Children watched enviously on Saturday as a group of adults whooped with delight as their home-made rockets shot into the air. But what may have seemed like a fun game to the occasional passer-by was in fact serious business.
Students studying for the SpaceTech Masters in Space Systems Engineering were competing to see who could estimate, most closely, the height that their rockets would reach. Calculations had to take into account external factors such as the rocket’s design, surface properties, wind, measurement techniques and aerodynamics.
The launch pad was a field in the hills surrounding Frascati near Rome, the home to ESRIN, ESA’s European Space Research Institute. From 5 to 18 March ESRIN is host to the fourth of the five two-week sessions that make up this Masters programme organized by TopTech Studies of the University of Delft in the Netherlands.
This unique Masters programme commenced in the 1990s after close consultation with Europe's Aerospace Industry, ESA and the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering of the Delft University of Technology. The course is for graduate engineers, technical managers and scientists with several years of professional experience in the space industry. It combines education and training in aspects of technical systems engineering with learning about the commercial and business aspects of the space industry. The teaching method includes tutorials as well as hands-on training.
Participants come from an impressive cross-section of industries in the global space sector, including Alenia Spazio, Astrium, Telespazio, OHB Systems and Boeing, as well as some of Europe’s leading space agencies such as the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) of France, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR) of Germany and, of course ESA. Representatives of the space industry and agencies, as well as academia, participate in the Advisory Board which guides the SpaceTech programme.
The Master of Space Systems Engineering consists of five integrated sessions of on-campus tuition, each lasting two weeks, spread over the academic year. Sessions are held at or near the major European Space Centres of ESRIN/ESA (Italy), ESTEC/ESA (the Netherlands), ISSAT/CNES (France), DLR/GSOC (Germany) and the Technical University of Delft (the Netherlands). Between sessions the Internet is used for distance learning and to keep in contact with fellow students and tutors.
The term ‘students’ is slightly misleading. Those participating in the Programme are highly qualified specialists, all of whom are working full time in the space industry. Aged between 32 to 47, male and female, they come from different countries and different working backgrounds; the one unifying factor is that they are all passionate about space. They have to be, working for this Masters is very intensive and very hard work, and study is in addition to their normal working day.
According to Tony Holt, a guidance navigation and control engineer with Astrium UK and father of three young children, participating in this programme is the hardest thing he has ever done but immensely rewarding.
“The motivation is learning the whole system, the business aspect as well as the technical aspect. Yet another bonus, according to Tony, “is learning from other people’s expertise so that you can talk to engineers, and financial and marketing experts, in their own language”.
An important part of the Masters is teamwork and learning inter-personal skills. The students have to apply their technical and business knowledge to prepare a business proposal for presentation to a board of high-level representatives from the space industry. This year’s group are working on a business proposal for the maritime market – a product which will use remote sensing to prepare hourly accurate sea-state forecasts within a 20-kilometre grid, for use by the shipping industry as well as the recreational sailor.
The idea behind the Masters is to meet the needs of the space community by preparing engineers who are able to look at the whole process of commercial space from recognising market demands through financing, implementation and testing to manufacture and marketing. Professor Larson, who is a core curriculum committee member of the Master’s Programme, succinctly explained the need for this course “Space exploration and research is an expensive business, if it is to proceed it has to be cost effective for governments as well as industry”.