Game Changer: Eva Maria Gonzalez Esteban, Director, Spacecraft Infrastructure and Advanced Payloads, Inmarsat
Eva Maria Gonzalez Esteban’s passion for space technology was aroused more than 16 years ago. It was during that time that she was in Erasmus in Chalmers University of Technology, where she had the opportunity to join the International Master Programme of Advanced Techniques in Radio Astronomy and Space Science. In 2006, she joined Thales Alenia Space (TAS) in Madrid, Spain working in the R&D Department of Passive RF equipment.
“After two years I moved to France to work as a payload engineer on the design and delivery of satellite programs,” she said. “I have also led several R&D programs supported by CNES and ESA, always focusing on flexible payloads and mobile systems.” Her last role at TAS was being technically responsible for innovative payload bids.
In 2016, she moved her family to London to work for Inmarsat as Advanced Payload Projects Manager and in 2018, became Director of Satellite Infrastructure and Advanced Payloads. Eva Maria Gonzalez Esteban was selected as a Vanguard Game Changer for the October/November issue.
What is your role at your organization today?
Currently, my role encompasses three key functions: 1) Managing the London team of payload and platform experts, 2) Managing the strategy to align both current and future space segment infrastructure with the capacity needs from our government, aviation, maritime and enterprise clients, and 3) I am the Program Manager of the GX10-A and GX10-B payloads that will enhance our Global Xpress capabilities over the Arctic region.
What was your most challenging moment?
There have been many! Working in a male-dominated environment has not been always easy. Likewise, moving to different countries and adapting my cultural heritage (language, communication, behavior, expectation, etc.) to new environments has also been challenging.
On the purely technical side, I can recall several manufacturing PCBs (Printed Circuit Board), testing PIM (Passive Intermodulation Product), and operational issues (unfurlable reflectors) which resulted in me having to work 24-hour days for few months on end. Delivering highly reliable and performing space hardware is not an easy task! However, the most challenging moments usually accompany the most exciting ones, and it is from these that you can really integrate excellent learnings and appreciate the value of achievement.
Most recently, my role as GX10 PM has given me the opportunity to go beyond my technical leadership background, into a more political landscape. The best solution at every stage may be different for the stakeholders involved. Actively listening and reshaping my engineering view to achieve the end goal, while keeping my standards on technical excellence, can certainly be challenging!
What was your A-HA moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?
Last month (September 2021), I had the opportunity to visit Svalbard to support our Space Norway colleagues on an ASBM (Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission) meeting. As part of the trip, Longyearbyen’s mayor walked us through the vital importance of communications in the scientific and economic development of the area. In addition, we discussed how governments are currently missing important surveillance and awareness capabilities due to the lack of reliable and secure communications over Arctic coverage. Though Svalbard was declared a demilitarized zone in the Svalbard Act, 1925, the strategical interest over this area, is particularly noticeable when visiting enclaves such as Pyramiden.
Experiencing the Arctic region personally revealed to me exactly how much activity is going on there and gave me a greater understanding of the huge value that GX10 services will bring to future civil government customers This first-hand experience was indeed a priceless ‘a-ha’ moment.
What has fired you up today?
I get up every day stimulated by both my personal life and the broadband scope of my work. I have two beautiful children who light me up first thing in the morning. Meditation and yoga bring me the self-awareness to go through each day’s excitements in a focused way. There are many different areas requiring my attention and jumping from one to another in a couple of minutes involves resilience and diligence. Leading or contributing to complex teamwork successes really motivates me.
What is the best advice you received?
The best solution is not always the perfect one, but the conciliatory one!
What is a habit that contributes to your success?
I always bring perseverance, curiosity, and passion into my work. Stepping back and breathing consciously when you see your interests in danger is an effective habit to ‘reset’ and enable successful conclusions.
What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?
An innovation mindset can materialize in many ways. I understand innovation as a useful process to undertake when a straightforward solution is not easily available. As a very simplistic metaphor, let’s imagine I want to go from A to B and there is a wall in the middle. It could be that my only option is to break the wall. That would mean I need a lot of time and resources to do so, and I would call this ‘traditional technology innovation’ where big investments are needed and have been generally embodied by the defence industry and scientific communities.
Other times innovation comes with some freedom on the definition of A, B, possibilities of jumping or going around the wall, and even the addition of C. This is how Inmarsat has made GX10 possible. We have been exploring how to extend the GEO coverage over the poles for many years. To ensure continuous coverage would necessitate a minimum of five satellites. When focusing on the Arctic region, an optimized HEO solution could benefit from the gravitational dynamics that slow down the satellite speed around apogee (North) and fastens it up throughout the perigee tract. Only two satellites are required to provide continuous coverage with this solution, but this was still too costly from a business perspective. Partnering with Space Norway has enabled governments and corporations such as Inmarsat to work together towards a common goal: delivering continue, reliable and secure satellite communication capabilities over the Arctic region.
How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?
GX10 is a clear example of shaking things up and making things different, both internally and within our industry. From GX1 to GX9, Inmarsat has always been contracting and building the satellites for our Global Xpress network. Owning and operating the infrastructure gives us control over the quality (reliability, availability) and security aspects required by our most demanding [government] customers. GX10 represents the first time that Inmarsat will rely upon a long-term partnership to build and operate the satellites that will be seamlessly integrated into our GX network, enabling the delivery of both commercial services and highly reliable and secure communications over the Arctic. GX10 payloads are on board the ASBM satellites, owned and operated by Space Norway. Building this trust has been possible thanks to the governmental nature of the stakeholders involved: US Air Forces and Norwegian MoD are, together with Inmarsat, the end-users of the two ASBM satellites. By joining forces in this way, this partnership has made the program economically viable and is pioneering the great potential for future governments and industry collaborations.
What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?
I would say that innovation is at its peak point in the space industry history. Over the last decade, the number of start-ups has increased exponentially. It is phenomenal to see the democratization of space so that more diverse communities can contribute to innovative solutions. Demonstrations can greatly benefit from it. Nevertheless, I believe that many of the initiatives receiving funds today will die in the following years. Although everyone seems to know how to build space hardware or claim the ability to provide satellite services at lower and lower costs, we cannot forget that space is a hard environment that requires thorough testing on the ground, which is costly. Overcoming the space qualification aspects is just the beginning of the game. In order to deploy a viable satellite communications system, the full ecosystem of satellites, gateways, terminals, networks, operations, and regulations must be ready and work well together.
How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?
Developing efficient solutions for mobile customers worldwide has been at the core of Inmarsat’s innovation since its origins. Inmarsat 3 satellites were launched in the ’90s and were already based on digital processors and active antennas. Our multi-frequency multi-layer approach targeting the enhancement of our commercial and government services for the end-users has required the continuous development of outstanding capabilities. Without innovation, we could simply not thrive. In recent years, we have simplified some of the processes and funding approvals for specific innovative initiatives, making them more agile to allow us to get the most from our relentless exploration with the industry, research centres, and academy.
What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?
I see great potential in 3D printing and optical technology for space and machine learning, artificial intelligence, and service digitalization for the ground segment.
From a usage perspective, the trend is for the end-user to consume more and more data. This will determine who is best suited to delivering high capacity over hot spots and will separate the wheat from the chaff.
In terms of new players, new satellite constellations can be a real industry shaker over the next few years. However, regulatory aspects and the end-user base are limited resources, and it is still to be proven what actual QoS and service profitability that such standalone solutions will eventually achieve.
What is your parting piece of advice?
Yes, we can!