Karine Murray: From dreams of being an astronaut to becoming an aerospace engineer

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26 July 2016


I was sixteen when I first learnt precisely what an engineer is, and it was then I decided it was the career for me.

Having always wanted to be an astronaut, and being interested in technology and how things work, it didn’t take me long to realise that this is what suited me best. My interest in space and my experience as an Air Cadet meant that by this point I was firmly set on aerospace engineering and I took part in a Headstart course where I got to meet people that also wanted to be engineers. Then, through the ‘Year in Industry’ scheme, I did my gap year with an automotive engineering company, experiencing hands on engineering and solving real life problems.

I chose to study at Kingston University specifically because of the course it offered; ‘Aerospace Engineering, Astronautics and Space Technology,’ as a course with a heavy focus on space is just what I was looking for. The first year mainly reinforced what we learnt at A-level while also getting you used to being at university, the course structure and the group work. It was great being amongst a group of people who thought alike and had similar ambitions.

It was in second year that things got more interesting as we started to learn new things and focus on astronautics. We got more practical experience in this year, with projects that allowed you to solve problems in a creative way. There was a certain amount of freedom that you get during project work which allows you to explore solutions which won’t necessarily be covered on the course. For example, for our second year astro project we had to design a water rocket, and my job was to make the parachute deployment mechanism. Without this task I would never have looked in to Arduino and Raspberry Pi programming, which turned out to be very useful. Another highlight of the second year was gaining a placement year at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL). Although I’d already completed one placement, working in the space industry was my goal, so I was determined to get some related work experience.

SSTL is a leading company in the manufacture of small satellites with over 30 years’ experience. I started my placement there just over a year ago and during this time have had the chance to work with two teams; mechanisms and propulsion. The mechanisms team is responsible for the design, manufacture and testing of spacecraft systems which move, such as reaction wheels and solar panel deployment mechanisms, and equally the propulsion team is responsible for any propulsion systems, such as thrusters and tanks. Working here, I have gained an understanding of what goes into the development of new projects, what is needed to make a detailed design into a reality and what will allow a mechanism to run in the harsh conditions of space for several years without ever needing a repair.

The experience I have had at SSTL has been invaluable and my placement has shown me what I’m working towards, and what will be expected of me, once I graduate.

Whilst on placement I have had more free time during the evenings and weekends, so decided to return to the air cadets as a civilian instructor volunteer. During my time at the squadron in Guildford I have been able to put my knowledge to good use and teach skills such as rocketry and principles of flight. I even found a reason to use an Arduino for one squadron exercise.

In September I will go back to university for a final two years to complete my masters in engineering, in which I will get the chance to design and make more rockets and plan space missions. After I complete my degree I hope to get a permanent job in the space industry. The UK space industry is very diverse and growing rapidly and there are several degree courses which can lead you in that direction. Studying aerospace engineering has brought me many great opportunities and I am looking forward to what the industry holds for me in the future.

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