Career Profiles: Laurence O’Rourke

Laurence O’Rourke Space Careers Interview

What is your name?

Laurence O’Rourke 

How did you get to work with ESA?

I did a double honours degree in Physics and Maths from Maynooth University and then I went to Cork where I went to the NMRC which is now the Tyndall Institute. At NMRC, I did a Masters in microelectronics which in itself has a lot of space applications, and with this background I was able to apply to the Young Graduate Traineeship in ESA. This is a really great programme open to all Irish Masters students and gives a lot of opportunities within ESA. So I applied for that, I got it, and spent one year as a young graduate in ESTEC, the technical centre of ESA located in Holland.

Is the job interesting?

It’s super interesting and the type of work I’ve done has varied a huge amount over the many years I’ve spent with ESA. Since my time as a Young Graduate Trainee to where I am now (based in Spain), I’ve worked on 6 different satellite missions, all different and each with their own challenges. As a Young graduate I was lucky to work on a satellite called Teamsat where I helped to build and test it (my name is even written on the side of the satellite). It launched in 1997. After Teamsat, I moved to ESA’s Operations centre located in Germany and I worked to integrate the ground segment (the system controlling the satellite on-ground) for a mega environmental satellite called Envisat. When that launched in 2002, I moved for my first stint on Rosetta working on the flight control team to control the satellite after it separated from the rocket. It launched in March 2004 and I left ESOC in August 2004 moving to ESA’s Astronomy Centre (ESAC) in Madrid Spain.

In ESAC, I worked on science operations on two missions – INTEGRAL (a gamma ray telescope) and Herschel (a far infrared telescope). This work included putting together the system to control the instruments of these satellites and to process the science data when it was sent to ground. I moved back to Rosetta in 2011 before it arrived at its comet and besides the science operations tasks that I carried out, I also worked as a system engineer for the Philae Lander which touched down on the surface of the comet in 2014. That was an amazing experience for sure.

Since 2016 when the Rosetta mission ended (crash landing on the comet surface), I’ve moved over to the PLATO exoplanet mission which launches in 2026. Here I’m preparing with a team in Madrid the system which we will use to control the 26 cameras which the satellite has. This satellite will most certainly be the first to identify Earth-2; the twin of our Earth around a star like our sun.
So is my job interesting? Absolutely – it’s been very varied which I’ve enjoyed very much. There have been tough times but when compared to the good ones, there’s no doubt that I wouldn’t change anything I have done.

What was your most rewarding career event?

I’ve had numerous here at ESA with two that I will flag here. I think my work with the Philae lander has been really rewarding. Whether being with the Lander Team in Cologne for the landing of Philae on the comet or leading the team to search for and imaging Philae when it was lost on the surface or indeed writing a Nature paper presenting to the world one of the undiscovered landing points when Philae crossed the surface; all were career rewarding events. Another major career event was my getting a Doctorate in Astrophysics in February of this year (2021) from the Complutense University of Madrid. It just goes to show that it’s never too late to get a PhD even when working full time.

What skill set helped you in your career?

Clearly the STEM subjects are the key in a lot of ways to move into working on space missions. The sciences, the mathematics, the technologies, all of them are very, very important. But they’re not the only way though, you could of course have a career in business and decide to work in the business side of space. So there are a lot of different ways to enter the field.
In my case, my skill set really has built up over time from the microelectronics part to building spacecraft to operating them in space to building ground segments. I didn’t have any experience with space missions when entering into ESA but I gained this over time. I have also done different courses over the years to augment my knowledge and experience.
I think the best demonstration of my range of STEM skills was when I published a paper in Nature at Halloween in 2020. I was able to demonstrate what it feels like to push your hand into the billions years old ice on the surface of a comet. This was a paper that used a wide variety of engineering, science, and mathematical techniques.

What advice would you give to anyone looking for a career at ESA?

If you want to work in ESA, I think you should study carefully the wide range of careers that you can carry out in the Space field. You can build spacecraft, you can operate spacecraft, you can build equipment or software on the ground to support the spacecraft or even work in the business areas e.g. finance, space insurance etc. Having done your research, look at what you’re currently studying and where you want to be in the long term and make a plan to achieve your goals.  Now if you’re already studying and you’re doing a subject you don’t think is relevant – don’t be dismayed or worried because you can often use this as a stepping stone to do another course that will help you. If your area has nothing to do with Space but you really want to go that route, one recommendation I can make is to do a masters in space systems engineering or space science. At that point, look for some work experience which builds up your background making it easier for you to be taken up by a space company.

What was your earliest inspiration to get involved in space?

I really did not imagine as I child that I would ever be working in the space field although I did have a keen interest in astronomy though and studied the stars & constellations. To find in my twenties that the career I was following did in fact give me the opportunity to start working in ESA was surprising. It wasn’t something I had planned but it was certainly an amazing experience to enter the field and I’m thrilled and very happy I did it. I did a space systems engineering course as a YGT and this proved to be a perfect introduction to knowing where my experience could slot in.  For those who are studying now, don’t let it be a surprise. Plan for the future and focus your career in the right direction.