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Interview with Diego Rodríguez, SENER’s Space and Defense Director, and Aleksandra Bukala, SENER’s Country Manager in Poland

Aleksandra Bukala, Country Manager at SENER in Poland (on the left) and Diego Rodríguez, Space and Defense Director at SENER (on the right).

Aleksandra Bukala, Country Manager at SENER in Poland (on the left) and Diego Rodríguez, Space and Defense Director at SENER (on the right).

SENER is celebrating its 50th year working in space. Was it the first company in the sector in Spain?

Diego Rodríguez: The launchers tower project in Kiruna, Sweden, was the first Space project that was tendered for in Spain, and it was SENER that did it, in 1967. Other actors appeared on the scene immediately after that, such as the National Aerospace Technology Institute (INTA) and Construcciones Aeronáuticas (CASA). All three were pioneers in Spain, but SENER was definitely first.

Diego Rodríguez.
Diego Rodríguez.

How did SENER approach the Kiruna project in a sector that was new to the company?

D.R.: In those days, “Manu” de Sendagorta led the company, and he was part of a magnificent and ultimately award-winning team of engineers that included “Txetxu” Rivacoba, among others. SENER was working on programs related to mechanical systems and large structures when the opportunity to participate on the Kiruna tower came up, so the team decided to see how well it could measure up to the major European companies. It was precisely their expertise in these fields and their familiarity with the special environmental conditions that led them to clinch the contract, by showing how they had mastered all the project’s key factors. The best proof of the extent of the success of this base, located in the Arctic Circle, is that it is still operational 50 years later. This project clearly heralded starting point for SENER’s career in the space sector.

Was that group of engineers exceptional?

D.R.: That team of engineers was something special, they were fearless when it came to heading into a new field of engineering which until then had been terra incognita for them. Until that time, the projects they had worked on involved large cranes for ports: a very different aerospace industry. But their background, their knack for innovation and their determination to take on the challenge led them to take the chance to achieve success.

Aleksandra Bukala: The key to achieving success is to have experienced people with the right personality and a high level of motivation. In the case of Poland, in just five years we created a space company from scratch that can develop hardware for missions to Mars. The high value of our engineering team translates into successful projects, something we pride ourselves on greatly. In Spain it was Kiruna, and in Poland the equivalent would be ExoMars.

Aleksandra Bukala y Diego Rodríguez.
Aleksandra Bukala y Diego Rodríguez.

How did SENER’s activities evolve over the following years?

D.R.: The design and building of the Kiruna tower was followed by a natural evolution. The ensuing contracts were for earth-based support devices related to launchers, while the team got its first shot in the flight segment in the 1970s with a deployable cable for an antenna of the ISEE-B satellite. This was followed by extremely important contracts for the Spacelab microgravity laboratory.

In the 1980s, we consolidated our work in other types of mechanisms, especially deployment systems. As we branched out from our activities in the field of defense, in the 1990s we began to work on guidance, navigation and control systems. When the decade came to a close, SENER decided to focus on attitude control systems. This proved to be the right move, as shortly afterwards we won the contract for the attitude control system for the Herschel and Planck satellites. Now, in the new millennium, we are expanding into the field of optics and we have won the contract for the payload (the main instrument) of the SEOSat/Ingenio satellite. Now that we have consolidated our position in various areas of activity over the last decade, SENER has become a supplier of full systems, including attitude control (AOCS) systems, guidance, navigation and control (GNC) systems, and more recently, optical systems.

The Kiruna tower was the first space project that was tendered for in Spain, and it was SENER that did it in 1967.

Our mission now is to continue to supply subsystems for the flight segment while aiming for other areas, such as launchers, and branching out to projects with a lower institutional profile and a clear commercial focus.

Has SENER’s business in Poland been predicated on this progress?

