ESA propulsion engineer Kate Underhill will be telling us all about rocket science during Session 1 of Space Rocks London. How hard can it really be?!


When did you first fall in love with science and space exploration?
This is a bit of a cheesy story but actually true. When I was 10 or 11, I went for a sleepover at a friend’s house and we were staying in her sitting room which had these big french windows out into the garden. I had just got into my sleeping bag, I turned over onto my back and looked up and saw the most amazing star-filled night sky through those windows and just thought, “That’s it – that’s what I want to spend my life exploring”.


Why do you think people find outer space so fascinating?
I think there are so many aspects to it – there is something for everyone – you get to step back and see the Earth from a completely different perspective, as a pale blue dot. You can investigate different planets to learn more about Earth and where it came from. You have the possibility of finding life elsewhere. You can look back in time out into deep space and consider time and distance scales that are so extreme compared to our everyday experience. It’s a never-ending exploration, as Buzz Lightyear says: “To Infinity and Beyond”!


Rocket science: is it as hard as they say?
Actually the basic principles are quite easy – that’s what I’ll be explaining at Space Rocks; you just need to go very fast in the right direction! But the devil is in the detail – every single component on a rocket needs to work perfectly and the tiniest problem can very quickly result in a giant fireball instead of a rocket. We are at the edge of what is physically possible for some elements. We have pumps moving at over 36,000 rotations per minute at -253°C (20 Kelvin) where any contact between the rotating and stationary parts would mean an instantaneous explosion. And just a few tens of centimetres from these pumps, hydrogen and oxygen are burning at over 2000°C – so the thermal stress across the system is enormous.


How did you become a rocket scientist and who were your inspirations growing up?
As soon as I realised I wanted space to be my career, I told my parents that I wanted to be an astronaut and they actually just said, ‘OK’. My mum and I went to a meeting with a careers advisor at school when I was 13 or 14 and we agreed that my mum would have to tell the advisor that I wanted to be an astronaut as they wouldn’t believe me. The meeting was a little disappointing – they didn’t have career advice for a future astronaut nor for anything to do with space, so I had to find my own way. My parents took me to all sorts of lectures about space – including one by Helen Sharman – and I read lots of books, including the Tintin story Destination Moon (that rocket was on my wedding cake!). I had a great physics teacher at school (Mr Brud) and I decided that I wanted to study physics at university. Whatever I was going to do in space afterwards, physics was going to be useful. It was at university that I started getting interested in how we actually get to space and move around in space. It seemed to me to be the basic starting point of all space missions. So I did my bachelors thesis on space propulsion and then did a specialised space engineering masters where I was the propulsion specialist for various group projects. My first job was as a Young Graduate trainee at the ESA-ESTEC propulsion department in the Netherlands, and I was set for a life of rocket science!


Do you ever get tired of people saying, ‘It isn’t rocket science!’?
No! Because that is something I really like about rocket science – it isn’t easy and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication and attention to detail. You can’t cut any corners and you have to work as part of a big team – you have to push yourself to do the best job you can, all day every day. But when you do put all these great people together you can make and fly rockets and send people into space and robots to other planets – it’s just amazing what we can accomplish together.


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