Lester Waugh looks back on how he got to work on a mission to the red planet

Someone recently asked me how I got to the exciting position I am in today. Before answering them I actually had to stop and think about it - remembering everything that has brought me to my current job as rover systems engineer on the European Space Agency's (ESA) current mission to Mars.

The story starts when I was 19 and I moved from New Zealand to London. The need for me to develop a stable career and an opportunity to work as an electronics test engineer took me into technology, where I gained an HNC in electronic engineering. With a growing interest in computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI), I realised I needed further qualifications and began applying to universities.

Four years at Keele University studying computer science and psychology were rich, rewarding and often thrilling. Then, still interested in AI, I came across the MSc in astronautics and space engineering at Cranfield Institute of Technology (now Cranfield University Aerospace). I had heard about the Horizontal Take Off and Landing (HOTOL) launcher that at that time was forecast to be the next generation of launchers for space flight in Europe.

I saw an opportunity to combine all the disciplines I had acquired - electronics, computing and AI for control systems, and psychology for ergonomics and human factors in manned space flight. However, by the time I had made it into the space industry it was clear that the manned HOTOL programme was not going to run.

With EADS Astrium I worked in electronic systems, process improvement, business acquisition, operations and other disciplines before being asked to provide support to the Beagle 2 programme (a mission to Mars to search for signs of life) to resolve issues relating to radio communications.

I dealt with a whole range of issues on Beagle 2, including communications, operations, descent and landing systems and on-board software. Despite the loss of the spacecraft, advances in knowledge, experience and technology gained by the Beagle 2 have been used in the ESA programme ExoMars.

Working on the ExoMars rover seemed a logical follow-on to Beagle 2 and I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to lead the rover technical design team through the Phase A design stage, which resulted in the development programme of the rover prototype nicknamed Bridget.

Working in the space industry is very challenging and rewarding. As a system engineer and engineering manager, I pull together all the different elements of the design to make sure they work together as a whole. Reliability, robustness, ease of operation and high levels of performance and stability are all pre-requisites of a spacecraft design. If a spacecraft breaks there is no chance of repair, so discipline, commitment and focus from each team member is crucial - all parts must work for the system to be fully functional.

So what of the future? The Beagle 2 mission and the Bridget rover prototype have stimulated huge interest in interplanetary exploration. I hope to continue leading the exciting ExoMars rover team and encourage others, particularly those just starting out, to join in with pushing back the final frontier. It can be very demanding, but it is also very rewarding.

Lester Waugh works for EADS Astrium