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Astronauts, Inspirational women, Media

Rocket Women Featured In BBC’s Women With The Right Stuff

24 February, 2017
“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire - the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.” - Ellen Ochoa, NASA Astronaut & First Hispanic Woman In Space.

“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire – the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.” – Ellen Ochoa, NASA Astronaut & First Hispanic Woman In Space.

In 1961 Wally Funk undertook secret tests to become an astronaut in the USA. A full twenty-two years before Sally Ride became the first American Woman in Space. She, along with 12 other female pilots, passed the tough rigorous physical tests to become an unofficial member of the ‘Mercury 13’ – the US women who could have gone into space over 20 years before the first American woman eventually did and even before Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963.

In the BBC’s Women With The Right Stuff, Wally Funk leads the listener through the story of the Mercury 13, a group of trailblazing and driven female pilots – some with more flying hours than John Glenn, the first American man in space that unfortunately never got the chance to fly to space, to the current NASA class chosen, being 50% female. The piece also features insights from trailblazing female astronauts including NASA’s Jessica Meir and Eileen Collins, the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti and the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman. I’m excited to also be featured in the documentary among such fantastic company and represent Rocket Women. (You can find my interview at 9 minutes into the documentary and again at 30 and 40 minutes.)

Listen to the piece here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041kpmw

Additionally, here’s an insightful article by the documentary’s producer, Sue Nelson, about the documentary and working with Wally Funk: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-36824898

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Helen Sharman On Being The First British Astronaut

22 April, 2016

Britain's First Astronaut -Helen Sharman Landing After Her 8-Day Mission [Copyright: Alamy / The Guardian]

Britain’s First Astronaut -Helen Sharman Landing After Her 8-Day Mission [Copyright: Alamy / The Guardian]

Almost 25 years ago, Dr.Helen Sharman became the first British person in space. At the age of 6, I remember learning that Helen Sharman was the UK’s first astronaut and had travelled to space a mere 2 years before. That moment changed my life and inspired me to consider a career in space.

Helen’s story began as she replied to a November 1989 Project Juno radio advertisement calling for astronauts, “Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary,” and worked hard to be selected from more than 13,000 applicants. After undergoing 18 months of strenuous training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Star City, Russia she launched into space on 18th May 1991. After her privately funded 8-day mission as a research cosmonaut, Helen Sharman became an overnight sensation in the UK. She spent the 1990s telling the world of her mission and spreading her inspirational story. But as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared.

A new interview with Helen Sharman by The Guardian helps to shed light as to why she led such an intensely private life. After shunning the limelight for over 15 years, Helen’s story has been brought back to the public’s imagination through Tim Peake’s mission, the first British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut.

She spent the 1990s telling the world of her mission and spreading her inspirational story. But as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared.

As her interview with The Guardian states, “I wanted my privacy back. I’m a scientist, but I found myself in interviews being asked where I bought my clothes. Irrelevant. And I always felt I had to be photo-ready. Fame was the downside of space.”

When British Major Tim Peake was assigned a flight to the International Space Station, she found the UK Space Agency apparently ‘writing her out of history’. In statements, Major Tim Peake was reported as the UK’s first official astronaut. Helen says, “I asked them: ‘What happened to me?” She questioned what ‘official’ even meant, reminding them that her mission was ‘part of the Soviet Union space programme’. “The British government didn’t fund it but it was still official.”

Discussing what she enjoyed most about her mission, “It wasn’t so much going to space as the training that appealed. Living in Russia, learning the language, doing advanced mechanics. It was a way out [of] the rat race.”

As the first British astronaut in 1991, Helen Sharman inspired a generation in the UK to look to the stars and follow their dreams, similarly to the hopeful impact of Tim Peake’s mission a quarter of a decade later. On being selected, she shrugs, “I can only surmise why me.” “I was physically fit, good in a team and not too excitable, which was important. You can’t have people losing it in space. I think it was just my normality.”

Read Helen Sharman’s feature with The Guardian here.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Leading Women@NASA Answer Your Questions!

