, each one stipulating the required academic expertise, which must be of at least masters degree level. Of the 2,000 applications routinely received, about 10 per cent are invited for interview. By far the largest proportion end up working at ESTEC, which, with a workforce of well over a thousand, comprises by far the biggest of ESA's sites.

"ESTEC is the technical heart of the agency," explains Fiona Walsh, who coordinates the YGT recruitment campaign at the Noordwijk facility.

Among the current crop of trainees at Noordwijk is Alexis Fesidis, a Greek national, educated in Germany. Following a masters in mechanical engineering, with a focus on aero- and astronautics, at university in Aachen, he successfully applied for a post in an ESTEC department that conducts feasibility studies for future spacecraft designs.

"ESA is the origin of most space projects in Europe," he explains, "and for me it was interesting to be where the ideas are coming from."

He recalls the application process as being straightforward, but the interview as "technically demanding."

Like all trainees he's attended core courses, giving an overview of all ESA's roles and needs, but he feels he's learnt most from the opportunity to work on real projects alongside ESA's established staff.

He's already looking for a job, within the space industry but outside ESA, for when his training period ends in May. This is normal, because ESA does not generally encourage trainees to stay after the standard one-year contract.

"We kick them out of the nest," says Walsh. "We want them to go out into the space industry and get their hands dirty for five or ten years and then come back to us."

Over the past couple of decades, between five and ten per cent of trainees, after varying periods away, have gravitated back to ESA in this way.

Very occasionally, though, someone will move directly from a trainee to a permanent role: for example, Amanda Regan, originally from Nottingham, who followed an engineering degree at Brunel with a space systems masters at the University of Texas.

She went directly from a YGT post, dealing with the safety and reliability of spacecraft and their payloads, to a permanent job in an ESA department planning tasks for future earth observation satellites.

"I'd always wanted to go into a space career, and so for me this was the logical place to be," she explains. "What I really like about ESTEC is that it's extremely international."

In addition to the YGT, ESA offers between 20 and 30 post-doctoral fellowships every year. These are strictly limited to two years duration, but also provide another potential pool of candidates for permanent posts. Current vacancies, at any one time, are always advertised on the website.

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