Scarborough-Raised Engineer Nimal Navarathinam Went From Dreaming About Space To Working On International Space Missions

It seems like space has been a passion if not obsession of yours for a long time.  What was the initial spark (perhaps in your childhood) that got you hooked?

It’s very hard for me to pinpoint one exact moment that sparked my interest in space. Instead, there were several small but influential moments that nudged me forward. As a child, I was always interested in building cars, planes, and spaceships. I would use anything I could get my hands on, including lego blocks, cardboard boxes, or other items around the house. I was fascinated with how things worked, solving problems, and exploring new places. I think this inquisitive nature is what initially drew me towards the STEM subjects when I entered school. 

I attended a high school with an enrichment programme for mathematics and sciences in Canada. The school was named after the country’s first astronaut, Marc Garneau, who frequently visited us along with other astronauts. Being able to meet such Canadian pioneers was very inspirational. My physics teacher at the high school also played a pivotal role in guiding me towards a career in space. He was an avid space enthusiast and had built an observatory with a large telescope in his backyard far north of Toronto. He had a yearly event in his backyard where he would invite the entire class for an astronomy lesson, and to also peer through his telescope. Seeing the planets with clarity, including the rings of Saturn and the stripes of Jupiter was awe inspiring. 

But, perhaps all the above were just mere coincidences and the real reason I got into space was because I am a huge Star Trek nerd and I just asked myself, “What would Picard do?”. Who knows, but I’m so glad that I pursued my lifelong passion.

Space has become more of a hot topic now with the work that a number of billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos are doing in that industry, but this was definitely not the case when you got into the “Space Engineering” program at York in 2003.  At the time, how many universities had programs geared towards this specialization?  Also, were you ever afraid that you wouldn’t be able to find a job in your field given the very finite number of jobs available back then?

In the early 2000s, there weren’t many dedicated engineering programs at the undergraduate level geared specifically towards the space industry. But there were, and still are, multiple ways to get into the industry since it requires many specialisations. For example, there are people with engineering backgrounds from mechanical, electrical, thermal, chemical, and computer programming who I work alongside in the space field.There are also many people in the industry that came via non-engineering backgrounds, such as lawyers, doctors, policy makers, financial advisors, artists, and so on.

What attracted me to the York University programme was its strong Earth Science programme, which focused on remote sensing, geomatics and planetary sciences. This eventually evolved into the engineering programme it is today, with an emphasis on system design thinking for space missions. 

Around the time I started my space systems engineering undergraduate degree, there was also something else happening in the industry. A revolution in satellite design philosophy was taking place; this was when the small CubeSat standard began gaining ground in the industry. The standardisation of satellite design by restricting mass, volume, and interfaces helped bring down the costs of development, launch, and operations. This was a real gamechanger, making it easier for many players, including universities, to get involved in space missions. 

Fast forward 20 years, the CubeSat standard has gone from university projects to commercial companies. Now there are many companies around the world that provide satellite components using this standard. There are even more companies that provide downstream services using these satellites, such as Planet, who utilizes CubeSats to obtain daily images of the Earth. There’s even a Toronto-based company called Kepler that provides communication services, all with satellites that are just 10 x 10 x 30 centimetres in size.

Despite the exciting innovations that exist in the burgeoning Canadian market now, the job prospects were uncertain when I was graduating in the mid-2000s. It was hard for my classmates and I to find jobs locally as there wasn’t a fertile industry. Those that did exist were often for engineers with other technical skills, such in mechanical and electrical streams. Despite these setbacks, I wanted to apply the great training I obtained in my studies at York. As such, I started exploring opportunities in Europe, which is the best career decision I could have made at the time. 

You’ve worked for some interesting organizations in the industry including the European Space Agency during your time in Europe.  How did you go about finding these opportunities?

I had a bit of luck, which I see as the confluence of preparation and timing: being at the right place, with the right tools, at the right time. 

The 2008 Great Recession allowed me to continue my education and specialize in satellite power systems. This allowed me to prepare for an upcoming opportunity to participate in the International Space University’s (ISU) Space Studies Programme in the summer of 2008 in Barcelona, Spain. The programme was an intense 9-week course that brought together students, professionals, and space enthusiasts of different backgrounds and experiences from around the world. It was an amazing opportunity and enabled me to meet and network with many people in the industry. It opened my eyes to what programmes and opportunities were available in different countries. 

Following my ISU programme, I returned to Canada to continue pursuing my Master’s studies at York, while also gaining some hands-on experience in environmental testing of space components by working for one of my professors. Towards the end of my graduate studies, I started applying for many of the opportunities I heard about during my time at the ISU. One of them included the Young Graduate Trainee (YGT) programme at the European Space Agency (ESA). It was a one-year paid placement within one of the many ESA locations. I was fortunate enough to get hired and got a chance to live in the Netherlands and work at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), which is ESA’s main technology development and test centre. Here, I worked in the Earth Observations Directorate in the Future Missions Programme as a Systems Engineer. My work here opened my network even further as it brought me in close contact with many governmental organisations and commercial companies within Europe. This led to me being recruited for work in England for a pioneering company in the small-satellite arena, called Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL). This eventually led me to my current role as Principal Space Systems Engineer at In-Space Missions (ISM).

Was there one project or initiative you’ve worked on in the last 10+ years that you’ve been most proud of?

I am proud of every project I have had the opportunity to work on. An incredible amount of work goes into getting a mission to flight – which has always been inspiring process to be apart of. ‘Hearing’ the satellite when it gets into orbit for the first time and when it starts delivering data is very rewarding.