16 March, 2016

[L-R] NASA Deputy Director Dava Newman, Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, Deputy Associate Administrator Lesa Roe and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa will be answering your questions as part of Women’s History Month [NASA]

[L-R] NASA Deputy Director Dava Newman, Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, Deputy Associate Administrator Lesa Roe and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa will be answering your questions as part of Women’s History Month [NASA]

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Women@NASA in partnership with the White House Council on Women and Girls are holding a joint event featuring NASA Deputy Director Dava Newman, Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, Deputy Associate Administrator Lesa Roe and former astronaut and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa. These leading women at NASA will answer your questions, sent using the hashtag #AskNASAWomen.

Join this fantastic opportunity to hear from these inspirational women discussing their careers at NASA at noon EDT/4pm GMT on Wednesday 16th March, livestreamed on NASA TV. The event will take place at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and moderated by Christyl Johnson, Goddard’s deputy director for Technology and Research Investments.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Discusses Being An Astronaut With Gloria Steinem

5 February, 2016

A stunning new animated video highlights Sally Ride‘s interview with icon Gloria Steinem in 1983, mere months after Sally became the first American Woman in Space. Her flight invigorated the imagination of thousands of young girls, showing them that it was possible to be an astronaut, or in Sally Ride’s own words and one of my favourite quotes, “If you can’t see, you can’t be.”

But although NASA were looking to the future, some were still lagging behind. Prior to her flight, rather than focusing on her technical acumen and performance, the press asked Sally whether she cried when there were malfunctions in the shuttle simulator, about the bathroom facilities or what kind of make up she was bringing up with her.

“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight, I wish that two of us had gone up together. I think it would’ve been a lot easier” – Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space

A recording of the interview was found by PBS Digital Studios in the archives of Smith College, who transformed the interview into an animated video (above) for its “Blank on Blank” series, posted this week.

“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight,” Ride says in the video “I think it would have been a lot easier.” She also overcame early education barriers, “I took all the science classes that I could in junior high school and into high school.”

“I went to a girls’ school that really didn’t have a strong science programme at all when I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls, with a good tennis team and a good English teacher. Essentially no math[s] past eleventh grade, no physics and no chemistry.”

NASA has come a long way since Sally Ride’s flight in 1983, with four female astronauts chosen out of the eight candidates in the recent NASA Astronaut Class. Their selection in 2013 means that women now represent 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps, thirty years after the flight of America’s first woman in space.

Although a greater number of women now than ever have the opportunity to become an astronaut and fly, implicit (and explicit) gender bias still remains, notably seen in the questions asked of the crew pre-flight. Six accomplished Russian women underwent an 8-day analogue mission to the Moon last year. Prior to their mission they were asked by the press how they would cope without men, shampoo or makeup for the next week.

This is similar to the line of questioning faced by cosmonaut Yelena Serova, Russia’s 4th female cosmonaut and the female cosmonaut on the International Space Station (ISS). Yelena, an engineer with significant experience, was asked prior to her mission in 2014 how she would style her hair in the microgravity conditions on the ISS and how she would continue to bond with her daughter during her 6-month mission. Remarks about Yelena’s mission by the the editor of Russian magazine Space News including, “We are doing this flight for Russia’s image. She will manage it, but the next woman won’t fly out soon,” do little to inspire hope in the numbers of Russian women in space increasing in the near future.

However, by being honest about these viewpoints, both historical and recent, and exposing the gender bias that still remains globally, there is hope for change.

Watch the interview above or read it here:

Sally Ride (SR): I wish that there had been another woman on my flight, I wish that two of us had gone up together.

Gloria Steinem (GS): It’s tough to be the first but you’ve done it with incredible grace. You also have the only job in the world that everybody understands.

SR: [Laughs] My father I think was so grateful when I became an astronaut because he couldn’t understand astrophysicist. He couldn’t relate to that at all. But astronaut was something that he felt he could [relate to].

GS: And you could see people all over the world connecting with what you were doing.

SR: Roughly half of the people in the world would love to be astronauts, would give anything to trade places with you. The other half just can’t understand why in the world you would do anything that stupid.

GS: If you don’t have 20:20 vision can you become an astronaut candidate or is it disabling?

SR: I think it used to be. Now as long as it’s correctable to 20:20 it’s ok. So you’d probably qualify!

SR: I didn’t have any dreams of being an astronaut at all. And I don’t understand that, because as soon as the opportunity was open to me, I jumped at it. I instantly realised that it was what I really wanted to do. I took all the science classes that I could in junior high school and into high school. I went to a girls’ school that really didn’t have a strong science programme at all when I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls, with a good tennis team and a good English teacher. Essentially no math[s] past eleventh grade, no physics and no chemistry.

