Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Susan Buckle, Astronaut Flight Education Programme Manager, UK Space Agency

2 July, 2017
Susan Buckle taking part in a ZeroG flight!

Susan Buckle taking part in a Zero G flight!

Encouraged by her parents, Susan Buckle worked to gain her Pilot’s licence before she even held a driving licence! With a background in psychology Susan went on to train astronauts at the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Centre in Germany, before transitioning to the UK Space Agency to work on British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s Principia mission [Tim Peake is the first British ESA Astronaut!].

Susan talks to Rocket Women about her unconventional journey to the space industry, the importance of teaching astronauts ‘soft’ skills and her mission to inspire the next generation through the UK Space Agency‘s education programme.

On her path to the UK Space Agency:

I guess I had an unconventional path into the Space industry. I got a degree in Experimental Psychology, then spent nearly 5 years teaching Psychology earning my PGCE (teaching qualification) on-the-job. Because I already had a Private Pilot’s Licence, I decided to combine my passions for psychology and flying, and find a Masters degree which combined the two. So I went to Cranfield University to study an MSc in Human Factors and Safety Assessment in Aeronautics.

I saw the job for the European Space Agency (ESA) to be a Facilitator in Human Factors, teaching the Astronauts, Flight Control Team and Instructors in ‘Human Behaviour and Performance’. These are the non-technical or ‘soft’ skills.

Whilst I was studying at Cranfield I saw the job for the European Space Agency (ESA) to be a Facilitator in Human Factors, teaching the Astronauts, Flight Control Team and Instructors in ‘Human Behaviour and Performance’. These are the non-technical or ‘soft’ skills required to carry out their technical roles effectively, such as good communication, teamwork, situational awareness and briefing and debriefing skills.

I spent nearly 5 incredible years at ESA, before moving back to the UK to work with the UK Space Agency on British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s Principia mission. Now, I manage the education programme surrounding Tim’s mission, co-ordinating with our education partners who are delivering some amazing projects, all to increase children’s excitement in space and encourage uptake of STEM subjects.

I definitely needed qualifications in Psychology to have got the job at ESA. I think the fact that I also had my Pilot’s Licence meant I could understand the technical side of things more easily.

Susan Buckle with British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake at the BBC

Susan Buckle with British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake at the BBC

On the education needed for her current role:

I definitely needed qualifications in Psychology to have got the job at ESA. I think the fact that I also had my Pilot’s Licence meant I could understand the technical side of things more easily. I had already shown I could apply Psychology / Human Factors to the context of aviation, so the switch to a space was not so difficult to make.

I had expected that a degree in aerospace, engineering or physics would be a necessity for the job, but they had employed me due to my Psychology credentials and teaching experience.

However, I made sure to research and participate in as much technical training as I could whilst I was at ESA to increase my understanding of human spaceflight. Whilst at the European Astronaut Centre, I was fortunate to have training on Columbus, the payloads, and the Robotic Arm.

Although I had always been interested in space as a child. I didn’t realise there was a need for someone with my [psychology] background in such a technical industry.

On unexpectedly entering the space industry:

I would say the very fact I’m working in the Space industry is the most unexpected aspect! When I was studying at Cranfield, I thought I’d end up working in the aviation industry, for an airline company doing safety and human factors. I hadn’t considered working in the space industry until I saw the job advert for ESA, although I had always been interested in space as a child. I didn’t realise there was a need for someone with my [psychology] background in such a technical industry.

Susan Buckle with British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake taking part in a parabolic flight campaign for his pre-mission training

Susan Buckle with British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake taking part in a parabolic flight campaign for his pre-mission training

On what she loves about her job:

The variety and range of opportunities. I have done some incredible things and met some amazing people. I am always learning new things and challenging and pushing myself. Sometimes this can be pretty daunting but it’s certainly never boring.

Whilst at ESA, I was lucky enough to participate in a parabolic flight campaign for Astronaut Tim Peake’s pre-mission training. It was one of the scariest things I’ve done as I had heard nightmare stories of the ‘vomit comet’ but it turned out to be a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. There is nothing quite like it!

One of my first tasks was dropping off a Sokol spacesuit to the BBC Broadcasting House (and having a quick tour!) before Tim was being interviewed on The One Show.

I arrived at the UK Space Agency a few months before Tim’s was due launch to the International Space Station. It was full on from the start. One of my first tasks was dropping off a Sokol spacesuit to the BBC Broadcasting House (and having a quick tour!) before Tim was being interviewed on The One Show. Other highlights include: watching Tim’s launch along with thousands of excited school children in the UK; co-ordinating the amateur radio calls to Tim whilst he was on the ISS; and being invited to Tim’s welcome home reception at Number 10.

[My Dad] never for a second believed that me being female meant I couldn’t do anything a son could, so I guess in this way he was an extremely important role model for me as a young girl.

On the impact of her family:

I’m not sure I really had a ‘role model’ as such growing up. What I did have though was an extremely supportive and encouraging family. My mum always challenged me to try my best. My dad introduced me to flying and drove me to all my flying lessons, as I got my Pilot’s Licence before I got my Driving Licence!  He explained the mechanics of a combustion engine and the physics of flight. He always insisted (and still does!) that my sisters and I work things out ourselves and not take things at face value.

I think it’s critical that not only women encourage other women and young girls to achieve and enter what could be perceived as a male-dominated industry, but that men do the same for youngsters with no discrimination.

This made me curious and made me question everything. Since I’m one of three sisters, people used to joke that I was the son he never had. But he never for a second believed that me being female meant I couldn’t do anything a son could, so I guess in this way he was an extremely important role model for me as a young girl. I think it’s critical that not only women encourage other women and young girls to achieve and enter what could be perceived as a male-dominated industry, but that men do the same for youngsters with no discrimination.

Susan Buckle with women working at the European Astronaut Centre, including ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, at Samantha's post-mission return party!

Susan Buckle with women working at the European Astronaut Centre, including ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, at Samantha’s post-mission return party

On how the space industry has changed for women over the years:

I have always been incredibly lucky to have worked for two space agencies, both of which has an equal balance of males and females at work. The European Astronaut Centre was pretty much 50/50 men and women – this included Astronaut Instructors, Medical staff, the Flight Control team and support staff. Although I did hear a story from a colleague at ESA from when she started as an Engineer 25 years ago and was constantly mistaken for the secretary(!), things have definitely moved on from then.

I think that as long as you demonstrate you are a capable, credible figure in the workplace, there’s a place for you in the Space Industry.

At the UK Space Agency, I see the same gender balance. Some meetings I attend with companies in the space industry, there does seem to be a predominantly male presence, but I personally have never experienced any discrimination. I know a lot of these companies are actively trying to encourage women to join, and are always disappointed by the lack of female applicants to vacancies.  Maybe its more a case of women excluded themselves by not applying! I think that as long as you demonstrate you are a capable, credible figure in the workplace, there’s a place for you in the Space Industry.

On the best piece of advice she’s been given:

Question everything.

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