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Turning young eyes towards the stars

Serco has supported the European Space Agency (ESA) for over 40 years, contributing key services to many interplanetary, Earth observation and astronomical space missions. 

Michel Breitfellner, General Manager for Serco Spain, manages our European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) contract in Madrid and is Science Operations Engineer for ESA’s Mars Express satellites. 

Whilst working for Serco, and driven by a passion for sharing knowledge and inspiring others, Michel and his colleagues donated their time to build and run CESAR (Cooperation through Education in Science and Astronomy Research – http://cesar.esa.int), an education facility for school children and university students. 

CESAR has earned international acclaim and widespread support across Europe and the space sector, becoming an official ESA programme delivered by Serco, which continues to be managed by Michel and his team. 

What motivated you to create CESAR? 

A career in space was always my dream. It is a privilege to work here – the best job you can have. As an astrophysics student, I loved giving observatory tours and sharing the wonders of the universe with the public. Today, my colleagues and I want to pass on our knowledge and experience to new generations. 

What makes CESAR special is student engagement with satellite mission experts. It makes a massive difference to learn directly from the people doing the work. 

But ESAC was not set up to support educational visits. There was no system in place for it. At the time there were maybe just one or two very basic school visits each year. We believed there was a great opportunity to share and promote ESA’s work here in a much better and more positive way. 

What challenges did you have to overcome? 

Our original idea was a remote access service, but high demand and technical challenges compelled us to look instead at establishing a facility which could cater for proper site visits. Initially we depended entirely on unofficial volunteers and borrowed resources, fitting in without getting in the way. 

We were granted the use of retired IT equipment and furniture and spare rooms. Slowly but surely, and with much support and goodwill from our colleagues, we began to introduce more structure and organisation, building to a level where we are now able to deliver a great educational service. 

What services do you provide through CESAR? 

We deliver two-hour site visits for about 50 children or university students at a time. There’s a tour and age-appropriate learning activities that focus on the practicalities of scientific observation as well as what is being observed. We also provide tailored education opportunities for university students and gifted children, and train around 300 school teachers every year as well. 

How well has CESAR been received? 

The feedback from our guests is overwhelming – we owe our new official status to it. ESA was very pleased and impressed by the positive response from our stakeholders in the education sector. We’ve been amazed by the level of interest. We’re taking two groups every week and welcoming schools from as far away as Greece. We’ve introduced an automated booking system to help manage the demand. 

What’s on the horizon? 

We are a pilot project, but we’ve proven the concept, we have the capability and the knowledge, and we’re gaining resources all the time. We’re also working again on remote access. We hope to extend to all of Spain and beyond in due course. Further into the future, we look forward to our long-term impact. It would be hugely satisfying to see new scientific discoveries or technologies that trace their inspiration back to us.