The Sky's the Limit: Opportunities at the European Space Agency

When the Ariane space rocket lifts off, it is fuelled not just by hydrocarbons and liquid oxygen but by the brainpower that goes into numerous calculations, computer simulations, and test flights. As a result, scientists account for over half of the employees in the space industry, a higher proportion than in any other sector.

The European Union's recent green paper on space policy states that there is a huge demand for aerospace engineers. This is in spite of the failure of the first launch of Ariane 5 in December 2002, an event that had an immediate detrimental effect on the economic outlook for the European launch sector.

The Ariane programme, however, is being restructured to restore its competitiveness, and meanwhile some exciting new projects are on the cards. Galileo, the European satellite navigation and positioning programme, aims to end Europe's reliance on the American geopositioning system, GPS. Additional programmes in space technology include security applications and providing Internet access via satellite.

The European Space Agency (ESA) comprises 15 member states (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) plus Canada, a cooperating state. By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, the agency can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country. For young scientists, ESA offers three entry levels, as Frank Dansey, head of human resources, explained to German students during a promotional tour last month.

Welcome, Young Graduates!

For starters, ESA offers students in the final year of their master's course an End of Studies Training Period in one of the ESA research centres for between 2 and 6 months. The training period is not paid, but it provides an excellent opportunity to enter the ESA space world. Students should apply at the end of September each year.

Women, Apply NOW!

So new that no information is yet available on the ESA Web site is a special programme, New Opportunities for Women (NOW), which aims to boost the number of female graduates at ESA. Watch this space...

Francesc Gallart, meanwhile, applied for ESA's Young Graduate Trainee ( YGT) Scheme after completing his degree in electrical engineering in Barcelona. During his traineeship at ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, he participated in the development of a test platform for a new digital signal processor to work with radiation. Gallart developed software for the Young Engineers' Satellite, which was launched by Ariane. "You face real problems. You collaborate with ESA people, universities, and also with space companies like Matra, Thomson, or Arianespace," Francesc says of his work experience.

The YGT Scheme offers a 1-year training contract designed to provide work experience and to prepare for future employment in industry. Applications are accepted by e-mail for the 70 specific training opportunities that are listed in late September/early October on the ESA Web site. Short-listed candidates are invited to attend an interview at their chosen ESA site, and successful applicants must pass a medical examination. Three months after the offer, they may already be working at the European Space Research Institute (ESRIN) in Frascati, Italy, ESA's headquarters in Paris, or at ESTEC.

ESA's Multinational Staff


Number of Employees

































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(Data are from May 2003)

Trainees earn ?1972 per month. They do not have to pay national taxes, but they receive an additional "expatriation allowance." According to Dansey, contractors (third companies working onsite with ESA) watch the YGT Scheme trainees closely and are frequently ready to poach them when their year is up.

Does Gallart think that the YGT Scheme was worthwhile? "Yes, it was a fantastic experience, professionally and personally," he says. "You work inside an international high-tech environment and can learn from experienced professionals." What's more, he adds, smiling, "you can play in an international football league, play golf, go sailing ... amazing!"

Postdoctoral Research Fellowships

Young space scientists who have completed their Ph.D.s can approach ESA with their research ideas. One year's funding is on offer initially, renewable for a second year. Fellowships may be either internal--held at ESTEC, ESRIN, or the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany--or external--at an institute outside the applicant's home country.

ESA recruits not only space engineers but also electrical engineers, chemists, physicists, astronomers, and specialists from many other disciplines. As a general qualification, Dansey says that ESA is looking for the ability to work in a team and the desire to be goal-oriented within a prescribed term. As for the job satisfaction on offer, Dansey says of employees: "Once they come to ESA, they never want to leave."

International Organisations: More Germans Wanted

Germany pays its ESA contributions according to its gross national product. As the largest country in the European Union by population, Germany therefore provides nearly a quarter of ESA's budget, and yet less than a fifth of ESA's employees are German (see table). "Looking at the numbers employed at ESA today, we are paying for 100 other nationals," says physicist Karl-Ulrich Müller, head of the department of international scientific co-operation at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Germans seem to be prepared to relocate from Berlin to Frankfurt. So why not from Cologne to Paris? Germans, it seems, prefer to work in their homeland. As a consequence, the number of Germans applying for jobs at international organisations is relatively low. But another reason may be lack of access to information about international jobs.

Sources of information are available, though. The German Foreign Ministry publishes international job opportunities at ESA and other international organisations on their Web site. Interested candidates can add their profile to the international pool and will be informed if their qualifications match those of new positions. Another good source of information on jobs in the air and space industry is the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which manages German space activities such as the German Space Agency and is closely linked to ESA. DLR even offers a return ticket back to a job with the organisation after an international posting. "German nationals in international organisations are our ambassadors and can help us in determining future decisions," says Müller, explaining the goal of supporting German applicants to international organisations.

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