'I decided I wanted to be an astronaut on a family holiday to Disney World': Lancashire's Sophie Harker talks BAE Systems, engineering, and space
When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut. It’s a phrase which has probably been said a million times by a million kids, all of them dreaming of the stars. And so, when I ask an aspiring-astronaut and one of BAE Systems’ most promising engineers whether she harboured similarly astronomical aspirations as a kid, her answer comes as something of a surprise.
“No,” says Sophie Harker with a faint laugh. “Space seemed cool, but all you really get taught about in school is the planets, which isn’t really the bit about space that excites me. And my family doesn’t have a background in engineering or sciences, so it didn’t click that space was something I could actually be involved in.”
But a trip to Disney World Florida changed everything. Naturally.
“We were on a family holiday and I got to go to the Kennedy Space Centre,” explains Sophie. “There I got to see the engineering, the rockets, the equipment - everything that goes into space travel - and it was that engineering challenge that really got me into the subject of space.
“One exhibition had this film about the future of space exploration and astronauts,” she adds. “At the end of the clip, there was a woman in a spacesuit on Mars and a message saying ‘this could be you’. I was just like ‘yeah, that could be me - that’s exactly what I want to do.’ That’s how I decided at 16 that I wanted to be an astronaut.
“And I still do.”
Sophie was born in Hillingdon in London and, until that fateful trip to Florida, had grown up unsure as to what to do with her life. “At that time, I was good at maths and that was what I assumed I would work with for the rest of my life,” she says. “The only careers advice I got was to go into teaching or finance and, beyond that, one other careers advisor told me I should be a costume designer.
“I also vividly remember doing the online test to find my ‘ideal job’ with a friend who wanted to be a lawyer,” adds Sophie, 29. “She got solicitor and I got fisherman’s wife. Not even a fisherman myself - a fisherman’s wife! I was like, ‘right, okay...’
“At that age, there was nothing I didn’t like: I wanted to do something in maths and science but I also loved art and dancing and languages,” Sophie continues. “I wanted to be a vet, a teacher, a scientist... but that video at the Kennedy Space Centre brought all the pieces which had been floating around my head together to create the picture of an astronaut.
“It just clicked.”
Returning to the UK, Sophie immediately enlisted at Space School UK but, still relatively unsure as to how to pursue her lofty goals of becoming an astronaut, decided to follow her passion for numbers and undertake a degree in mathematics at the University of Nottingham. It proved to be an auspicious decision indeed.
At university, Sophie met Helen Sharman, the first British person to ever go into space, who suggested engineering as a pathway to achieve her cosmic ambitions. “Meeting Helen was enlightening,” says Sophie. “As cheesy and dramatic as it sounds, she genuinely changed my life because that one conversation gave me inspiration just when I needed it.
“I wouldn’t be an engineer without her,” adds Sophie, who took Helen’s advice on board and subsequently geared her university studies towards applied mathematics. “And I got to tell her that about six years after we first met, by which time I was working on spaceplanes. I got to say ‘I’m doing this because of you’, which was amazing.”
In 2013 between her third and fourth years at university, Sophie headed south to undertake an internship with BAE Systems doing software engineering in Christchurch in Dorset. Her first real taste of engineering in action, she relished the responsibility the role offered her and, after returning to Nottingham to complete a Master’s, she landed a place on BAE Systems’ graduate scheme.
“Getting on the BAE graduate scheme was really exciting because it made me realise that there was so much more to aerospace than I’d initially thought,” says Sophie. “It was about overcoming challenges - you don’t just build and aircraft and hand it over to the pilot, you have to anticipate and solve problems down to the tiniest detail such as ‘what happens when you move a cockpit switch an inch to the left - can the pilot still us it when they need to?’
“Getting a taste of working on that kind of problem-solving gave me a buzz,” she adds, a passion emerging in her voice. “We’d be working on seemingly-impossible tasks which we ended up achieving, which felt incredible.”
A full-time role with BAE at the company’s Warton base followed for Sophie, who has gone on to work on a number of projects in aerodynamics and performance engineering, specialising in exploring the future of aviation, spaceplanes, and hypersonic aircraft which travel faster than five times the speed of sound. Sophie was in her element.
BAE Systems’ Technical Graduate of the Year in 2016, she became one of the youngest engineers to achieve Chartered Engineer-status at the age of just 25 and was named Graduate of the Year 2017 by the Science, Engineering, and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance whilst also featuring in The Daily Telegraph’s ‘Top 50 Women in Engineering’.
The following year, Sophie was also named IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2018, won the Bee Beamont award in recognition of her outstanding contributions as a newly-qualified engineer, and was awarded the Sir Henry Royce Medal for her research in developing future technologies for the aviation industry.