GS: I’m curious about the reception that you got inside NASA. What kind of thing happened to you?

SR: Really, the only bad moments in our training happened with the press. The press was an added pressure on the flight for me and whereas NASA appeared to be very enlightened about flying astronaut, the press didn’t appear to be. The things that they were concerned with, were not the same things that I was concerned with.

GS: For instance the bathroom facilities. How often did you get asked that?

SR: Just about every interview I got asked that. Everybody wanted to know what kind of make up I was taking up. They didn’t care about how well prepared I was to operate the arm, or deploy communications satellites.

GS: Did NASA try to prepare you for the press or pressure?

SR: Unfortunately no they don’t. In my case they took a graduate student in physics, who spent her life in the basement of a physics department with oscilloscopes and suddenly put me in front of the press.

GS: What do you suppose are the dumbest kinds of questions that you’ve been asked to date?

SR: Without a doubt, I think the worst question I have got was whether I cried when we got malfunctions in the simulator.

GS: That surpassed the one about whether you were going to wear a bra or not. Did somebody really ask you that?

SR: No, the press I think decided that was a good question for someone to have asked me and for me to have answered. But I never got asked that.

GS: But they made you up a good response. Something about in a state of weightlessness it doesn’t matter.

SR: Yeah I was never asked that question.

GS: What about your feelings during the launch? Was there any time that the enormity of what was going on came over you?

SR: The moment of the launch, when the engines actually ignited and the solid rockets, that everyone on the crew was for a few seconds just overcome with what was about to happen to us. But a year of training is a long time, a year of sitting in simulators and being told exactly what’s going to happen, and you hear the sounds and feel the vibrations. It prepares you very well and it worked. We were able to overcome being overcome and do the things we were supposed to do.

GS: Just watching there at the launch, there were people with tears streaming down their faces. People I never would’ve expected and I guess they were all very moved by the human audacity of it.

SR: I think that when you see the long trail of flame and to imagine that there are really people inside that. That’s really something. Inside of course you don’t see the long trail of flame, and what you feel is more of an exhilaration.

GS: Well there are lots of people who are looking up there and feeling proud. Not just of you but of people on the ground.

SR: Thank you.

GS: What do you think it might be like in 2001 in fact? What’s possible for us?

SR: Well 2001 is a long ways in the future to speculate on. But probably the next step after the space shuttle is a space station. I would forsee a station as not just something that’s orbiting the Earth and used for experimentation but would also be used as a launching platform back to the Moon or to Mars. I’m sure that both of those are inevitable. We’ll go back to the Moon and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we go to Mars.

GS: Do you have any speculation about how long it might be before there are such a thing as ‘peopled’ space colonies?

SR: I’d guess that by the year 2000 there will be. I’d think that we’ll have a space station up by the end of this decade.

GS: On which it’ll be possible to live for long periods of time?

SR: Yes

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Glamour Magazine Features Fearless NASA Astronauts

7 January, 2016

The latest NASA astronaut class to be chosen had the highest percentage of female astronauts selected at 50%. This taking place in 2013, the year celebrating the 50th anniversary of  the First Woman In Space, Valentina Tereshkova (& the 30th Anniversary of the First American Woman in Space, Sally Ride). Four out of the new eight astronauts are female with a breadth of experience among them, with women now representing 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps. It’s really wonderful to see these women being recently featured in mainstream media, especially Glamour Magazine, a media outlet that’s followed by millions of women around the globe (1.17M followers on Twitter!).

Glamour does a fantastic job of interviewing the most recently selected female NASA Astronauts, experts in a variety of scientific fields. Namely, Christina Hammock Koch, former NOAA station chief in American Samoa,  Nicole Aunapu Mann, US Marine and F18 fighter pilot, Dr.Jessica Meir PhD, former Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Anne C. McClain, US Army and OH-58 Helicopter Pilot.  (Dr.Jessica Meir PhD is also a graduate of my alma mater, International Space University (ISU) (MSS00), making me proud to be an ISU alumna myself!) The article also featured quotes from the inspirational Dr.Dava Newman, Deputy Administrator of NASA.

