Interview with Professor Sir Martin Sweeting

Professor Sir Martin Sweeting has been fascinated by telecommunications since childhood, when he would send his little sister into the garden so that he could talk to her using baked bean cans linked with string. A love of science fiction, particularly the writings of Arthur C Clarke, fostered his enthusiasm for technology.

At school his best subjects were English, French and Latin, but in those days it was hard to combine sciences and arts. So he did A levels in chemistry, maths and his favourite, physics, going on to gain a degree in electronic and electrical engineering at the University of Surrey, and a PhD.

In 1985, Sir Martin set up Surrey Satellite Technology with about £100 and four employees. The company pioneered rapid-response, low-cost and highly capable small satellites, on which much of our modern life depends.

SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd) funded its growth with sales. At that time, the venture capital community lacked the element of “venture”, he says. They only wanted “dead certs”.

One individual who did stump up some cash was Elon Musk, whom Sir Martin describes as one of his three biggest influencers. Musk is “a very interesting character,” he says, “very driven, focused and capable. What he has done for the launch industry is absolutely amazing.”

In 2008, SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd) was sold to Airbus Defence & Space for £50m, but Sir Martin is still executive chairman. The company now has 400 professional staff, annual revenues of more than £100m and total export sales in excess of £1bn to 25 countries. Among its many focuses is clearing up the increasing amount of space debris, which represents a significant threat to the next generation of satellites.

The biggest developments in satellite technology in the next decade, says Sir Martin, will be the use of robotics, first to assemble them in orbit, and later to manufacture them. Robotics will also have a dramatic impact on supporting prolonged safe human habitation in space and on the moon, he says.

Sir Martin was awarded an OBE in 2002 and won the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2016, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and listed by Sunday Times as one of the 500 most influential UK citizens.

Sir Martin was interviewed by Jane Bird for Archives of IT.