Of all the projects I’ve been apart of, the one that stands out to me the most is one called RemoveDebris, due to its uniqueness. It was a technology demonstration mission that tested the use of a harpoon and a net in space to capture debris. Space debris can be anything from old satellites that stopped working, launcher fairings, and fragments from previous collisions. They are a serious threat to other space assets, like the International Space Station and communication satellites. In the future, the problem will only get worse as more and more satellites are launched, especially mega-constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink.

RemoveDebris was the first mission of its kind to trial small versions of active debris removal technologies in space. I worked on this mission from the preliminary design to the critical design phase. It was a very challenging project, both from a technical and regulatory point of view. This required me to lead a lot of redesign work to make the mission feasible. Seeing it return video of the tests from space was really rewarding and knowing that I was part of the first mission to help tackle space debris makes me proud.  

You’re a “Principal Space Systems Engineer” – how would you explain what you did to somebody with no context of the work involved in your space? 

My role is quite varied. I work on designing space systems for missions and develop roadmaps to make sure the products that we offer are in line with the market needs. 

I can also be thought of as an intermediary between customers and the engineering teams within the company. I am able to communicate to customers about the capabilities of our products, and in turn, distil the customer’s technical needs and objectives to our in-house engineering teams. I then lead the engineering team to develop the mission concept, define the architecture and also help lead (or co-lead) the delivery of the mission through the different phases. You can liken my role to a music conductor. I bring the sum of the technical parts together to deliver a symphony of sound to the audience, which is our end customer.  

I also help train and mentor junior engineers, suggesting new ways to tackle problems, bouncing ideas off of them, and also sharing my insight from previous missions. I am also happy to roll up my sleeves and help in the lab when needed, drawing on my experience to work on hardware integration, testing, and coding, while also being aware of the bigger picture regarding the programme’s goals and ambitions.   

What’s a common misconception that people have about the work you do or the type of work possibilities there are in the space industry? 

People often think “rocket scientist” as soon as they hear that I work in the space industry, but I don’t work with rockets at all. Or when they hear “systems engineer”, the common misconception is that I work in I.T. 

The space industry, however, is quite varied and requires people from many different backgrounds, not just engineering. Depending on the mission or project, you could need a variety of specialists. For example, human exploration missions will have medical doctors involved for assessing and monitoring the astronauts’ health; imaging missions will have image processing specialists and remote sensing subject matter experts; and interplanetary missions require planetary scientists, physicists, and many others. You also need programme managers, accountants, lawyers, artists, web designers, and a whole host of other supporting roles to not only mount a successful mission, but to also perform outreach activities to make sure the public knows why space and exploration is important.

What keeps you excited about the future of the space industry?

The limitless potential of what is out there in space is what excites me. There is so much to learn and we have only scratched the surface so far. For example, a lot of the resource constraints found on Earth can potentially be solved with space technology or by harnessing the abundant resources in space and bringing it to Earth. This of course will require a lot of development and work to make it economically viable, but that is where the excitement is for me – it’s the problem solving.

Right now, there is also a lot of growth within the space industry globally, and even here in Canada. A lot of the opportunity is coming from the commercial sector, but also from the government programmes – such as the Lunar Gateway – where the plan is to return humans to the moon along with supporting infrastructure.

In addition to the moon missions, over the next decade, there will be many other missions that I am looking forward to seeing as well. To name just a few: 

– James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the images of distant galaxies it will produce

– Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) which will spend at least three years making detailed observations of the giant gaseous planet Jupiter and three of its largest moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.

– DragonFly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan that will have a rotorcraft lander that will be able to fly from place to place on the moon to explore.

What’s been a failure (or “learning lesson”) you’ve experienced in the last 3 years?

The last three years have been a curveball for everyone. The pandemic and the isolation changed a lot of people’s lives and priorities. For me, I was fortunate enough that my family and I were able to stay relatively safe despite COVID raging through the United Kingdom, where we previously lived. The lockdowns meant that I was working from home daily. It became easy for me to just roll out of bed and sit at my computer and work through the day. Because we weren’t allowed out and everything was closed, I basically continued working into the night as well. At first, this was great as I was being very productive. No travel time meant that I was cracking on with more work. Since it was interesting and challenging, it was easy for me to become fully absorbed. But as the weeks dragged into months and then years, it started to take a toll. I was becoming inefficient, tired, and more irritable at home – classic early signs that I was heading towards a burnout. 

It wasn’t until late 2021, when I was able to step back and reassess my priorities. My boys were getting older and more active now. I wanted to not just be there for them but to also have the energy to keep up with their activities. I wanted to break the current cycle that the lockdown life thrust on us and started implementing changes. I am fortunate enough to be in a position where my work is flexible, and my colleagues are understanding and supportive. I was able to set boundaries and try to return to a more sustainable work-life balance. With the office opening up again, I started going into the office a couple days a week, which helped create a mental distance between office and home. At the same time, things were opening up in the United Kingdom, which meant that we were able to setup activities and outings on the weekends, see friends and family again, and be more social. 

I am by no means perfect, as I am still constantly trying to find a new balance. But I guess that’s what life is about. You must be flexible and be able to adjust to what different phases of your life brings. I think the important lesson here is to make sure you give yourself time to rest, relax, and recover. Especially after what we have collectively been through, it is important to ask for help. Also, check in on your friends and family to see how they are doing.

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