Anyone can work on cool space missions if you work hard for it, says space engineer Francisca Matos

Anyone can work on cool space missions if you work hard for it, says space engineer Francisca Matos

Francisca Matos is a structural analysis engineer at OHB Czechspace in Brno, Czech Republic. She told us her story and her thoughts on the perspective of young people working in the space industry in Europe. This interview was created as part of the talk show Space for Women, organized by Czech Space Week.

Hello, Francisca. So, when did you decide that you wanted to start working in the space industry?

I was always interested in structural engineering, seeing how structures behave under certain conditions, ever since a young age. I think that was the influence of my family. When I was about 14 years old, I found out that I wanted to do this work in the aerospace segment.

Do you remember the day when you decided about it? What were your reasons?

It was the after-school counseling which helped me decide. At that time, I was really connected with arts, I liked to draw, and my parents thought that I wanted to pursue something connected with arts. But personally, I saw it as just a hobby. So, my parents put me to counseling, so that I could better decide what high school I should go to and what to pursue after that. They thought that I just wasn’t convinced enough to pursue arts and that the counseling would convince me. But in the end, it was the other way around, thanks to the counseling my parents understood that I didn’t want to do arts, it was just a hobby, and I started my journey into engineering.

Mechanical engineers sometimes do a lot of drawing as part of their job, so it makes sense that you moved to engineering. But do you still draw for fun?

Not that much. For me drawing was always about the perspective, I wanted to draw the room I was in. So, it was more technical, about imagining 3D shapes and volumes. But I guess it was helpful in mechanical engineering later on.

So, what do you actually do in your job?

I am a structural analysis engineer, that means that I analyze mechanical structures which are designed by other people, considering the conditions that the structures are submitted to. This could of course be applied to any field, not just aerospace, but the thing about aerospace is that the conditions which you can encounter are quite extreme. That makes it more exciting, at least for me. You have to consider conditions both in the launcher and in orbit, it’s challenging, but I enjoy it.

Do you sometimes fight with mechanical engineers who design the structures? Tell them “this will never work” and return it to them?

No, in reality it’s much more cooperative, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to work together. When we receive and analyze the design, we give the design team constructive feedback on what could be changed, we spend a lot of time discussing together.

Do you work at some specific mission currently?

I am currently working on the HERA project. HERA is an ESA’s Planetary Defense Mission that is intended to investigate the Didymos binary asteroid, which will provide valuable information for further asteroid deflection missions as well as more understanding of the solar system formation.

It is really exciting for me to work on a project like this one. It’s challenging but rewarding to feel that I can somehow contribute to a mission of this importance.

How long does preparation of a project like this take, until you can see it launch into space?

That depends on the mission and on the deadline given by the customer, but it can be quite some time, sometimes many years. I arrived into the mission I’m working on currently, in a phase where we can already see some conclusion, so hopefully I’ll see it launch soon.

Does it make you nervous, waiting to see if the project is a success?

The project is divided by several phases so in a way we know that if our work passed that phase it is because it was successfully completed. When the moment of the launch will arrive, I believe I will be nervous anyway. However, I am positive that it will be a culmination of happiness where all the hard work will pay off.

What motivates you in your work?

I am motivated by the challenge. That’s the interesting part, that the way forward is always unknown and unpredictable, that is what inspires my daily work. And of course, the purpose of the missions which I work on. If you know that you are working on a mission which brings something good to humanity or the planet, that is always a good motivation.

Do you have any dream project or mission which you would like to work on?

I don’t think I have a favorite. There are currently a lot of exciting missions, and I’d be happy to work on any of them. Anyway, the one I am working on at the moment is pretty cool.

Are there many female structural engineers such as you?

In my company it’s just me, out of five structural engineers. But I think there are many more women in mechanical engineering in other companies and other fields. I feel that the number of women in engineering is increasing and that makes me feel super happy and proud.

Would you say that you experienced any obstacles on the path to becoming a mechanical engineer, as a woman?

Not really, in my job I don’t see any discrimination or judgement towards me. Even when working together with other companies, I never felt any type of discrimination. Is nice for me to feel that somehow the world is evolving towards job equality.

Is it, in your opinion, difficult to become an engineer and get into the space industry? Is there any advice you would like to give to young people who are considering taking a similar path to you?

I believe we just have to be really focused on our objective to be able to pass the obstacles that may appear on the way. There are always people that will say that it is too hard or that it is not even worth it to try, but you just have to maintain your objectives clear in your mind and work hard for it, and believe me, you will get it!

Title image: Francisca Matos, OHB Czechspace