Lesley Still, recently appointed head of spaceport operations at Orbex, talks to FINN editor Hazel King about the challenges of getting the UK’s first mainland launch off the ground and her passion for getting everyone involved in the space sector
How did you get into the aerospace industry?
It all started when I was six. I was taken on a visit to the airport in Aberdeen and that is what set me on this trajectory. I wrote to the airlines and asked if I could have a job and I got one, which was great. My parents wanted me to go to university, but I wanted to go and play with planes.
At that time, there was no information really about job roles and as a female in aviation it was ‘do you want to be cabin crew or check in?’ For me it was a ‘no’ to both of those. Fortuitously, I met someone who worked in the operations department of Air Anglia and that’s what led me to get into that area. I went through every role at the airport and then spent 18 years with British Airways (BA) as an aircraft dispatcher. In 2007, BA subbed out the handling to a third-party and so that kick started a range of opportunities for me. I went to Logan Air and was service delivery manager, and I set up the ground handling. I then moved into helicopters before going to Shetland to manage the airport on a fixed-term contract. I was then contacted by QinetiQ for the Empire Test Pilot School (ETPS), and I was there very happily for five years before Orbex got in touch – and it was just too exciting not to get involved.
What has been a highlight of your career?
Logan Air had had a series of third-party handling agents and from a customer services perspective, we had a lot of NHS passengers going to and from the islands for medical appointments, so they needed an above average level of customer service. Logan Air recognised that and asked me to go and set up an entire ground handling operation, which I did successfully. That was a proud moment for me.
Laterally, continuing to be able to deliver the ETPS training during the pandemic is a highlight. It was deemed defence critical, so we carried on doing the test crew training all the way through. That had a myriad of challenges but we successfully pulled that off which was immensely satisfying.
What are you hoping to achieve at Orbex?
My remit is to deliver the spaceport operation to first launch and then grow the business from there. I’ve joined at a very exciting time – there is a steep learning curve but a lot of my experience in aviation translates across to space. We’re all focused on getting everything ready to achieve that first launch and then recap, learn any lessons, and grow the business.
This will be the first spaceport established in the UK. Cornwall was slightly different because that was working at a commercial airfield, and it wasn’t a vertical launch. We have a very collaborative and positive relationship with the CAA, and it is aligning the appropriate aviation regulations and practices and how that translates into the spaceport arena. We’re all on a journey of discovery together.
How will you ensure space operations are sustainable?
Unlike aviation, we’re starting with this at the forefront of the journey and at Orbex we will be producing a carbon neutral solution, so we’re already ahead of the aviation curve. The space industry across the UK is going to be increasingly important, not just for commercial interests but for defence interests as well, so sustainability will be key. We have environmental staff working with us to make sure we don’t damage, for example, the peat bogs in Shetland. Once regular launches reach full cadence, then Orbex has already got a world-first with a 3D printed reusable no-debris rocket, so it is an exciting company to be with.
How will you progress the company?
We’re focused on the moment at achieving that first launch, and environmentally we are permitted to launch 12 times a year, so once we have achieved that first launch then we’ll look at how we achieve that regular cadence internally. The question then becomes other operators and how we work with those. We’re aware of the other spaceports being planned and developed, but there is certainly commercial room for everyone. The potential business stream for the UK for space launches is a sizeable part of the UK economy. We are also aware that defence companies are looking at what they need to achieve in the space sector too.
Will you work collaboratively with other spaceports?
Operationally, I’ve already had the conversations with Spaceport Cornwall and once more spaceports are established, I would propose the development of a working group. In aviation we had a UK Operational Managers Association (UKOMA) where we had cross-industry learning and best practice, so that is certainly in the forefront of my mind. Getting that collaborative space on an operational basis is an important thing to do.
What is your message for anyone wanting to be part of the aerospace sector?
Moving forward, we need to look at the importance of getting the younger generation into the STEM subjects. From my own personal journey, where one school visit aged six was enough to inspire me to follow the trajectory that I have, I’d like to explore that in what is still reasonably male-dominated industry – my big message to everyone is that there are opportunities for all.
In my early career, I wasn’t au fait with the range of roles that could be available to me – without being cliched, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be in this industry. There needs to be project managers, technical people, commercial people, marketing – there are all sorts of different roles that can be involved in the operation of a spaceport. The real message is: ‘Space for all’.
Images: Courtesy of Orbex