Welcome to the latest feature in our ‘Day in the life’ series with Kathryn O’Donnell – Chief Operations Officer.

Dr Kathryn O'Donnell - Chief Operating Officer at In-Space Missions

Tell me about yourself when you were younger

I was quite a studious and strong-willed child with great passions for maths and music! As I was growing up, I realised that I was better at maths and physics than music, so I began to follow this route and I kept music as my hobby. I enjoyed reading around topics at school as I enjoyed understanding how things worked and connected together.
I really enjoyed seeing how you could use maths to describe behaviour you observed in our galaxy, particularly orbital dynamics, it was brilliant seeing how it all tied together.

When did you become interested in space?

There was not a particular moment, or mission that sparked my interest in space, I have always found it fascinating. I enjoyed the topic at school which inspired me to go to the library to get Patrick Moore’s books out so that I could learn and understand more.

What did you study at University?

After A levels I was lucky enough to win a place at King’s College, Cambridge University on the Natural Sciences programme where I specialised in Astrophysics. My favourite topic at Cambridge was Galactic Dynamics. King’s was great as it gave me the opportunity to get involved in the great music tradition there and the University Women’s Executive.

When I finished my undergraduate course I was offered a summer research placement at St Edmund’s College, studying at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. I then had a think about what to do next in terms of career and decided that academic research was not the route for me so I applied for a Masters in Space Engineering on an industrial-focussed course at Cranfield University. I was fortunate enough to win a sponsored place at Cranfield with Matra Marconi Space. I enjoyed the course immensely and won a couple of academic prizes. This led straight into a position as an AOCS Operations Engineer at Matra Marconi supporting a fleet of GEO communications satellites.

When did you decide to pursue a career in Space?

It was after my undergraduate degree that I made the decision to move from astrophysics academia into space engineering. This was the point at which I began to think about what career path I could take, I did not decide from a young age what I wanted to do it happened along the way.

Tell me about your career from University to becoming COO at In-Space

After three years with Matra Marconi It felt like it was time for a change of direction. I had always been fascinated in Attitude and Orbit dynamics but didn’t feel like I had much freedom in career choice where I was so started looking for other opportunities. At the time SSTL and Surrey University were doing some very interesting work and I was fortunate to win a PhD place in astrodynamics at the Surrey Space Centre where I also worked part time as a Systems Engineer at SSTL. It was good fun and I really enjoyed my studies and work.

Following on from my PhD I worked in various positions in the space industry and also used my transferrable skills to work in the defence and cyber security area for several years to build my experience. I have held various technical and delivery leadership positions across BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and other divisions of what is now Airbus Space.

Recently I have re-joined some of my old SSTL colleagues in becoming a part owner and one of the early members of the In-Space Missions team. Interestingly we have just been taken over by BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, which makes it my 3rd time working there! I am happy with this outcome as I have quite a range of technical and business focus skills from an interesting variety of roles and I have found that mixture to be a really strong basis for my role as COO at In-Space. I know enough about a lot of different areas to help where needs be and also to see what we need to look at when we are thinking about growing the business in a particular direction.

What is a typical work day like?

I don’t have one, it is different every day and this is what I really like. I love the variety my job offers. At the moment I spend a lot of time looking at current project delivery with the Chief Engineer, examining how we deliver projects at the moment and what we need to do in order to accommodate future work. I also work as part of the leadership team to define and plan the implementation of the company strategy.

I love that I get to work on lots of things. A particularly important area for me is how we manage people in the business and support them to do the best they can.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Variety and that we are contributing to something tangible - putting a spacecraft in orbit is quite an achievement. I also love that we are able to create high tech jobs here in Alton and we are able to give talented people a chance in the space industry. I am particularly interested in creating a happy, equitable work force

In your work what are you most passionate about?

Enabling people to do their job effectively including making sure they have the right processes, tools, environment, knowledge and team around them as well as the right scope of work to do their job well. In my view, a good COO is the glue that sticks everything together.

What are your biggest work accomplishments?

At In-Space it has been leading the bid for the Pioneer programme that we secured with ESA and then leading the bid for the Titania project which we recently secured with DSTL and supporting all of the activities leading to the acquisition of In-Space. Building a company that is sufficiently strong and well thought of to be acquired by such a big brand is definitely a major achievement.

What makes you want to come to work in the morning?

The atmosphere here is really friendly and collaborative, the “can do” and positive attitude from the whole team as well as the variety of interesting work makes it a pleasure to come in each day.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I still love classical music as I have done from a young age. Now I practice with my 9 year old daughter, accompanying her on the piano, and we play cello duets together. I also hold a black belt in karate, but I’m a little out of practice!

Article  by In-Space Missions
Date: 9th November 2021