On reflection, Elizabeth Seward is inclined to blame her teenage viewing habits for kindling her interest in spaceflight, although she admits the obsession may even predate that.
“I don’t actually know when I got bitten by the space bug. I have found old scrapbooks from when I was about five that had newspaper cuttings from satellite missions that were being launched,” she says.
Since those early days, Seward – now head of space strategy and future business at BAE Systems – has forged a career in the spaceflight industry, including a 20-year stint at Airbus Defence & Space and its predecessor Astrium.
While there may have been a childhood curiosity in the world beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, Seward thinks her interest was likely crystallised by time spent in the USA as a teenager.
“It was then my sister and I discovered Star Trek: The Next Generation which played every Saturday morning, combined with the local library that had the most enormous science fiction section.
“It was all that sci-fi and Star Trek that really cemented in me the idea that I was going to do something in the space industry,” she remembers.
The appeal, she says was “the Star Trek final frontier and exploring and going to new places” which, as she learned more, was also “about the cutting-edge science and the sense of adventure that you could get from it”.
But to boldly go, as Star Trek would have it, that meant first choosing the right academic path. Although Seward says her initial thought was to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering, a careers event showed it to be “a lot about windtunnels and aeroplane wings”, which, for her, was less appealing.
The same event – dedicated to women in science and engineering – also had a module on physics, which involved “playing around with liquid nitrogen and using a hair and a diffraction method to measure different red blood cell sizes that you couldn’t even see with your eye, and dropping things to measure gravitational constant,” Seward says.
“It just seemed so much more exciting and wide-ranging and diverse.”
But rather than a pure physics degree, she was instead pushed into a slightly different orbit, leaning towards a space science course at the University of Leicester in the English Midlands.
At the time, there were just five UK universities that offered such degrees – not much of a choice, but one that still needed to be made: “The University of Leicester has a sounding rocket in the foyer of the physics department – that’s what won me over,” she says.
After four years of study – including working for a space start-up designing a commercial lunar rover – Seward joined what was then Astrium as a graduate thermal engineer, a role she persisted with for a couple of years, until curiosity led her elsewhere.
“I sat in the same bay as the people doing, it was called mission systems at the time, in the future projects division and their work seemed much more exciting,” she explains. A placement in that part of the business followed, with Seward eventually making a permanent move.
In that role she was a thermal engineer for the first iteration of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Rover. “I’ve also studied how you could safely land a rover on Mercury and keep it alive in a crater,” Seward says.
Her next role was in technical marketing and communications – as she explains it, creating the link between technical and corporate communications teams – before moving into business development and then into strategy: “It’s been a series of stepping stones to get where I am today,” she says.
Seward joined BAE in February 2022 as head of strategy – space, before also gaining responsibility for future business in October that year.
Prior to the move, she had considered joining a start-up but instead was headhunted for the position at BAE. “The more they described the role, the more interesting it sounded. It’s a fascinating time to join a company like this because although it’s a huge organisation, the space unit is relatively small. So, in a way, it’s almost like working in a start-up but inside a big business.”
BAE’s focus in space is to apply its terrestrial capabilities – software-defined radios, computer processing, or the fusion of multiple sensor inputs, for example – to low-Earth orbit satellites for commercial and military customers.
“The goal is to grow space in the organisation. Having set out to build up the space business, we are doing that by seeing what existing technologies we have on the ground that we can lift up into space.”
There is also the potential to grow through acquisition. BAE last dipped its toe in these waters in 2021 with the purchase of In-Space Missions – a manufacturer of small satellites based in Alton, in the south of England. In-Space is already designing and building the first three satellites for its new parent.
Besides her day job, Seward is also heavily involved in encouraging women into the sector; she helped to set up the UK arm of the Women in Aerospace Europe group, leading the chapter for six-and-a-half years.
The group has done a lot of work around “unconscious bias in the workplace and how you hire people”, and promoting women as experts in their fields, trying to reduce the frequency with which all-male conference panels appear.
“I was once on a panel where we had to find a token man for diversity and that was a really wonderful experience. I’m hoping we can get into that position a lot more often,” she says.
Although Seward sees some progress, she acknowledges there is “still a problem”. This is clear further upstream where the intake for engineering degrees is only 30% female, a number that even falls slightly for physics courses: “That figure has not really changed since I was a student,” she notes.
It seems that at some point in primary education girls are dissuaded from pursuing an interest in STEM subjects. “We still have this bias [in society]… that science is for boys and not for girls. And we still haven’t cracked how we make that change.
“A lot of what BAE Systems does is go into schools and show ourselves as role models and say: ‘Anybody can do it – if you like science and math and those STEM subjects you have to go for it.’”
Speaking of going for it, given that the original inspiration for her career was crewed space exploration – does Seward still have a hankering to push into the infinity beyond?
“Yes, definitely. I’m excited by the progress in the commercial spaceflight sector, and hope one day I can take an orbital holiday to a space station.”