In honour of National Science Week, we spent some time with the brilliant Australian engineer Andrea Boyd. Since 2012 Andrea has lived in Belgium and Germany, working at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, where she is a flight controller for the International Space Station (ISS). A mechatronic engineer who graduated from the University of Adelaide, Andrea began her career in Australia as an automation engineer and mining control systems specialist. She joined the ISS flight control team eight years ago, was certified as a flight operations engineer for payload control and is now qualified for biomedical and crew operations.
You have had such an inspiring and unique career – can you tell us what took you from South Australia to the ESA? Did you always dream of having a career in space science and technology?
I’ve been fascinated by space, technology and exploration for as long as I can remember. My parents worked in rural health, so I went to kindy and primary schools all over South Australia, where the unobstructed views of the Milky Way and stars captivated me. I was a total bookworm but I was also into sports, computers and music. My parents were epic at balancing my activities across sports, the CSIRO Double Helix Science Club and orchestra.
When I was 10, I learnt the word ‘engineer’ watching Star Trek Voyager – they were the ones that made everything work in space and fixed problems, so I figured if I became an engineer I could do that too. Around the same time the ISS was starting to be assembled, like LEGO, while on orbit around Earth. Working on this, even though I had no idea exactly how, became my goal. In Year 10 I attended the South Australian Space School and met real-life scientists and engineers – plus a NASA astronaut! – for the first time.
I studied Mechatronics at the University of Adelaide, and worked at an awesome Aussie company doing automation while volunteering on a myriad of space projects. After a few years I researched positions in ISS flight control and combined my years of professional engineering and space volunteering in order to apply. It’s been a privilege to work with the European part of the ISS mission control team for almost ten years now.
What does a typical day in the office look like for you? Is there even such thing as a typical day?
We have a different combination of astronauts every few months and a new batch of science experiments every six months on orbit. There’s always something new to learn and discover!
I work in the flight control team as EUROCOM (European Communicator and Medical Operations), and for a typical day on console I will check in with the European Flight Director and my international counterparts (CAPCOM, PAYCOM, JCOM and the NASA biomedical engineers) then prepare with the other XCOMs (X-ray Communication) for the astronauts’ morning briefing. After that, crew perform 12-hour workdays, with a short break for lunch and exercise. The five mission control centres (Houston and Huntsville in the US, Moscow in Russia, Munich in Germany, and Tsukuba in Japan) support a packed timeline full of awesome activities. The ISS is a truly unique project where countries work together to advance science, medicine and engineering to benefit all humans.
Since February this year, the whole of the ESA has been working from home. I just go into the control room once or twice a week to take a console shift while wearing ESA-issued single-use masks. ESA is cautious and protective of our colleagues, so overall we’re working from home for the foreseeable future. There are lots of teleconferences!
What is your most memorable moment from work?
Off console I work in the Astronaut Operations Office. The best thing so far was supporting the most recent Italian astronauts’ mission – preparing and attending a Soyuz rocket launch in the Baikonur Cosmodrome from the same launchpad that Yuri Gagarin used!
What are some of the ISS science experiments you have worked on?
There has been so many – we support research from basic science to discovering new cures for cancer.
In biology we found that cells and tissues grow very differently in microgravity, so we have been able to develop new understandings of our human bodies. For medical research, things like protein structures can be grown and stay far more stable without gravity, so this is key to figuring out what works best without having to worry about the structure collapsing.
In one of the fluid science research projects, we discovered better ways of cleaning up oil spills. The incredible photos from astronauts, together with videos from the ISS cameras, can be layered together with details like glaciers, agricultural fields, cities, and coral reefs to better understand and protect our planet.
In materials science research, we developed new alloys for aircraft. With Earth Observations, we were able to assist with disaster management and even rescue humans lost at sea. One of my recent favourite experiments was a very clever study in airway monitoring to improve asthma.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your role?
I think the main challenges aren’t really work related. We train for hundreds of hours, first studying in the classroom, and then practising in the simulation room before working on console, so I’m very well prepared. This also includes training on how to handle cautions, warnings and emergencies on orbit. We have a procedure for everything!
Flight controllers are very tranquil people and continue to work calmly under pressure as a big global team. We communicate with each other all the time, which I think is key to managing challenges.
The biggest headaches have been cultural things, like figuring out how to do my taxes in French, Dutch and German. Also, during the days leading up to the Soyuz rocket launch, when I was live translating between Italian and Russian!
The Australian government has very recently established the Australian Space Agency (ASA) – what excites you about Australia’s future in space science?
I was very proud to have played a key role in creating the ASA. Australia has always had great potential to become an active part of this $350-billion-a-year global industry, but space was misunderstood by most people who didn’t realise it included satellites. Australians are 100% dependent on satellite data in their everyday lives: weather, GPS, phone apps, ATM transactions, banking, live sport and news on TV, remote outback internet, satellite phones, coastal protection, bushfire and flood monitoring and response, the surf report … all of this is space related.
So far, we only have a couple of Australian TV and communications satellites, all built in the USA. Plus some excellent ground stations, run for ESA and NASA by very talented Australians. Aside from those, there used to be various fragmented individual activities. The biggest change that the ASA has brought about was to unite the fragments of Australian space initiatives and provide confidence to create new opportunities and businesses. Aussies like me who have been living and working abroad in the space industry for up to 30 years can return to work back home.
The ASA has signed legal agreements with many other space agencies (something we could never do before), and so Australian companies are now in the global supply chain. Australia is actively contributing and finally building our own space hardware and software, and there are so many opportunities to work in this growing sector. For Australia, space is about doing things we already pay for and need as a nation but doing them better and cheaper and more effectively using satellites.
What kinds of space jobs do you think there will in Australia in the future? Do you have any advice for learners wanting to start a career in space?
There are so many areas you can be involved in the space industry – engineering, science, manufacturing, computer systems, computer science, data analytics, mathematics, policy, communications, design, media, law, finance, art and education, in particular. Right now Australia needs mostly a variety of engineers, and in the future will need many more fields. Even within engineering, there are so many different awesome types. Find something that you’re interested in studying, and I’m 100% sure you can turn it into a space career!
Want to hear more about the Australian Space Industry? Listen in on this 2019 talk about Australian Space Frontiers, featuring Andrea Boyd, Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, Aude Vignelles and Dr Sarah Pearce below.