Fearless Women: NASA Astronauts From The 2013 Class. The Class With The Highest Proportion Of Women At 50% [Photo credit: Glamour magazine/Bjorn Iooss]

Fearless Women: NASA Astronauts From The 2013 Class. The Class With The Highest Proportion Of Women At 50% [Photo credit: Glamour magazine/Bjorn Iooss]

 A highlight from Glamour’s feature includes:

Governments around the world—in China, Europe, and Russia—have plans in the works to at least land robots on Mars, while in the U.S., private companies like SpaceX are partnering with NASA on a human mission and plotting their own commercial trips. And unlike the 1960s race to the moon, this time women are playing pivotal roles—building rockets, designing space suits, and controlling the remote rovers that are already sending momentous insights back from Mars.

This emphasises an important point, women are contributing to missions on an increasing basis, compared to the days of the Apollo programme.  In fact the New Horizons mission team, which last year provided the world with the closest encounter of Pluto and it’s moon Charon, is 25% female, making it the NASA mission with the highest number of female staffers, including engineers and scientists.

The newest four female members of NASA’s astronaut corps also describe how they felt the moment they realised they were chosen in 2013 and how they were inspired to apply.

Anne McClain: There were more than 6,100 other applicants for our class of eight, and I’d made my peace with not getting in. I still remember getting the call that I’d been selected. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk. I started crying. I grew up in Spokane, Washington, and I can’t recall ever not wanting to be an astronaut. I learned a lot [serving 15 months] in Iraq, flying attack helicopters at the front of the front lines. I joined the Army out of a deep sense of duty, but wanting to be an astronaut feels more like my destiny. With so much conflict in the world, space exploration can be a beacon of hope. No one cares about race or religion or nationality in space travel. We’re all just part of Team Human.

Jessica Meir, Ph.D.: I had a fantastic view of the stars from the teeny town in Maine where I grew up. Maybe that’s why I wanted to be an astronaut from such a young age. I’ve always been drawn to remote places—and extreme challenges. While doing research on emperor penguins for my Ph.D. in marine biology, I lived and worked in Antarctica, where I also went scuba diving under several feet of ice.

Christina Hammock Koch: My bedroom wall in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was covered in posters of the space shuttle alongside ones of New Kids on the Block. I had always set my sights on working with NASA, but I didn’t want to get there by checking the usual boxes, like learning to fly and scuba dive. I wanted to get there because I was passionate about science and the next frontier. When the opportunity to spend a year at the South Pole came up, I took it. There I was in charge of more than 10,000 gallons of liquid helium to keep the telescopes supercool. Our motto was “When the South Pole isn’t cold enough, call us.”

Nicole Aunapu Mann: I’m probably one of the few astronauts who didn’t know that’s what I wanted to do as a kid. “Astronaut” seemed like a far-fetched dream. I’m from Penngrove, California, and it wasn’t until my first tour in Iraq flying fighter jets with the Marine Corps that I realized one day I might actually be a good candidate. Going into space will be the absolute coolest thing in the world.

Glamour’s feature also discusses the logistics of relationships in space whilst on a multi-year interplanetary mission and the intricacies of astronaut training. From the feeling of being weightless in a zero-g plane, practicing a spacewalk underwater and even to learning to be a dentist.

NASA recently opened a call for the next generation of NASA astronauts, closing mid-February. If you’re a US citizen and would like your chance to explore the Moon or even Mars, apply now! Women currently represent 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps, let’s work to bring that up to 50%.

Read the full version of Glamour’s feature on female astronauts here

Astronauts, Inspirational women

5 Record-Breaking Rocket Women Of 2015

31 December, 2015

With 2015 almost over, it’s time to look back at the inspiring women that took a leap and broke records this year worldwide.

1. Samantha Cristoforetti

World Record Breaker For Longest Serving Female Astronaut In Space & First Italian Woman In Space

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti smiling following her Soyuz landing in Kazakhstan after spending 200 days in space

Italian European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti smiling following her Soyuz landing in Kazakhstan after spending a record-breaking 200 days in space [ESA]

When European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti landed in her Soyuz descent module on a desert steppe in Kazakhstan on 11th June 2015, she did so breaking the world record for the longest serving female astronaut in space. Samantha spent 200 days on the International Space Station, beating the previous record of 195 days held by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams (Sunita herself is on track this year to become the first female NASA astronaut to fly to space on a commercial vehicle). On her launch day to the ISS, 200 days earlier, Samantha became the first Italian woman in space. Her mission, along with that of crewmates NASA astronaut Terry Virts and Russian commander Anton Shkaplerov, was extended from an original May end-date, due to an incident with the Russian Progress 59 resupply mission. Samantha wasn’t at all disappointed by the delay tweeting, “Looks like it’s not time to get my spacesuit ready yet… what a present! ‪#MoreTimeInSpace.” Whilst on the ISS she spoke to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon,  thanking Susan for her interest in girls in STEM and commitment to help girls find their way to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math[s], “..maybe in the future we can event work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big”.

