Deorbit

“Don’t deorbit”, they warned.

I was told that the ISU Space Studies Program was intensive but in the end, it didn’t feel much more demanding than the final year of my degree. I had heard it described as the ‘insufficient sleep university’ but although I was faltering toward the end I was no worse than any of my friends. But I also knew that is so stimulating and inspiring that perhaps the hardest part of SSP was leaving. What they did not know was that I wasn’t on an orbital trajectory at all and, with nothing to go back to, I knew that I was facing a particularly fiery re-entry.

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It felt less like a deorbit and more like a crash landing. Images via startrekships.tumblr.com.

It has now been over 18 months since I graduated from Southampton. I had high hopes for what would come next: The University of Southampton proudly claims that their Aerospace engineering graduates typically earn £25–30,000 within six months of graduation and with that kind of income I could have cleared my overdraft, continue the activities I got involved with in university, and kept in contact with my friends. More importantly, I would have a job that made full use of my degree and given me the opportunity to contribute to the industry I’ve worked so hard to join. In short, I could have become the person I was capable of becoming. Instead… nothing.

The difficulty I’m having is not all to do with jobhunting itself, however. While people with Asperger syndrome and autism experience unique challenges with finding work—I have written an article on LinkedIn about this where I propose some solutions—there’s another problem I’ve been struggling with. Having Aspergers means I’ve got a strong need for routine and structure. In a professional environment such as a workplace, or at the SSP, I can usually work perfectly well as I have a fixed starting time every day. My university degree didn’t provide the same kind of structure, but I was provided with buddy support and I arranged to meet with him in the mornings if I didn’t have lectures, to create the same effect so I got into campus to get started on work.

If there were any doubts about my ability to perform in a professional environment, my achievements at SSP should have thoroughly dispelled them. But just as being in the right environment can bring out the best in me, being in the wrong environment can have the opposite effect. There’s no structure here, nor any social reinforcement from the people around me (quite the opposite in fact), and I find myself drifting aimlessly in search of something to connect with. To help address this, over the past few months I’ve been actively looking for some kind of support similar to the buddy support I received while in university. My aim is to once again re-create the effect of having someone waiting for me, of having a kind of social reinforcement to encourage me to get started on things. This might be seen as something of a crutch, but it’s a very necessary one and one that is proven to work.

But the past 18 months have had a detrimental impact. With no income of my own, I’ve had to make do with what I can get from benefits. This is enough to cover my current outgoings but I have been unable to clear the debts I accumulated during my degree, which are taking a big chunk out of what little income I have. With little left after that, I have had to be extremely careful. I can’t afford to spend more than a little money each month, far too little to consider getting back into things like surfing, for example: the cost of a surfing trip in petrol alone would almost be too much. I had been following my interests on social networks like Pinterest to help inspire and motivate me but I found it increasingly frustrating knowing that I could not afford to participate in them, that what once was within my grasp when I was at university was now far out of reach. More troublingly, I can’t afford to travel to conferences to network with potential employers and I’m concerned about how I’ll be able to get to job interviews if they take place a long way away. It’s been hard not to feel like I’ve been shut out from life.

The SSP provided a reprieve of sorts, and a chance to finally move on, but it was only short-lived. I need to find something more permanent, something that can provide me with a solid footing to move forwards from. I’m hoping that my efforts to find support will work out soon, and I’ve begun to re-awaken myself to the things I’m interested in like surfing and skydiving in the hope that my circumstances are about to improve. I have also joined Tumblr, where I’ve been following autism blogs and hashtags and learning a great deal about my condition that I hadn’t really understood before.

What I do next depends heavily on the outcome of my search for support and social reinforcement. I hope to find something soon. Once I do I can seriously ramp up my job search efforts and, hopefully, find a job relatively soon after; I have some ideas for projects I could take on as well. When that happens, I can start to clear my overdraft and get back on a board and, perhaps, in the air. For now, how—or if—this works out remains to be seen, though I hope that my renewed positivity bodes well.

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Image via myconfinedspace.com

 

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SSP17: Welcome to Space University

After weeks of preparation and fundraising, I’m finally getting settled in at Cork and preparing to start the Space Studies Program.

