An interview with Silvia Bayon, ExoMars Spacecraft Composite Systems Engineer
ExoMars Spacecraft Composite Systems Engineer
(2004 - present)
In the end, giving up tennis to pursue a career in physics led Silvia Bayon into the engineering field and paid off by enabling her to participate in the ambitious joint ESA-NASA ExoMars programme as Spacecraft Composite Systems Engineer. Born in the Spanish city of Bilbao, where her parents were working at the time, Silvia moved to Madrid five years later – where she grew up combining her studies with very intensive tennis training for several hours a day. She continued this until she reached 18, when she had to decide whether to pursue a course of study at university or a career in professional tennis. Her interest in science, and in particular for physics, won and Silvia enrolled in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid to pursue a degree in physical sciences. Silvia had always been fascinated by the night sky and will always remember how astonished and intrigued she was when, as a child, her father told her that the stars she was looking at had emitted their light thousands or millions years ago.
Although she started out as a physics major, Silvia soon realised that her interests lay in the field of engineering, which enables the study of the distant stars and planets that so fascinate her. She changed to studying for a degree in aerospace engineering and moved to the USA, where she thought there would be better opportunities for a hands-on education with the latest technology. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree at Parks College of Engineering and Aviation, Silvia was awarded a grant to follow on with her master’s degree and carry out the work for her thesis as part of a NASA programme. Her thesis dealt with the design of a mission that would take a greenhouse to Mars in preparation for the first human mission. Silvia had dreamed of working on a mission to Mars and, although this was only a student project, she loved the experience and enjoyed presenting her results to engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After obtaining her aerospace engineering master’s degree in 2002, Silvia stayed in the USA, working for the university on several research projects while looking for her dream job. She saw an advertisement for ESA’s Young Graduate Trainee (YGT) programme and decided to apply for a position in the Concurrent Design Facility (CDF) at ESTEC. Silvia joined the CDF in May 2003 and was given the opportunity to participate in many preliminary studies for very different missions, including several robotic and human missions to Mars. During her second year as trainee in the CDF, Silvia was assigned as part of the team that was reviewing the industrial ‘Phase A’ work on the ExoMars mission. From then on, she continued to support the project through its later phases; first, on a part-time basis and then joining the ExoMars team full time in 2007. In November 2009 she was hired by ESA as the ExoMars Spacecraft Composite Systems Engineer.
Silvia, can you tell us something more about your role in ExoMars? What does it entail? What are your main responsibilities?
I am part of the System and Orbiter Module section of the ESA ExoMars team. As the Spacecraft Composite Systems Engineer, I am responsible for coordinating the compilation of the mission and system requirements that ESA places on the industrial contractors. I am also responsible for the technical coordination of mission analysis activities with our colleagues in ESOC and international partners, particularly regarding the launch vehicle. At the moment, I am working primarily on the 2016 mission, since the efforts on the 2018 mission on ESA’s side are concentrated mainly on the design of the rover and less on the mission design aspects.
What have you enjoyed most about your career so far?
So far, in my short career, I have been very lucky. The CDF gave me the opportunity to work on a lot of differing preliminary studies and meet many experts from all areas of ESA, national agencies and industry. It was the beginning of my career and I really enjoyed the opportunity to work on a different mission every couple of months; it also gave me a broad overview of ESA’s projects. After that, ExoMars gave me the opportunity to concentrate on a single project day after day. Since my studies, I had developed a special interest in missions to Mars; so, working on ExoMars was and is really like a dream come true for me.
What challenges do you face in your work?
Working on ExoMars means working with a large industrial consortium as well as with international partners. Making sure that all the parties involved work in a coordinated way towards the same objectives while keeping up with the changes and reorganisations in the programme is probably one of the main challenges. Then, of course, there are technical challenges that arise every day, but that is what an ambitious mission to Mars entails and it is a great feeling when a solution is found.
Why did you choose to work on the ExoMars programme?
When I started working on ExoMars, it was not a programme but a single, European-only mission. My involvement in ExoMars came about somewhat by chance while I was still in the CDF and I just made sure I did not let the opportunity to work on a Mars mission pass me by. At that time, there was not really an established project team; we were just a handful of people trying to move the project forward. I loved the fact that I could be involved at such an early stage of what I thought could one day be ESA’s most ambitious Mars mission.
What is it like working with an international team?
Working in an international team is certainly one of the most interesting aspects of working at ESA. It forces you to be open-minded about understanding different cultures and different ways of working; in my opinion this is a great experience. With ExoMars, we get the chance of working not just within the international team at ESA and within its Member States; we also have the opportunity to experience a close working relationship with colleagues from NASA/JPL. It is an enriching working experience to be part of such an international team.
What inspires you about Mars and the ExoMars programme?
The exploration of other planets, and Mars in particular, has fascinated people for hundreds of years and I am no exception. Mars is the most similar planet to Earth and, as such, it has enormous potential for answering – or at least helping to answer – some of the most important questions that humankind has posed about its existence. Finding life on Mars – or evidence for the existence of life in the past – and determining whether or not we and it share a common origin will tell us a great deal about where we came from and allow us to gauge the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the Universe. The ExoMars programme will be only a small step towards answering those questions, but it will be fundamental for demonstrating that a strong, successful cooperation between ESA and non-European partners can lead the way to achieving great objectives in space exploration.
What is the big question about Mars you would like to see answered?
To be able to know if any form of life ever existed, or still exists, on Mars is of course the biggest question. ExoMars should not only go some way towards answering this question but will also contribute to significantly increasing our understanding of the atmospheric and surface conditions that a future human expedition would experience on the Red Planet.
What is your vision or hope for the future of the programme?
Since its conception, ExoMars has been a very ambitious programme and, as such, it has faced a very difficult path to arrive to where it is at the moment. My hope is that the road ahead becomes smoother and the programme can proceed at the pace necessary to meet its tight schedule and far-reaching objectives.