Vladimir Pletser, the Homo Parabolicus
1. What is (are) your current job title(s), and what does it (do they) mean?
My current job title is Senior Physicist / Engineer in the Microgravity Payload and Platforms Division in the Astronaut and ISS Utilization Dept., Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations, at the European Space Research and Technology Centre of the European Space Agency (ESA). My job is actually double as I am taking care of development of payloads for the International Space Station and of organizing aircraft parabolic flight campaigns for microgravity experiments. To conduct these two parts of my job, I am using both skills of my engineering and physicist background.
2. Why is your job important?
I do not know if it is important, but it is interesting as I have to constantly change points of view in order to understand the requests and wishes from the scientists and the realities and constraints that engineers have to face. It is interesting also because, as a Project manager, I have to follow projects from all perspectives: technical, but also administrative, contractual, financial. Luckily I am helped and supported by very competent people who are experts in their own discipline. So we have to make sure that for all projects, everything is moving forward and delivered in time, keeping in mind that we are doing this to give the best possible conditions to Scientists to allow them to conduct their research efficiently and successfully.
3. What led you to that career path?
Very simple: I was always fascinated by space and by the possibilities that it could offer to the Humankind. Since my primary school, I knew that I would work for, or in, space. Of course, I wanted to be an astronaut also as a child, and when the opportunity came, I applied. I was lucky enough to be selected as a Belgian candidate. But I did also so many different things during my studies and career (astronomy, celestial mechanics, mathematics, astrophysics, mechanics,…), but they all had this common denominator: space!
4. How would you describe your typical work day?
Well, I am lucky enough to be able to say that I have the chance not to work but to enjoy my passion, which is space. So it depends.
If it is a period when I am in the office, usually the morning is for the administrative tasks (emails, phone calls, …). Then sport over lunch time (either running or swimming or working in the gym room). And the afternoon is more devoted to ‘thinking’ activities (reading/reviewing/analysing technical documents or science articles). Usually I stay late in the office (until 19h-20h) and then back home. After some family time, I continue to work in the evening on personal research projects.
If it is a period when I am on mission (for example for parabolic flights in Bordeaux where I am usually for 2 weeks two to three times per year), then with the team at Novespace we are more “on the field”. This means that it is more working and following the preparation of experimental hardware to be used during 0g flights and then during the flights, we have to make sure also that all functions well and successfully and if needed to give a helping hand to the experimenters either as subject or operator to perform their experiments.
5. What is the most exciting thing you ever had the chance to do?
Well, part of my job is to fly in 0g during parabolic flights. So this is definitely the most exciting thing I have done, and still do regularly, in my life.
6. What advice would you give to your young self?
Keep your dreams alive: always follow what you want to do and don’t let anyone else interfere with your main goal. Of course you should accept advices, but never accept ‘No’ for a final answer; a ‘No’ is usually waiting to become a ’Maybe’ which itself is a ’Yes’ in the making.
Be a specialist in the field that you have chosen, but don’t neglect other domains which are closely related. And do more! Chose more options and make sure that you are striving to be the best in all of them.