My flight over here was short and surprisingly smooth. I flew out of Bristol Airport; I was joined by another participant who was travelling from Taunton, just a few miles away from me! I flew across in a small propeller-driven plane and expected a bumpier ride, as I anticipated we would be flying at a lower altitude than jets; fortunately I barely noticed anything except for a few bumps on the descent into Cork. Once we arrived we were picked up by the family of another participant for the short run to the University, where we registered, collected some goodies, took care of some paperwork, and set up our IT accounts. We then headed over to our accommodation, got settled in and met some more participants.

A welcome dinner was held that evening at the University, where an enormous illuminated moon has been set up. After dinner the staff welcomed us with a few speeches, then we each went up to the stage to briefly introduce ourselves. I had considered discussing my Aspergers there but in the end I bottled it… I had posted a message about it in the private SSP17 Facebook group, however, and a few people have already complimented me on it so at least some of the attendees are aware. We ended the night with some wine, followed by a trip down to a nearby pub for more drinks and a great party.

Today has been comprised mainly of introductory lectures but the pace will pick up rapidly very soon: we have to choose our team projects by tomorrow lunchtime! For today, though, we have something more important to attend to: the opening ceremony. This is a formal event that will be webast online: go to http://bit.ly/SSP17live to watch.

My thanks are due to the European Space Agency, which provided a scholarship of €12,000 covering two thirds of the tuition; to Reaction Engines, and to Alan Bond in particular, for contributing a further €5,000 toward the fees and for ongoing encouragement and moral support; to my Dad, who has lent me about £1,500 to cover the remainder of the fees and to keep me afloat during the course despite not having much to share himself; and to those who made a contribution to my GoFundMe campaign, which covered the cost of the flights here and back.

If you feel like contributing, my fundraising page is still open and I will welcome any contributions. Just go to https://www.gofundme.com/send-me-to-space-university.

Space University update: Course Fees Paid

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My course fees are now paid but I still need help with flights

First some good news: since my last post on raising funds for the Space Studies Program I’ve received the funding I needed to cover the course fees. I have also raised £140 through my crowdfunding effort; thankyou for your donations! I had been getting anxious last week that it might not come through in time but my Dad has loaned me enough money to cover me until the last payment (a cheque) into my bank account clears, so I no longer have to worry. I can finally start getting excited! I still need to cover flights and other expenses, and unfortunately the exchange rate has dropped, putting more pressure on my finances. I’m therefore still looking for donations to my crowdfunding appeal, but I don’t need as much as I originally thought now that the course fees are paid.

What I want to do next is to start earning my own money so I’m no longer so dependent on benefits or the generosity of others. It occurred to me the other day that If I can bring several thousand pounds into my bank account just from other people’s generosity (albeit for a specific purpose), what could I bring in if I actually worked for it? Having earned a place at ISU has made me realise that I’m more capable than I previously thought, and if I can do that, and find funding to cover the fees so quickly, then I can find a solution to this problem too.

My first priority is to get myself off of Universal Credit. The Jobcentre has been understanding of my personal difficulties but has insisted that I have to divide my efforts between my grad job hunt and looking for temporary work. This has left me struggling to put enough time into both job searches. By earning my own money I will not only have more financial freedom, I’ll be able to get the Jobcentre off my back completely and I’ll be free to look for other work as I see fit. Financial problems we’re one of my main worries while at university and continue to be a worry for me now, restricting what I can do. There are many things I wanted to do while at university, and want to do now, that lack of money is preventing me from doing. In the long run, one of my goals for my time at ISU is to secure my future so I don’t end up in this position again.

I’ve set myself a goal of earning £500 in the next month. That’s a small, easy figure, but it’s enough to get me started and off of universal credit. In the long term I still want to find a job in the space industry—a typical grad job for an aerospace engineer pays at least £2,000 a month before taxes and other deductions—but for now it will make a good start. I’m looking at a more entrepreneurial approach, perhaps as a freelance engineer?

I’m looking for advice on how to do this. There might turn out to be plenty of opportunities in the Bridgwater area; I’m also open to opportunities within the surfing community, or perhaps within skydiving. But I’m most keen on finding a way to do this within tech industries, particularly the space industry if possible; I spent several good years earning my degree and it deserves to be put to good use. I can usually think up plenty of ideas for things to do—my mind ends up buzzing with ideas sometimes—but I feel like I need some pointers on what is genuinely worth doing. My current circumstances are keeping me disconnected from the space industry, so I don’t know what issues and problems the industry is currently facing, nor can I see what opportunities there are waiting for me to contribute to.