A.B.: The lessons we have learned and the examples of best practices are not that easy to apply to Poland, since it is a very different country from Spain and the world has changed a lot in the last 50 years. When we began, we decided to focus on mechanical engineering. We worked on relatively simple mechanisms, taking into account that designing and building hardware for space is far from simple. We will definitely expand our fields of activity in the near future, although we have yet to define where this will take us. The space market is changing and evolving toward more commercial fields. We have an exciting adventure ahead of us.

Aleksandra Bukala.
Aleksandra Bukala.

Which projects have been most representative over the last 50 years? And which ones have stood out in Poland?

D.R.: Five decades of work in space have been very productive. It was obviously the Kiruna launch tower that set the ball rolling. After that, the most outstanding projects include Spacelab, Columbus, SOHO, Cluster and Herschel - Planck. With its large deployable sunshield, Gaia is one of the projects that has afforded us greatest visibility over the years. Also worthy of mention are the antennas for BepiColombo and Solar Orbiter, and the scanner of the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) satellite, a groundbreaking subsystem in terms of its dynamics and pointing features that has made us a global leader in this area. I am probably leaving out many notable programs, since SENER currently has around 300 devices and subsystems, and selecting which ones to mention is no easy task. In every area, SENER’s devices have a level of quality and features that is top notch.

The space market is changing and evolving toward more commercial fields. We have an exciting adventure ahead of us.

A.B.: There are fewer missions in Poland. So far, three of them have led the way. ExoMars 2020 was the first to have flight hardware that will take us to Mars. The second was our first MSGE (Mechanical Ground Support Equipment) contract for Euclid, a giant three-ton satellite in which we were in charge of the design and manufacturing of 14 different equipment. And the third milestone was developing an instrument selection mechanism for the ATHENA mission, the most complex instrument mechanism we had ever tried to design, and which is currently in the early technological development phase.

D.R.: SENER in Poland’s progress in the field of space is already a milestone in itself. All of our achievements have come in a very short period of time, and that is admirable.

Diego Rodríguez.
Diego Rodríguez.

Could we also talk about the lessons that have been learned during these years?

D.R.: We learn lessons from all of our projects. SENER constantly learns from its mistakes; we study why they occurred and we fix them. This has played a huge role in helping us maintain our current record of half a century of launches in which our devices have continued to work for their entire operational lifespan with no failures whatsoever.

How is it possible to achieve a failure-free record when you have supplied more than 270 flight devices?

D.R.: Designing a space mission –where no maintenance can be performed– entails pushing yourself to exert the utmost rigor in every process, from identifying requisites through to the final verifications. SENER is famous in the market for its reliability, and this is what puts us on the list of companies that are clearly favored by the European Space Agency (ESA).

A.B.: This sterling reputation helps clients know who we are and who is behind us. Our challenge is to continue to deliver these exceptional results. Our team in Poland is quickly absorbing the know-how of its peers in Spain, and its motivation and dedication are exceptional.

What do our clients prize most about SENER's work?

D.R.: We could point to three elements that make SENER stand out and make us famous. When our clients, suppliers and contractors think of our company, it is our commitment that comes to mind, the fact that SENER always follows through, even in the face of difficulties. Secondly, finding similar-sized companies in Europe that can bring engineers to the table from various disciplines and who have the versatility to deliver complex systems is no mean feat. Lastly, our vast experience enables us to respond to highly-specific requirements starting from zero, as is typical in the ESA's science and Earth-based missions. They appreciate that we can cover the entire process, from identifying requirements to the final tests of flight equipment. It is no easy task.

Does SENER's strategy in space call for continued growth in the company's current lines of business or for expanding its fields of action? Product lines, technologies, capabilities… What is it that best defines SENER?

D.R.: It is our intention to persevere in these fields, while making major changes in mainstreaming and product focus, and fully leveraging our technological expertise, applying it to all our product lines. This should make it possible for us to penetrate more firmly into more commercial markets such as telecommunications and launchers: i.e., all the things that are now called "new space." In the past we used to talk more about technologies and capabilities, but now our vocabulary features the word "product” increasingly more often. Our R&D efforts are now focused on mastering technologies that will allow us to develop the products our clients seek. We want to present product catalogs and not just completed projects.

