Eric Choi

Aerospace Engineer

It is so inspirational to see people of many national and ethnic backgrounds working together to achieve great things. I wish the world could be more like that in other areas.

What is a typical day like for you?

There are no “typical” days in the space industry. Over the course of my career, I’ve helped test a satellite instrument that monitors air pollution, supported the development of a proposed Space Shuttle experiment, planned thruster manoeuvres to “fly” a multi-million dollar satellite, worked with astronauts and engineers at NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to develop procedures for the operation of the Canadian robotics on the International Space Station, and helped design a meteorology instrument that is now sitting on the surface of Mars. What’s great about the space industry is the sheer variety of interesting things that you could end up doing, all of them extremely cool. No day is like another. You never know what to expect.

What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

The most enjoyable part of my job is working with so many talented and dedicated engineers, scientists and technicians from across Canada and around the world. I’m sure that many of these bright men and women could probably make more money in another field of employment, but instead they have chosen to dedicate their professional lives to pursuing and realizing a grand vision of exploring and utilizing space for the betterment of humanity. It is so inspirational to see people of many national and ethnic backgrounds working together to achieve great things. I wish the world could be more like that in other areas.

What is the least enjoyable part of your job?

The least enjoyable part of my job is the sober realization that there are way more cool ideas for interesting and useful space projects than there is money to pay for them all. For my master’s thesis, I worked on a proposed Space Shuttle payload called DICE (Dynamics Identification and Control Experiment) that never flew due to a lack of funding. Canada doesn’t have as much money to spend on space projects as other countries like the United States or China, so we’ve had to be smarter by focusing on a few strategic niche technologies like space robotics and remote sensing. I hope that our political leadership continues to recognize the importance of the space program as a driver for innovation and future economic prosperity.

Explain the path you took to get to this job (education, internships, etc.).

I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto in the engineering science program, with a specialization in aerospace, and then I pursued graduate studies in aerospace engineering at U. of T.’s Institute for Aerospace Studies. My first full-time job was at the Canadian Space Agency, where I worked as a member of the mission operations team for the RADARSAT-1 spacecraft. After a few years of working, I went back to school part-time to complete an MBA at York University. I am also an alumnus of the International Space University, which is based in Strasbourg, France and is dedicated to interdisciplinary space education and research.

Who or what was the greatest influence that set you on this path?

My parents worked in the airline industry, so I have always been interested in things that fly and go into the air. I was also heavily influenced by science fiction TV shows and movies like Star Trek that portrayed an optimistic future of humanity as a peaceful spacefaring civilization. Of course, the real-life missions conducted by NASA and other space agencies were just as exciting, and I was determined to get on a path that would enable me to become an active participant in this great adventure. Finally, the works of science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven not only reinforced my interest in space but also influenced me to become a writer myself.

What advice would you give others seeking a similar job?

Job seekers need to be open-minded and persistent because you never know what might happen. My first job after graduating from university was on the RADARSAT-1 mission operations team at the Canadian Space Agency. This was a fantastic opportunity for a new graduate, all the more so because the job was never publicly advertised. The posting I had seen was actually looking for a new manager of the mission control centre, but I submitted a resume anyway with a cover letter explaining that while I am obviously not qualified for the manager position I would be interested in any engineering opportunities that might be available. As it turned out, the person responsible for hiring had the same master’s thesis supervisor that I did, so my resume caught his attention and I ended up getting a job.

How does your job make a difference?

As a society, we have three obligations: to correct the mistakes of the past, to take care of the needs of the present, and to build the world of the future in which our descendents will live. I am proud to have a job in a field that is making a difference by helping to build that future. Many space projects, like the Canadian RADARSAT-1 Earth-observation satellite, are directly making a difference to the needs of today by supporting applications such as environmental monitoring and disaster mitigation. But what is even more exciting are the discoveries and innovations that will arise from future space activities, which will make a positive difference in ways we can’t even imagine now.

How do you use science, math and technology in your job?

Science, math and technology are the foundations that enable the exploration and utilization of space. They are essential tools in all of the jobs I’ve had in the space industry, from calculating the orbit of the RADARSAT-1 spacecraft to using computer simulations to plan robotic activities on the International Space Station to laying out the conceptual design of a Mars weather instrument, none of it would have been possible without science, math and technology. Carl Sagan once wrote that if you have a rocket engine and you know Newton’s laws you can go anywhere in the Solar System, and he was right.

Is there one course you wish you had taken in high school but didn’t? Why?

I wish I had taken more foreign language courses in high school. Space exploration is very much a global endeavour now, as exemplified by the International Space Station, and an ability to communicate in languages other than English is a tremendous asset. I also like to travel internationally for pleasure. Having a better knowledge and appreciation of foreign languages and cultures helps build bridges of understanding between people and nations. This is important for both the exploration of space and the solving of our problems here on Earth.

What makes this job right for you?

I feel so lucky to have a job where I get paid to do things I love in a profession that is making a positive difference to the future of humanity. It doesn’t get more “right” than that. If you need to make a living, you might as well try to do it in a field for which you have a passion. That would be my advice to students thinking about jobs after graduation.

What's the most bizarre or silliest thing you’ve ever done in this job?

This doesn’t really fall into the category of bizarre or silly, but I do have an interesting story about being interviewed by someone from The Weather Network about the meteorology instrument that we were building for the Phoenix Mars Scout Lander. The guy from The Weather Network was really nice, however, he was wearing a somewhat tacky wide pink tie. We were supposed to do the interview in the clean room where the engineering model of the instrument was being tested. As the name implies, everything in there had to be kept super clean so people who need to be in the room were supposed to wear a white lab coat over their regular clothes and put on gloves and hair nets. The guy from The Weather Network was OK with all of this except he insisted that his pink tie had to be visible outside the lab coat rather than underneath. So, we did the interview that way and everything was fine, except that I couldn’t stop staring at his tie the whole time.

What activities do you like to do outside of work?

I like to be physically active and I try to stay healthy. My favourite team sports are ultimate frisbee and floor hockey, and I also like going to the gym. I have a long commute to and from work every day so I enjoy listening to audio books during the drive, although I wish I had more time to read regular books as well. My favourite publication is the British magazine The Economist, and my favourite TV shows are Mad Men and 30 Rock. Outside of my aerospace engineering career, I am also a published science fiction writer and editor. You can read some of my writing at my website I like travelling to other countries, and I also have a weakness for all-you-can-eat buffets.

You just won $10 million! What’s the first thing you’d do?

First, I would consult with a financial advisor. Then, I would make sure my parents and siblings had enough money to be financially secure. Finally, with the remaining money I would establish a charitable foundation that would support science and engineering research and education.

Eric Choi

CurioCity Careers

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