Career Profiles: Thomas Ormston

What is your name?

Thomas Ormston 

Where do you work and what is your role/job title?

I work at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) which is part of the European Space Agency (ESA) and my job title is deputy spacecraft operations manager for Sentinel-1

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Yes. The lifestyle that I have with this job is one I’m very happy with. Partly because I’m a big Space fan, so I would do this job if they didn’t pay me! It’s fantastic and it also allows me to have a good work/life balance along with everything else, as well as meeting interesting and fun people at work.


Questions about your current Job

 How did you go about getting your current job?

I got my job through the Young Graduate Trainee Program that ESA runs. For all the member states, once you finish university you can do a one year placement at one of the ESA sites, that’s what I did – I applied in my final year to come and work where I currently work at ESOC in Germany, flying Mars Express. After the year I stayed on because I liked it so much as a contractor for ESA and then later became ESA staff again, and that’s where I’m working now in Earth Observation.

Describe a typical day.
I would say a typical day is completely untypical for us. That’s part of the joy of operations and spacecraft – you never really know what’s going to come from one day to the next. Of course it starts with checking on how the satellite we look after is doing… What are the parameters showing us? Is it working how it’s meant to be? Do we see any problems on the horizon? Then sometimes we must rush into firefighting and troubleshooting those. If it’s giving us a nice calm day, we look into what it’s going to be doing next and planning its coming activities. We also look at the long-term health of the satellite – Is it performing how we expect it to? Is there something we need to get on top of, or start monitoring? We also plan for worst-case-scenarios. We consider what could go wrong and how we would fix it. Of course if we have a plan and procedure in place that we’ve practiced then it makes it much easier to fix it if and when, one day, it actually does break.

What’s the coolest part of your job?

The coolest part is definitely sitting down at a console and knowing that you are flying something that is in Space! You’re the one that’s in control of it. Particularly when we do a launch, we’re in the big main control room that looks totally like something out of the movies. It’s always very cool, but slightly scary, to know that you’re in the hot-seat – This isn’t a movie and there’s no one coming to save you. You’re the one that’s actually responsible for making this mission fly.

Are there any elements of your job that you dislike

There’s not much I don’t like about my job to be honest. If I had to say something… Even when you’re flying spacecraft you still have to write reports and do documentation and things like that. You do actually realise why it saves you sometimes when you look back on it in the future but when you’re having to drag through it, it can be a little bit tough.


Questions about education and training

What subjects did you take in school/college and how have these influenced your career path?

At second level, I took physics, maths, and IT which set me up perfectly for this because those are some of the subjects that are perfect for Space. Of course the subjects that are good for Space are quite varied; All the typical STEM subjects are part of what we do… people who are into maths and computers are part of what we do, but we have other people too. We have doctors, we have interior designers designing things about the Space station, or political people to deal with the complexities of all the different countries working together.

In university I went on to study physics with Space engineering. That then set me up very well for where I am now. Of course Space operations (Flying a spacecraft) is not something you can directly learn anywhere. There’s a lot of on the job learning. But the background I have was absolutely fundamental in making sure I was successful with where I ended up.


Questions about yourself

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

One rewarding event for sure was working on Mars Express; Europe’s first mission around Mars.

The times where you see what the mission is doing and how it affects people is definitely very rewarding such as when I created the Mars webcam project. There, we’ve got a little camera on the spacecraft and put the images out on Twitter as soon as they’re taken. Seeing people really engaging with those and downloading the images, and processing them was great fun.

Also on Mars Express we supported various Mars landings by relaying data, particularly NASA landings such as Curiosity. Sitting in the control room and being on the loops while we worked with our partners at NASA was certainly very rewarding

But that’s also been very true since I moved to working on Earth Observation spacecraft where the impact of what we do is much more visible day to day. Sentinel-1 does a lot of disaster recovery operations; just this week we’ve been doing observations to support flooding relief in Russia and things like that. When you see that you’re a small part of the huge team that makes it happen, and you’re actually helping people on Earth by doing something I love (flying satellites) it’s really very rewarding.

What is your dream job?

This is pretty much my dream job. I think I’m very lucky in that I had a dream job in the first place. I know for a lot of people just finding what their dream job is can be very challenging, so I’m very lucky to have had one and to have ended up doing it. Flying satellites is definitely my dream job.


Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

What advice would you give to someone considering this job? Are there important personal characteristics, or good work experience they can undertake for example.

There’s a lot you can do if you’re considering this job or indeed any job in the space industry. The first thing to point out is that the subjects, for the skills you need to build up, are the typical skills you need to build up for most jobs. You need to be good at teamworking, you need to be good at thinking critically, you need to have common sense… Being able to work with computers is pretty much a must. Having decent maths skills, science skills and things like that is also very useful… but beyond that there’s a lot you can do from very early on to get involved in the Space world. For us, if you look at the ESA website, there’s lots of opportunities when you’re in school and particularly when you get to university. There’s lot of programs ESA run where you can get involved, you can come to ESA sites, learn what we do on special training courses, you can take part in ESA programs that will help fund you to fly in a zero-G aircraft, or even putting your projects/experiments on a sounding rocket…things like that. So there’s lots of ways you can get involved with ESA from fairly early on. Not only does that look great when you finally apply, it’s also a lot of fun because you get to meet people from all over Europe who are also super interested in Space so the thing I would say is to keep an eye out there. It’s not just ESA, there’s lots of programs to help you get involved in Space and STEM subjects in general and all of those look good and build the skills that you need to work in the Space industry.