A.B.: We had discussed this before, the fact that the space industry is changing and is becoming a more commercial sector. If we want to be successful we will have to be flexible in the Polish market and the global market.

What role does SENER play in Poland in the aerospace industry?

A.B.: The Polish government expects SENER to apply the experience and expertise it has gleaned over these 50 years of history and to be a driving force among local companies. Most of these companies began at the same time as us and they are now ready to provide service to their clients. Moreover, having worked together with us is a quality guarantee for other companies. All of this means that the role SENER will play in Poland is not so much to grow as to contribute to the growth of the Polish space industry.

Aleksandra Bukala.

What are SENER’s most important missions right now?

A.B.: For us in Poland, there is clearly ExoMars with our first flight mechanism. There is also Euclid, because it has allowed us to enter a new market segment. What is actually happening is that we want to build new capabilities so that we can participate in future programs.

D.R.: Of the missions we are working on right now, the most representative and noteworthy ones are Proba-3, on formation-flying, the JUICE antennas and booms, the MTG scanner, the equipment for ExoMars 2020, the Euclid AOCS and SEOSat/Ingenio.

How does SENER contribute to scientific missions?

D.R.: The Science program is very important to SENER. Many cases involve designs from scratch and the main contractors place high value on our multi-disciplinary capabilities. In fields such as mechanisms, SENER is in a leading position. Our equipment is state-of-the-art and our clients can always count on SENER for their most demanding science programs.

Where is the Space Department headed in the coming years?

D.R.: We have work centers in Spain (Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid) and in Poland (Warsaw). We have no current or short-term plans to create more. Instead, our goal is to grow in the value chain, taking on responsibilities for increasingly more complex subsystems, increasing the base of clients and partners with whom we work and covering more commercial markets.

Commercial markets have needs that are very different from those of institutional markets, and if we want to break into them we will have to maintain our level of reliability and execution, improving our competitiveness. Usually, these clients are not particularly demanding when it comes to technology, but they are very strict with regard to costs and deadlines. Right now, we are focused on the telecommunications, launcher and constellation markets.

Has the crisis affected the sector?

D.R.: Developing any program in space takes a very long time, so the crisis hit us much later than other sectors. The fact is that our growth in space has been stable at SENER since 2007, but we are expecting opportunities to wane slightly in the coming years and we are dealing with this by diversifying our products and entering more forcefully into the commercial market.

A.B.: Poland is the only country in Europe that has continued to grow in these hard times. It still is a land of opportunity that has kept its employment stable due to low labor costs, but it needs to begin the transition to a high-technology country. The Polish space industry has an excellent reputation and it is expected to play a major role because we need to work together with Europe’s finest.

What does space technology contribute to the rest of SENER?

D.R.: Our work in the defense industry began with our experience in actuation and control systems. This is probably the opposite path to those taken by other companies, which began in the aeronautics sector - or even the defense industry - and evolved into the space industry. We did this the other way around, and that makes us unique. Space has led the way technologically in our aerospace business. It was also the precursor for process methods that we have exported: for example, to Quality Assurance and other fields of activity at SENER.

Clear examples of this technology transfer can be seen in our heliostat pointing mechanisms for solar power plants, or in our aerodynamic studies in tunnels for high-speed trains, both of which were led by mechanical and fluid dynamics engineers from the Aerospace Department.

How many people make up the Space Department and what are their profiles?

A.B.: We are working with a team of 40 right now in Poland, most of whom are engineers. This number is nothing compared to the workforce in Spain, but for the time being, after five years in space, it is a major achievement. They are enthusiastic professionals with a passion for space and they are easy to motivate, with curious minds ready to explore new terrain.

D.R.: We expect to close 2016 with around 200 professionals and some 300,000 hours of activity in space. This is a spectacular amount of growth, especially over the last 15 years.

