Sandy Tirtey, the hypersonic vehicle whisperer
1. What is (are) your current job title(s), and what does it (do they) mean?
My current job title is Vehicle Lead at Rocket Lab Ltd. for our Orbital program.
That means that I have the responsibility to lead the team which will develop, build and operate the vehicle of our Orbital Program. Our company is trying to develop a cheap and short turn-around time rocket launch system able to place a small satellite up to sun-synchronous orbit. The development of this vehicle is split into three teams: the propulsion team, the GNC team (Guidance Navigation and Control) and the Vehicle team. The typical systems we are working on are Separation systems, Structures, Tanks and ground operations.
2. Why is your job important?
It is important because my company is trying to revolution access to space by making it a much more affordable market. Right now, only big players with important expected outcomes can afford to build and place a satellite into orbit. We are trying to open this market and make it much more accessible to everyone.
Technically, my role is important as the vehicle team’s role is at the same time to support the other two teams by opening their solution space and adapting to their design iterations but it is also the focal point of the whole vehicle development.
3. What led you to that career path?
I have always been very interested into real Hypersonic flight experiments.
After my mechanical engineer graduation, I joined the von Karman Institute (Rhode St Genese, Belgium) for a Masters in research and then a PhD. During these wonderful years at VKI, I have been given the great chance to work with ESA on the EXPERT flight experiment together with other international partners.
That great exposure to real flight experiments and the experience I acquired has let me get a Postdoc position at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Australia is one of the world leading country in hypersonic flight experiments and specially the group I joined at UQ and DSTO. During my time at UQ, I have been the Technical Lead and Project manager of the Scramspace I hypersonic Scramjet flight experiment. I have lead a technical team which has designed, build, qualified and flown a hypersonic vehicle in September 2013. This has been a the job of my dreams and I and very thankful that I got given these responsibilities and thrust.
I have recently joined the company Rocket Lab LTD in Auckland New Zealand as vehicle lead. This role is similar to the position I had in Scramspace I but there are also some clear differences. First, the vehicle we are developing this time is no longer the payload but the launcher and has therefore to be much more versatile. Secondly, this vehicle is no longer a scientific experiment but will be an operating vehicle which will be built in series with some economic goals; which has some influence on design and the way parts are being produced.
4. How would you describe your typical work day?
The day usually starts with a discussion with the different members of the team and the specific problems or design aspects we are addressing at this particular point in time. Then the day is very variable. I am trying to keep being involved at a very technical level and I am the main aerodynamics of the company so it happens very regularly that I am running my own computations or analyses. I spend some portion of my day planning the team, reading references, organising components purchase and doing level 0 development.
5. What is the most exciting thing you ever had the chance to do?
By far, the most exciting part of my career and I should say my life so far, have been the last two minutes during the count-down of the Scramspace I flight. My role on the ground was to be PTL, Payload Technical Lead.
At T-2min, I had to ask every work-station, one-by-one if they are GO and then report to the range, then confirm on my system that we were Go.
At T-1min, I had to clock-set, which means synchronising the vehicle time with the launch time. This synchronisation had to be quite accurate and 10 seconds before T-1min, I remember looking at my finger on my mouse which was shaking so much that I was concern to miss my mouse button… fortunately I manager to hit right and press quite strongly on my mouse button.
Then the last minute was waiting for Fire! and monitor that everything is going well with my hand on the abort button…
For the last 10 years, I had thought and hoped to be in that seat and live these -2min… and I have honestly not been disappointed. It is really worth the effort!
6. What advice would you give to your young self?
Keep pushing and be proactive. Every time I have done a little more than what was expected, every time I have tried to make a situation happen, every time I have showed my face out-there and taken risks, it has paid off.
But keep also in mind that at the end of the day, it’s always about the people. I like the people I work with, whether they are in my office or at the other side of the world. Don’t under-estimate the importance of the human factor. You’ll need them at some point…
If you want to chat or some particular advices, you can contact me on my personal email (firstname.lastname@example.org), I may not always answer directly but I always answer…