Aspire to Tech: Senior Systems Engineer at MDA

Career Spotlight – Will Richardson-Little

What is your role? What is your title? Where are you located?  How long have you been doing it?

I am a Senior Systems Engineer at MDA, and I am currently the Operations Development lead for the CHORUS program. CHORUS is MDA’s next generation multi-sensor satellite constellation. I work in MDA’s Geointelligence division, which is based in Richmond, BC. I have been with MDA for just over 5 years, but I’ve been working in space operations/systems engineering for about 13 years.

What makes your job interesting? What is the most fun? What is the most challenging? How does your role help drive the company’s success?

When you are working on satellites there always seem to be new problems to solve. No two missions are exactly alike. We are working with latest advances of Earth observation technology to achieve objectives that are interesting on their own. That connection is always fascinating to me. One project that I am involved in is called WildFireSat. It’s an initiative of the Canadian Forest Service in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Natural Resources Canada. The satellite will be used to monitor all active wildfires in Canada from space every three days. MDA was awarded a contract for the initial design of the mission. That is obviously very topical and relevant to us here in BC, considering the wildfires of the past few summers. I think that working on missions that have such a close impact to home is really interesting and I think that’s also true of the CHORUS mission where we will use radar imaging for Earth observation. We have used RADARSAT-2 to take images of the flooding in British Columbia, and CHORUS will certainly be used again in the future to monitor natural disasters and help provide crucial – potentially lifesaving – information back down to Earth.

The day that you actually launch your satellites is pretty hard to beat. That is a particularly intense period because we have to make sure the spacecraft survived launch and is operating normally in space. It is high pressure but also very thrilling and satisfying. While the work can be exciting, what really makes it fun is working with such an amazing group of colleagues. Everyone is so supportive of each other, and it makes the work fun, despite the intense work environment – we like to say in this business “Space is hard.” Any time you try to operate something that is flying around the planet, in a vacuum, at 7.5 kilometers per second, it is hard. So, it is really the technical aspects of the job that are really difficult. However, it is that challenge that keeps things interesting. We have to provide very high reliability systems to operate in space, and there’s often very little margin for error. That means that we have to be very focused on our pre-launch testing and preparations so that we have thought through every contingency before launch.

My role is to lead a team of operations development engineers. Our goal within the greater team is to take the entire system and make it ready to work at launch. It is my team’s responsibility to layout the procedures and processes and manage them. We must ensure that everyone is properly trained and prepared come launch day.  We provide imagery products to our customers, and we want to make the process as smooth and simple for them as possible. We are constantly evolving and improving to provide a system that is straightforward to manage – especially when we get into orbit.

What does a typical day look like for you? What do you actually spend your time doing?

Meeting – lots of meetings! When working on such a large system with so many distinct parts, both space hardware and ground software systems, there needs to be a lot of collaboration between teams. So that means lots of design reviews, and internal discussions about how to sort out our various challenges. Once we get closer to launch, we will start doing more testing of the system, so we will be using our simulator to run our command sequences and other operating procedures. Eventually we will run through exercises and rehearsals of how we are going to operate the spacecraft once it is in space. We are developing a sophisticated spacecraft simulator so those exercises can be very realistic. Sometimes you can forget that it is not a real spacecraft behind all the telemetry data on your display. Keeping these rehearsals as realistic as possible is important to get the operations team trained on how to use the spacecraft so that we will be ready for launch.

Tell us about your career history? What was your very first job and how did your career path take you to where you are today?

I did both my undergraduate and master’s degree at the University of Toronto. My undergrad was in Engineering Science – Aerospace option, and then I did a Masters at U of T’s Institute for Aerospace Studies. As you can tell, I always wanted to work in space. After my Masters, I got a job at the Canadian Space Agency working on Canada’s contribution to the International Space Station – the Mobile Servicing System. That includes the famous Canadarm2 and Dextre – if you need a visual, find a $5 bill. After a couple of years as an operations engineer based at CSA, I transition to the mission controller position. I had the chance to go down to Houston, Texas to train and work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. I worked on a couple of International Space Station assembly missions, writing robotics procedures, and training the astronaut crew. I also worked on-console monitoring the operations from mission control. After a couple of years at the Johnson Space Center I had become a certified mission controller. That meant I could send commands to the Canadarm2 and Dextre. I came back to Canada and worked from the remote Mission Control at the Canadian Space Agency.

I moved out to BC in 2014 and after a brief foray into automated train system engineering, I got a position at MDA working on the RADARSAT Constellation Mission. I worked on the operations development team, focused on “LEOP”: the launch and early orbit phase of the mission. In LEOP we have a very detailed and careful sequence of activities that we have to execute to get the spacecraft to a stable deployed state after launch. RCM was specifically challenging because we were launching three spacecraft on one launch vehicle. We worked 24/7 in two shifts for a whole week, sending commands to the three spacecraft to check out all the key systems. I was the shift 1 flight director for this phase and it was one of the most intense, yet gratifying, weeks of my career. Certainly, an experience that I will never forget.

Where might you go next? What’s your next role? What motivates you for your future career? Will you stay in tech?

I am happy with what I’m doing now! I am really looking forward to continuing to work on the CHORUS system through to launch and commissioning of the system. It is a big, complex project that will keep me busy. I have always been fascinated with space and I have wanted to work in this industry since I was in school. MDA allows me to work on projects that excite me so right now I don’t see myself leaving.  What motivates my future career is looking out of new and interesting space missions to get involved in. Over the last couple of years, I’ve worked on some pursuit of new business. Specifically working on new mission concepts and early mission analysis studies. I find this fascinating because there are so many interesting new mission concepts in Earth Observation that we can work on. I love space and the challenge that comes with it so I’m definitely going to stay in tech!

Any final words of advice, or advice for young people?

Find what you are really interested in, what you enjoy, what keeps you going, what you go home at night and research more about. I think that’s the way to keep you interested in your broader career. As an adult, having the chance to work in the aerospace field means that as I continue to learn more, it’s continually interesting to me because I just find the subject matter so fascinating. When I went through university, there were a lot of folks saying, “there aren’t many jobs in aerospace.”  That may have been true, then, but I ignored that and just kept charging ahead. I certainly do not think that’s true anymore, there are a lot of companies and there is a lot of work in space. There are many new opportunities in space and there’s a lot of companies out there that are you know pushing technology forward.

If there are any young folks who are interested in space as a career, I would really encourage them to look for co-op programs in university. I did my first real engineering job as a co-op student at MDA’s Brampton facility and learned so much thanks to my mentors. If you can find a co-op opportunity that is right for you, go for it! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.