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David Williams

Previously Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency.

Dr David Williams, CEO of the UK Space Agency and Chair of the European Space Agency (ESA) Council

What does your job involve?

The UK Space Agency job involves overseeing all the UK civil space programme. This is wide ranging and my colleagues are nearly always the experts on the subject matter. It covers space science, exploration, earth observation, navigation telecommunications and broadband systems. I am also the accounting officer, so I have to sign off the accounts. I do a lot of external liaison with the Government departments, industry, ESA, the EU and other space agencies, so listening and assimilating the good advice from colleagues in the Agency is crucial as I rarely become deeply involved in projects. For ESA I chair the quarterly Council meetings and work to gain consensus across all the countries. In this role I am more like one of the ESA executive team than a representative for the UK.

What interested you in working in the space sector?

A rather odd route really. I started using satellite data in my doctorate studies. Reading University was one of the first to develop the application of satellite data to environmental work in the 70s, and my thesis was on predicting gully erosion. In reality, the then satellites offered little direct value in this work, but kindled an interest in earth observation, which has remained with me.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in space?

First of all, you need a good education – preferably with some STEM subjects – unless you wish to focus on legal or financial areas. Secondly, be flexible and be prepared to move jobs. I have changed jobs to stay with the subject. I started as a university lecturer, then worked in industry, followed by a job in an UK Research Council. These roles were followed by a stint in central government and then 10 years in Germany before taking on this post. This diversity has given me a broad view not just of space, but of the different cultural ways of working in both the UK and across Europe.

What do you do in a typical day?

It varies enormously. There is always the routine set of meetings, emails and keeping in touch with all the programmes that the Agency manage. But I have periods when I never seem to be in the office because of external meetings, with quite a lot of time spent overseas. There are also reviews and presentation days, when I need to focus on a particular issue. A simple summary would be that I attend meetings and win arguments.

Are there any other interesting aspects to your work?

The diversity of the job keeps me interested. I have taken more interest in the technology – but remain a novice, and have enjoyed learning more about areas such as exploration, navigation and telecommunications.

What is it about your job that fascinates or inspires you?

Well, it's always strange saying your job is actually about rocket science. It certainly adds a different flavour to discussions outside work. I also feel very privileged to be CEO of the national space agency – even if it is not the same scale as NASA. Being Chairman of the ESA Council is also an honour, because it means you are being recognised by colleagues across Europe.

Why is what you do important?

Because space has, is and will continue to change the way people live their lives, often without them realising space is involved. I could go on for ages, but car navigation, real time news reporting from abroad, sporting events, all use satellites. Satellites effectively make real time reporting possible. Going back to my roots, satellites are also crucial for weather forecasting, and understanding the Earth's climate. Sadly, we still do not have a user manual explaining how the Earth works, or how to use it safely. An odd thought in a time when all consumer goods require this information.

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