Women in engineering: Living and breathing the space industry in Scotland

"Space - it's all I ever wanted to do." An interview with Dr Hina Khan, senior project manager for Spire Global UK on her experience of living in Scotland and why it's a fantastic place for space tech companies.

Hina Khan, Senior Project Manager, Spire Global UK enjoying Scotland's outdoors

A day in the life of Dr Hina Khan

My responsibilities

Hi, I’m Dr Hina Khan, senior project manager at Spire Global UK and I manage all of Spire’s UK and European programme activity involving government, academic and institutional partners, such as the UK Space Agency, European Space Agency, UK Met Office, UK universities and UK/Scottish governments.

My role and what I do

My role is diverse as I manage the external relationships with these entities, build new partnerships and ensure Spire as a company is delivering on the contractual obligations we have through the partnership programmes. These range from developing new technical capabilities, managing customer engagement, building pipelines for new project development, and working closely across Spire to ensure successful delivery of the work plan.

My journey so far and some of the interesting projects I've worked on

I grew up in a small town in Scotland and graduated from the University of Glasgow in the late 1990s. My career has since taken me all over the world and working in all aspects of the space sector – starting in university doing world-class and cutting-edge research, continuing this to work on pioneering space missions such as Cassini, Cluster and SOHO and then moving to work at NASA and the European Space Agency. I've had the opportunity to be embedded within the scientific teams of these missions and present my work at international conferences across Europe, Asia and the US.

Beyond this and on returning to the UK I got more involved in the practical applications of space science, looking to use my knowledge to improve life on Earth through service and resources which use space assets. For instance, using satellite data to understand the green space in our cities, or to understand agriculture yield prediction from space data or to effectively manage traffic across our cities to reduce levels of pollution.

I was running the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA) as innovation director for four years before joining Spire Global in 2018.

Spire is a pioneering small satellite company, that has launched about 100 satellites (all built within Scotland) to monitor, track and provide services that help us better understand and mitigate against the challenges we face as a planet.

Understanding climate change, better weather monitoring and asset tracking across our skies and oceans, all from data from small satellites no bigger than a loaf of bread.

Spire Global clean room, Glasgow

"There is a shared goal to make Scotland the central force in enabling change in the sector through agile small satellite development and solutions that can be used and exported across the world."

Spire Global clean room satellite assembly area, Glasgow

Spire's satellite assembly clean room in Glasgow

I can’t imagine being in any other industry, this is what I love to do

Busy days are exactly that - busy!

Not just with work but also combining that with home life. With two school-aged children, the mornings are a manic mix of getting ready for school, planning what is going on for the day, and making sure everyone knows where they need to be later. Once the school drop off has happened, I would travel to work (pre-Covid) to get ready for a varied day of meetings with external partners/customers, discussions with the team, planning /scoping for new projects, and possibly preparing for any upcoming events or presentations I am giving.

I am also a member of the Scottish Space Leadership Council where we actively engage with government bodies to ensure the Scottish Space Sector has both a voice and presence across various forums.

The day passes quickly as there is always much more to be done than time allows. So, my day seeps into the evening to try to keep things on an even keel and linking up with some of our transatlantic colleagues on important projects.

I keep a few hours in the evening free to spend time with my family and have dinner together. But sometimes it is a challenge and having a supportive family network really helps.

I am one of these people who finds it difficult to switch off from work. I think this is because so much of the time I don’t consider what I am doing a 'job', but more that this is what I love to do. So, it is part of my life, rather than a means to an end. I have always been like this and I can’t imagine being in any other industry.

Transitioning to new ways of working 

In many ways the Covid-19 outbreak has not really changed my working life. I am still involved in all the meetings and projects I was working on before, and if anything, it is a little easier as I am in the one place all the time.

Events and conferences have obviously disappeared, though some have migrated to online platforms. With less travel, I can take part in more varied events and ones that would have been difficult to attend due to travel issues.

Spire as a company has had access to virtual meeting platforms and working across different continents as part of our day to day process. So, transitioning to working from home has been relatively easy from that standpoint. However other challenges, including face-to-face interactions, working detached from your team, and other socially distant aspects have become more evident. We try to mitigate these by having regular informal virtual meetups such as online lunches with colleagues.

The best thing about my job

Within the company, everyone shares the passion to keep improving on the aspect of the project they are working on. Everyone is pushing towards the same goal and everyone is focused on making the products and services Spire offers better than they were. This is a great environment to work in and it makes, you as an individual, feel like you can also do more to improve.

In my role, specifically, I rely on the technical teams to deliver on the project goals, so that when we have discussions with customers or partners, everything runs smoothly. Seeing this happen is immensely rewarding and knowing that everyone shares the same drive for excellence is what makes Spire such a great place to work.

The worst part of my job

Spire is a global company and as such we work across multiple time zones. This can mean late night meetings to ensure that the relevant staff are involved in the discussions. Also, when projects are time critical, everyone is working together to ensure the success of the project.

This can be stressful but ultimately rewarding when we meet the objective.

What might surprise others about Scotland's space industry

In Scotland we build more satellites than anywhere outside of the US. This is in part due to the work Spire have been doing in Glasgow over the last few years.

Scotland not only has industries that are building satellites, but also in the technical instrumentation used on these satellites, as well as the data processing required to make useable and relevant products and services.

Furthermore, with the emergence of spaceports across Scotland, very soon there could be the capability to launch small satellites from these shores, which will require skills and expertise across different domains.

Scotland has the unique position of being able to provide the complete end-to-end supply chain of expertise in the space sector, allowing people from many different skills and expertise to be a part of this industry.

Scotland is a fantastic place to work and to set up a space business

Why? Scotland is emerging as the place to be when it comes to new space technology, data analytics, developing solutions, and looking at how space data can be used to make life on this planet better for everyone.

In Scotland we have all the building blocks to pull together all aspects of the space sector to deliver on this challenge, including: 

  • The close proximity of key areas of spaceport technology
  • Launch, design, development and manufacturing of small satellites
  • Data processing with machine learning
  • AI capabilities and applications
  • Product and service delivery for end users and customers

These are all happening within Scotland and are supported by government.

There is a shared goal to make Scotland the central force in enabling change in the sector through agile small satellite development and solutions that can be used and exported across the world.

Scotland can also be the test bed for many of these derived products that are being pioneered to tackle climate change; a global problem that could be solved by developing these in Scotland.

And finally, for all of this we require highly skilled people across all disciplines to realise these goals. These skills are located with Scotland's world-leading universities and developed through colleges and apprenticeships with industry partners to ensure the roles are relevant and applicable for the sector needs.

How I like to spend my free time in Scotland

Scotland is a beautiful country and I enjoy getting out to see as much of it as I can with my family, whatever the weather! I have spent many years outside of Scotland so appreciate all that the country has to offer, and all within a short drive of my doorstep.

Exploring the outdoors is a must in Scotland

Don’t worry about the rain – get your wellies and a raincoat and get outside. There is so much to see and explore, that you will never get around it all. But make sure you see it in full glory - after the rain as the sun breaks over the mountains beaming light across the glens and lochs. Stunning!

Read more on why Spire chose to set up in Scotland

In case you missed it...

Journalist Kim McAllister is joined by guest host Kristina Tamane to celebrate International Women in Engineering Day. They interview two women working in the Scottish space industry (recorded 22 June 2020):

  • Cassandra Mercury is Quantum Payload Lead at Craft Prospect - working on quantum encryption of data using satellites
  • Dr Hina Khan is Senior Project Manager at Spire Global - with perhaps the most extensive space network in the world (starts at 18:45 mins)

Listen to the podcast 

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