The people working in this field are attracted to astronomy and space. They tend to be professionals with a calling: engineers who love what they do and whose reward for their efforts is that feeling of satisfaction you get when you see a satellite launched with equipment you worked on, or when you get confirmation from space that your equipment is working perfectly.

Each new project reveals the phenomenal work being done by the Polish team.

What has opening the SENER Poland Aerospace Division meant?

D.R.: I am very satisfied with the role SENER is playing in Poland. Each new project reveals the phenomenal work being done by the Polish team. All of them, with Aleksandra in the lead, are clearly a benchmark for SENER. Furthermore, the support from our colleagues from the Bilbao Structures and Mechanisms Section (whose labour on transferring know-how and technology has been extraordinary) has been crucial, not to mention the launch work done by Ricardo Martín. We can be proud of what we have accomplished in so little time.

A.B.: We worked together from the outset to develop the SENER Poland project. The motivation and the efforts of our local Polish team have also been crucial for preparing proposals and for learning how to work with our clients…. I can still remember our first negotiation. I may have been the one everybody saw, but the real credit goes to the entire Poland team and to SENER.

The real credit goes to the entire Poland team and to SENER.

What does it mean to be part of ExoMars 2020?

A.B.: It is turning out to be an incredible challenge. Who would have imagined it five years ago? We have had to learn on the fly, working against the clock: not just with regard to engineering, but also about how the European space business works. In Poland, we are building the first flight mechanism for ExoMars, a public scientific mission where we have brought local suppliers and partners onto a very complex project with a budget that has been very tight from the outset.

D.R.: The Mars Sample Laboratory (MSL), in collaboration with NASA, laid the foundations for the work we are doing on ExoMars 2016 and 2018 (now delayed until 2020). We are participating on the Curiosity rover, which is our first successful technological mission in the exploration program.

Can you describe your relationship with academia?

D.R.: We have very solid contacts with the universities, especially the Polytechnical Universities of Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao. We also work together with advanced engineering schools, scientific institutes and practically all the CSIC (Advanced Council of Scientific Research) institutions that develop instruments or products for space.

A.B.: Since the space industry began in Poland and SENER became a part of it, we have also been working jointly with universities and technology centers in my country.

Did you dream of being astronauts as children?

D.R.: Like many of my colleagues, when I was a boy I wanted to have a telescope and I used to read books on astronomy and science fiction. Personally, I have a passion for astronomy and astrophysics, although I must admit I never actually wanted to be an astronaut. Working in this sector has given me the opportunity to meet and work with the finest engineers in Europe and with excellent Spanish researchers, which has been the value added for me in this profession.

A.B.: It was very different for me, because I spent the first fifteen years of my career in a completely different sector. Even so, I do remember meeting the only Polish astronaut Mirosław Hermaszewski (from Soyuz 30) when I was a girl, and he signed an autograph for me on a piece of paper that I still have.

What does the immediate future look like in the sector?

D.R.: We are going to see two vastly different worlds. One will be more commercial, with mass-produced products where price and deadline will be crucial. In the other, there will be more sophisticated products that are more similar to the traditional institutional line. Here, we will see the rise of exploration and missions to the Moon and Mars. With the popularization of space and what is known as “new space”, small satellites will appear on the scene, together with new types of launchers and cameras with capabilities in the visible, infrared and ultraviolet ranges. This will stoke demand for equipment with an excellent quality-to-price ratio. Our experience in the Defense industry and our familiarity with production engineering (where we have experience in mid-size mass production) will play a fundamental role in the future.

Is space present in our everyday lives?

D.R.: Space is definitely in our lives, and I believe it is more relevant than we think. If we were to turn off the satellites, people would immediately realize how important it has become in our everyday lives. For example, there are three areas of space that we cannot live without: communications, GPS navigation and weather forecasting.

A.B.: Satellites also make it possible for us to organize air traffic. When you have the perspective of Space, you realize just how small Earth is, surrounded by the entire enormous universe.

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