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 honors degree in physics and maths from Maynooth University and then I went to Cork where I went to the NURC which is now the Tyndall Institute. I did a Masters in microelectronics which itself has a lot of space applications, and with the knowledge I had I was able to apply to the Young Graduate Trainee-ship in ESA which is a very good 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.


Is the job interesting?

The job has been varied ever since I was a Young Graduate Trainee to what I’m doing now because I’ve worked on six different spacecraft missions. When I was a young graduate for example I worked on a satellite that was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket, so I was able to travel to Kourou where they launch the rockets and was able to see a rocket up close and personal, touch a rocket, and to actually see one launch is always fabulous, so this was one area. To build a satellite was a unique experience and made me very sale-able for other projects afterwards.


Also from the operations experience and knowledge I was offered a position in ESOC which is the Operations Centre for ESA. There, I worked on building a ground segment – the part on ground which supports the satellite when it’s in space, and I worked on a spacecraft called Envisat which was an environmental satellite – the heaviest satellite ever launched by ESA and I worked on that for a number of years.


After that then I moved to Rosetta and I was on the flight control team, so moving away from ground segment supports to spacecraft, I looked directly to working with the spacecraft on how to control it in operations. I worked for Rosetta for two years in ESOC on spacecraft operations. Rosetta launched and I helped to move for the first time ever the antenna that communicates with Earth which was quite cool. After that then I moved to Spain and from there I worked on Integral which is a Gamma Ray telescope. I was working in the Science Operations Centre there bringing data down. I moved then to Herschel, an infrared satellite and there again I was looking at science operations – how to put together a system to control the instruments on Herschel after it was launched, and then finally back to Rosetta.


So yes – is my job interesting? Well it’s been very varied and I’ve been able to experience a lot of things but I’ve enjoyed it all the way. It’s been hard sometimes but you’ve got to take the good with the bad in order to take the opportunity to move forward.


What was your most rewarding career event?

I’ve had numerous here at ESA, and maybe because I’m just lucky or been at the right place at the right time. I think being at the landing of Philae for Rosetta was extraordinary. That was very rewarding from the experience of being there to live the experience with the team who were commanding Philae. That was amazing! But rewarding, personally it was when I lead the team to search for Philae when it was lost on the surface and because of my work we were able to get that famous picture of Philae on the surface from my analysis. That was for me probably one of the most rewarding moments of my career.


What skill set helped you in your career?

I think the reality when you want to work in the space field, it’s a very varied skill set you need. To enter it you have to be very motivated, you have to really want to work in that field and then you need to look at how the work, how the study you’re doing and the subjects you’re studying will benefit you in the future to move into the space field.

Clearly the STEM subjects are the key in a lot of ways to move into 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 work in business and work in the business side of space because there’s space insurance. So there’s a lot of different ways. Now for me, 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. It’s something I didn’t have going into ESA but I built it over time.


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

If you want to work in ESA, I think look at what you’re studying and to look at the long term perspective. Is what you’re studying now going to help you to work somehow in the area of space? Space is quite wide. Like I said you can build spacecraft, you can operate spacecraft, you can build things on the ground to support the spacecraft. There are lots of things that you can do. You just have to identify an area that you would like to work in and then try to focus your career on this.


Now if you’re already studying and you’re doing a subject you don’t think is relevant – don’t be dismayed or don’t be worried because it’s often a stepping stone to entering to doing another course that will support you. In general, university in my opinion teaches you to learn, it teaches you what’s the best way of doing things and it’s this knowledge which is key for the next steps when you finish university and the next choices you have to make in order to move towards the career you want to take.


What was your earliest inspiration to get involved in space?

Frankly as a child I drew rockets, but then a lot of people draw rockets. I really did not imagine as I child that I would ever be working in the space field – I never would have imagined it. I think to have found that when I was in my twenties that the career I was following did in fact give me the opportunity to start working in ESA. It was surprising, it wasn’t something I had planned but it was certainly an amazing surprise to enter the field – an enjoyable surprise – and I’m thrilled and very happy I did it. For those who are studying now, don’t let it be a surprise. Plan for the future so it isn’t a surprise and you do end up going that way.