So much for a career as a fisherman’s wife.
“Working for BAE has been fantastic,” says Sophie, who currently lives in Blackpool. “The work environment is great and one of the best things about working for such a big company is that you get to do a lot of different things, which is so exciting. It’s meant that I’ve been able to follow what interests me.”
Sophie was the first BAE Systems graduate employee to get a placement secondment with tech SME Reaction Engines, a small company in which BAE Systems have invested. It was there that Sophie was able to apply her skills to space.
“Working on things like the Skylon Space Plane [a fully-reusable single stage-to-orbit spaceplane] and SABRE [a new aerospace engine class combining both jet and rocket tech] was a dream come true in terms of contributing to the space industry. Finding out I was able to work on those kinds of projects was emotional - 16-year-old me would’ve been massively excited.
“I can’t really put it into words.”
Now a Senior Engineer of Flight Systems with BAE, Sophie currently works as part of Team Tempest, a technology initiative launched by the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office to keep the UK at the forefront of global combat air technology development, but is on the verge of starting a new role in a sector for which she has always had a deep and profound passion: green tech.
“Team Tempest was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’m moving into my new role with BAE off the back of wanting to do more to drive sustainable technologies like electric vehicles,” says Sophie, who returned to the University of Nottingham in 2019 to deliver the ‘Women in Aerodynamics’ lecture. “I want to give back to the world and it’s been something which has been on my mind from a young age.
“To be able to feel that I’ve made a difference to a critical problem not just for my generation but for generations to come makes the new role hugely exciting and potentially fulfilling,” she adds. “One of the things I love about engineering as a whole is that you get to leave a legacy and this is a legacy that I think I’ll be particularly proud to leave.”
Speaking of legacy, matters don’t get much more legacy-defining than becoming an astronaut and, having previously been almost shy about her ambitions in the field, Sophie is now owning her determination to become the eighth British person to go to space. During the European Space Agency’s (ESA) latest recruitment drive in July, she took the plunge and applied.
But, naturally, she faces some stiff competition - ESA received more than 22,500 applications, including almost 2,000 from Britain alone.
“Becoming an astronaut as a European is a lot rarer than if you were, say, an American,” explains Sophie. “NASA tends to put out a recruitment call every two years whereas it’s been 13 years since ESA’s last one in 2008 when they recruited Tim Peake, so there’s a lot of competition, but we’ll see.
“All you can do is make yourself appealing beyond having their minimum requirements, which is a Master’s in STEM or by becoming a test pilot as well as having at least three years’ experience in a relevant field,” she adds. “I’ve ticked both those off, so I’ve also learned German and am learning how to fly a plane, which will help.
“But I also enjoy stuff like that, otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” Sophie continues. “It’s fun and helps with my work, too - for example, when I started to learn how to fly, even though I work on flight control systems, I didn’t really understand what the feedback the pilot gets feels like. Now I do, which has made me a better engineer.
“And learning to fly was freeing. I’m a figure skater in my spare time and, when the rink’s empty and you can go as fast as you can, it’s one of the freest feelings in the world. That’s the only thing I can equate to flying. I know that becoming an astronaut is a remote possibility, so I’ve got to make sure I enjoy what I do every day. And I do.”
The enjoyment Sophie gets from her work has taken a young girl who never even dreamed of a career in engineering to the potential cusp of history. And that’s why, as a champion of This is Engineering, an initiative created by the Royal Academy of Engineering, Sophie wants to show other young aspiring engineers just how far a career in the industry can take them.
“Showing kids the real-world applications of engineering is unbelievably important because it can change the direction of their lives,” she says. “Space was my way into engineering, but there are so many different routes, so it’s about allowing young people to follow a passion because engineering can literally lead them to the moon.
“It’s also critical that we get more girls and women into engineering, not only because it’s the right thing to do for gender equality, but because it’s important to have a diversity of perspectives,” Sophie adds. “Take a really famous example: seatbelt design used to be based off tests on male crash-test dummies, which meant that women were more likely to die in a collision.
“You can guarantee that, had there been a woman in that room, she would’ve said ‘hold on, why are we only testing for men?’” Sophie continues. “It’s about being inclusive, which is both critical to business and just the right thing to do.”
And with Sophie as a role model, it’s safe to say a fair few budding engineers will be inspired and then some.
Sophie Harker is part of This is Engineering Day on 3 November, celebrating engineers and engineering. Created by the Royal Academy of Engineering, This is Engineering Day 2021 looks to highlight the critical role engineers have to play in the UK achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. For more info, visit www.thisisengineering.org.uk