ESA expert Gertrud Talvik on the European space industry and becoming an astronaut

Gertrud Talvik has been working as an expert in the European Space Agency, more precisely, the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands for the past five years. In 2021, she was one among 22 500 candidates, when after a decade, ESA recruited new astronauts.

After graduating from high school in Estonia, Gertrud studied biochemistry at the University of Cape Town and has written a book about her life in South Africa. In an interview for the sTARTUp Day blog, Gertrud sheds light on her daily work at ESA, the European space industry and the selection procedure for ESA astronauts.

This interview was written by Sanne Taveter, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

I work at ESA, the European Space Agency, where I work on ESA's space technology development programs for the new Member States. I have also dealt with Estonian companies who want to enter the space market and helped them develop the necessary technologies. In addition, we advise new space companies on how to work with ESA and conduct various trainings.

Funnily, I'm actually a biochemist by education. My current role foresees analyzing the European space industrial competencies and mapping these in relation to ESA mission needs.

Which major challenges Estonian start-ups are positioned to solve in this field?

The strengths of Estonian space companies are in Earth observation applications, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence applications, and e-governance applications. These strengths can be transmitted to secure satellite communications and data relay  which is currently one of the next bigger concerns. How to exclude so-called hijacking of satellites and how to protect satellite data communications and exclude hacking of space resources.

How did you manage to get the internship that landed you the job at ESA?

I knew about the European Space Agency for a long time before Estonia officially became a member in 2015. They have a traineeship program that is designed for people with a master's degree to gain exposure to ESA activities.

The principle is that for a year, a person gets the first exposure to ESA and, usually, moves on to work in the space industry.

It is not generally the norm to get recruited after the trainee program, but I was kind of lucky.

At the moment, there is a big retirement wave at ESA but the demand for staff is actually very high  they would need to employ hundreds of people every year for the next few years. So, simply put  at the right time, in the right place ‒ I received a job offer from ESA immediately after my traineeship.

Why do you enjoy your job? What makes it interesting for you?

Space has always been close to my heart and I have always wanted to go to space myself. In addition, I've always wanted to see the inner world of a space agency, find out exactly how it works, etc. I very much hoped that I would one day, have the opportunity to apply to be an astronaut, and that's what happened. But this time it was the right place but the wrong time and out of the 23 thousand applications I did not get chosen.

Talking about the process of becoming an astronaut ‒ what does the recruitment process look like?

Applying to become an astronaut is a very long process and consists of four rounds before you even get the chance for an interview. 

First of all, you need to send your CV and motivation letter and answer a selection of quantified questions. For example: "How long have you been away from home? On average, how many systems do you fix per year? Have you been on expeditions?" etc. They're looking for someone with a very broad set of experiences and skills. 

A person applying to become an astronaut must have a certain threshold for risk while staying calm in high-pressure environments and showing a high aptitude for learning a wide array of topics.

For example, you may be asked whether you have a diving or pilot license. If so, it shows that you are ready to put yourselves in risky situations and are able to acquire versatile skills.

The first round focuses on finding out a person's experience base, and if you can get a good score in this round based on your qualifications and skills, you get through to the ‘test rounds’. The second round tests the cognitive characteristics of the candidate  spatial, mathematical, and logical thinking. In short, so-called, innate qualities (hard skills). 

The third round focuses on teamwork and how well the candidate can handle tasks in a group  whether he or she is a team player, leader, or follower. The group is given different tasks to solve and their progress towards a solution is monitored by psychologists as well as former astronauts. 

The fourth round tests candidate's physical abilities and a full medical examination is done to ensure no chronic health issues exist. If you manage to get through the fourth round, the candidate will face several  interviews including the most important interview with the ESA Director-General.

How many candidates get the job?

About four career-astronauts will be selected to work as ESA staff. In addition, up to 20 people are selected for the so-called "astronaut reserve," which means that these people continue their current careers, but if there is a need for specific expertise for a specific mission, a suitable reserve astronaut will be recruited on a 4-year contract and a shortened basic training is provided.

What does a day at work look like for you?

Before coronavirus hit, my normal workday looked a lot more interesting, while right now, I'm basically spending all day behind my computer. Before the pandemic, I worked a lot with the New and Cooperating states of ESA, visiting Hungary, Romania, Poland, Slovenia, etc regularly.

Now I work with old member states and my job foresees to have a full overview of the space systems in countries like the UK, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, and that requires a lot of travel. This year's aim is for me to tour through UK’s top space industry, but travel is currently being made difficult by the pandemic.

In addition, it is also my job to participate in Space Mission Evaluation Committees, where we assess the offers made by large system integrators in response to ESA tenders.

Practically speaking, this means reading several hundred pages of projects describing both technical, scientific, management and financial aspects of a space mission.

ESA publishes tenders worth a few hundred million euros for these missions, for which the large system integrators compete and have to detail how they are intending to develop the subsystems, the technical principles, and how they are going to ensure the scientific output. 

We will then meet within ESA and discuss the different phases of the mission with representatives from all engineering and management domains. We will also talk about the risks, schedule and cost, etc. This means that we start the debate at 9 in the morning and finish at 6 in the evening ‒  and this happens in many phases until we reach a consensus.

How does Russia's war in Ukraine affect your work?

The current war has highlighted many aspects of globalization, supply chain security and international cooperation agreements that have not been prepared for. There is also a clear impact on some ESA missions, as highlighted in media, with ESA suspending joint missions with Russia.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I try to keep myself busy learning new skills, most recently I obtained a pilot’s license and am planning to continue further qualifications... I also really enjoy ‘adventure’-type travels to less known parts of the world. I went on a recent trip to Antarctica, during which I, unfortunately, got the coronavirus and had to spend part of the journey in isolation in the cabin of the expedition ship. But it was still a very interesting experience and I am planning to return soon!

Did you know that one of the co-organizers of sTARTUp Day, Tartu Science Park is the lead partner of ESA BIC Estonia ‒ one of 18 ESA business incubation centers that support entrepreneurs in turning space-connected business ideas into commercial companies? Read more about ESA BIC Estonia’s activities here.

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