Keeping all the threads together – Alexander Soucek on his tasks as a programme coordinator
Why and how did you join ESA?
It was always an "idee fixe" for me to work in the field of aeronautics and space – a fascination that took control of me when I was a little boy of nine years or so, with my first telescope and freezing hands under the celestial winter sky in my parents' garden. Of course, from there the road was long and not always straight ahead, but the passion for space and exploration remained a 'guiding star' for me. Since I am also very interested in international relations, ESA – an international organisation dealing with space – seemed the perfect place to be. When I was invited for a job interview for an ESA Young Graduate Traineeship in 2004, I felt to be right in front of the ‘finishing line’; then I got the email with my acceptance, and I crossed it.
What did you study and what did you have to learn on the job?
I did not study a classical 'space subject'. I am not an aeronautical engineer, astrophysicist, nor space medicine expert. I studied law because I wanted to have a basic and broad education to keep several options open – and also because as fascinating as space is, I did not want to spend my life working with faint stars, but with people. Law has a lot to do with the human aspects of life – anticipating and mitigating problems between each other, creating clarity through rules, adapting to new developments. But then, my passion prevailed again, and I did the one year postgraduate 'Master of Space Studies' at the International Space University. ISU is a magic place to be: not only did I learn to live and work with students from around the world, I also got a broad interdisciplinary understanding of what space means. ISU has enabled my way into space, even if only 'on ground'. However, once in my job, learning continued, and does until today: about Earth observation, about the practices of politics and diplomacy, about the daily necessities from document writing to proper planning.
What do you like about the working atmosphere within ESA?
I like the international atmosphere, working together with colleagues from many different countries – and in various languages. But most of all I like to find in some of those colleagues a similar passion for space, or at least for certain aspects of space. And a passion for making something possible. ESA is a wonderful place if you are curious – because curiosity is, after all, the very reason that people explore and use space. But of course things do happen in a very earthly environment, which also means political compromise, administrative necessities, financial challenges – like in any other research and development organisation. ESA is not Star Trek, but Star Trek will never become reality without organisations like ESA.
What is particularly interesting about your work? What are your current projects?
The two most interesting aspects of my job are first the fact that I have a broad overview over all what is going on in Earth Observation, not just digging into the depths of one single project, and second that I work together with people who have very different backgrounds: scientists, engineers, business controllers, international relation experts, communication staff. Both aspects make the job of a programme coordinator challenging but at the same time variable and interesting. My team is close to the Director of Earth Observation, serving as technical interface to all projects within the Directorate as well as to externals, first and foremost our member states. Besides daily routine work, I am secretary of the DOSTAG (Data Operations Scientific and Technical Advisory Group) delegate body and liaison to EUMETSAT, one of the most important ESA partners in Earth observation.
Do you have to travel much for your job?
Yes, I have to travel frequently, even though this is mostly concentrated on travel in Europe, between different ESA Establishments or to partner organisations like EUMETSAT in Germany. And since I also travel a lot privately, I have become very acquainted with airports, airplanes and international trains. Actually, I like travelling.
How about your work-life balance? What are your hobbies and other (space-related?) activities?
My work-life balance is a bit tilted in the sense that my biggest hobby outside ESA is space! Together with many friends I am active in the non-profit Austrian Space Forum, doing space outreach and education and hands-on space science. Crawling in an ice cave with a prototype Mars suit or chasing a planetary exploration rover during a test in the Moroccan desert is perhaps the perfect alternative to sitting in the office! I also love to transmit the fascination of space to others, through multimedia space shows for example. Luckily, however, I have also other hobbies. Among them: a passion for classical music (Mozart, a fellow Salzburg citizen!), for history, for geography, for the oceans – and that’s why my favourite sport is swimming.
Which recommendations can you give to students/young grads if they are interested to work for ESA?
There are a few things that do help, even if there are no guarantees: Have a fascination. Be curious, and be interested. Collect (space) experience where you can. Learn languages. Live abroad. Have a focus but remain open. If you are an engineer, learn the language of politics a bit, and vice versa. Last but not least, try to follow your passion: When I was eighteen years old, I got to meet an ESA employee at our local natural history museum in Salzburg. He gave me his ESA business card, which from then on – through all my years at university – remained pinned to the wall next to my desk. I told myself that one day I would have such a business card with my name on it. Eventually, it worked out.