Goodmayes-born space engineer reaching for the stars with work on pioneering satellites

PUBLISHED: 08:00 24 May 2013

Colleague James Browning and Sam Rason with an SSTL satellite.

Colleague James Browning and Sam Rason with an SSTL satellite.


Sam Rason really is reaching for the stars. The 28-year-old works for a satellite company that manufactures spacecraft.

Space exploration

1947 The first animals – fruit flies – are put into space by the USA

Aug 1957 First intercontinental ballistic missile launched by USSR

Oct 1957 First artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, launched by USSR and transmits first signals from space

Nov 1957 A dog, Laika, is the first animal in orbit

Jan 1959 Rocket fired in Earth’s orbit and the first artificial satellite reaches the moon area from the USSR

Aug 1959 USA takes first photo of Earth from orbit

Sept 1959 First landing on another world – the moon – by USSR

Aug 1960 Plants and animals including dogs, rats and mice return alive from orbit for the first time

April 1961 Soviet Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space

June 1963 Soviet Valentina Tereshkova becomes first woman in space

July 1969 Moon landing

As a radiation hardness engineer, she makes sure satellites and their components will not be damaged by cosmic rays. And she does that by modelling the harsh environment of space in the laboratory.

Her research reached the final of a national competition earlier this year and was viewed by politicians and experts in Parliament.

Ilford South MP Mike Gapes was one of the many guests impressed by her poster, which was part of the Set for Britain competition.

Sam, who now lives in Guildford, said that despite associations with missiles and military defence, satellites are a force for good and can help save lives.

One of the missions she is working on is a “constellation” of satellites to take high resolution pictures that will monitor natural disasters and help plan recovery operations.

Sam said: “It can be anything from earthquakes to floods.”

Following Hurricane Katrina, satellites were used to gauge the depth and spread of floodwater across the US.

Another of Sam’s major projects is Galileo – the new five billion-euro European global satellite navigation system, that will offer the most accurate positioning in the world for free by 2019.

Unlike the American GPS, Chinese Beidou and Russian GLONASS systems, which were developed initially for military use, Galileo will be mainly for civilians.

Galileo’s 30 satellites will only be shut down in the “most extreme” circumstances, like world war, and will provide a global search and rescue system that can transmit distress signals to local rescue centres.

Sam’s company, Surrey Satellite Technology, specialises in manufacturing high quality spacecraft cheaply to make the technology more accessible.

She said: “It changes the economics of space so countries like Nigeria, that probably wouldn’t have been able to get into space, are able to.”

She sees the role of satellites increasing in everyday life for everyone.

“They are becoming more popular and the space industry in general has grown quite a lot as people realise its applications and what it can tell us about our planet,” she said.

“Some of them look out into space and are helping answer the fundamental questions.”

Despite spending her life working on spacecraft, Sam does not believe she will ever leave Earth.

She said: “I would love it but I don’t think I would be able to go into space.”

She believes her osteoarthritis would prevent her passing the physical tests needed to start training.

Sam’s fascination with space started at an early age, when she was first taught about the solar system at St Vincent’s Primary School in Dagenham.

“It was the first time I had thought about there being lots of other worlds,” she said.

“I just remember drawing what I thought it would look like out there and colouring it in.”

As she went through school, science and art remained close to her heart, until she had to make a decision after taking maths, physics and art A-levels at the Ilford Ursuline Academy.

She chose science and took a physics and astrophysics degree at the University of Sussex and has never looked back.

“I really love radiation and what I do,” Sam said.

“I just love lots of physics stuff and it’s always excited me – two days are never the same.”

Life in the laboratory comes naturally to Sam but she has stood out in male-dominated workplaces in the past.

After being taught at a girls’ school and then studying on a course with an even split of men and women, she started her first job at Kinetic, where there were only two other women in the entire firm. But it didn’t faze her.

She said: “I guess I’m used to hanging around with guys anyway so I never felt that was a problem.”

Many women Sam has met in the field are also from girls’ schools and researchers believe that in single sex schools girls are less likely to be discouraged from taking up science.

She said that when her mother was young she was told she could not study physics.

But Sam is blazing a trail through the industry and plans to take her work on radiation hardness to new levels.

She said: “I can’t imagine doing anything else, it’s the best job in the world.”

Or maybe beyond.

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