2. Susie Wolff

Williams Formula One Test Driver. Announced Her Retirement in 2015 After Becoming The First Woman in 2014 To Participate In A Formula One Weekend Since 1992

She’s an inspiration for women worldwide dreaming of becoming a Formula One (F1) driver. Susie Wolff, Williams F1 Test Driver, announced her retirement from the sport at the end of 2015. At the 2014 British Grand Prix Susie became the first woman to participate in a Formula One weekend since 1992 as a Test Driver. That’s 22 years without a woman on the Formula One track, let alone as a F1 driver. The last woman driver to actually qualify for a Formula One Grand Prix race was Italian Lella Lombardi who competed in three seasons, from 1974 to 1976. only scoring points in 1975 and finishing sixth.

When Susie was asked if she was surprised there weren’t many women in Formula 1 she replied, “Well there are lots of women in Formula 1 actually, just not many on the race track. But there are many fantastic women doing very good work in the paddock, that is just not as visible as what happens on track and sadly there aren’t as many on track. But the next generation is coming and I will definitely dedicate some time and energy to helping that next generation.”

3. Dr.Fabiola Gianotti

Selected by CERN Council in 2015 as the first female CERN Director-General

Fabiola Gianotti [Image Copyright: CERN (via TheGuardian.com)]

Fabiola Gianotti [Image Copyright: CERN (via TheGuardian.com)]

Beginning tomorrow, 1st January 2016, Dr.Fabiola Gianotti will become the first woman to hold the position of CERN Director-General since the organisation’s conception in 1974. Prior to her new role Gianotti led a 3,000-person team working on CERN’s “ATLAS Experiment” at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), leading to the ground-breaking discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. Fabiola also handled a proton beam malfunction in 2009 and as a colleague described, “showed the whole of CERN that she could really handle that kind of pressure. It doesn’t really get worse than that”. On being selected for the role, Dr.Gianotti stated, “I didn’t feel I was treated a different way because I was a woman. But I also have to tell that some of my colleagues had a more difficult life. Some others suffered a bit and had to face some hurdles and some difficulties. I am very much honored by the role, not so much because I am a woman, but because I am a scientist, and having the honor and the privilege of leading perhaps the most important laboratory in the world in our field is a big challenge. I will do my best.”

4. The NASA New Horizons Mission Team

The flight team that allowed the world to see Pluto up-close for the first time comprised of 25% women, making it the NASA mission with highest number of women staffers, including many scientists and engineers

The Women Working on the New Horizons Mission

The Women Working on the New Horizons Mission. Front from left to right: Amy Shira Teitel, Cindy Conrad, Sarah Hamilton, Allisa Earle, Leslie Young, Melissa Jones, Katie Bechtold, Becca Sepan, Kelsi Singer, Amanda Zangari, Coralie Jackman, Helen Hart. Standing, from left to right: Fran Bagenal, Ann Harch, Jillian Redfern, Tiffany Finley, Heather Elliot, Nicole Martin, Yanping Guo, Cathy Olkin, Valerie Mallder, Rayna Tedford, Silvia Protopapa, Martha Kusterer, Kim Ennico, Ann Verbiscer, Bonnie Buratti, Sarah Bucior, Veronica Bray, Emma Birath, Carly Howett, Alice Bowman. Not pictured: Priya Dharmavaram, Sarah Flanigan, Debi Rose, Sheila Zurvalec, Adriana Ocampo, Jo-Anne Kierzkowski. [Image Copyright: NASA.gov]

On July 14 2015 at 7:49 am EDT we saw Pluto, a dwarf planet, up-close for the first time. Behind this historic achievement however is a team of brilliant, hard-working women in charge of the $700 million piano-sized NASA New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizon’s historic moment took travelling through the Solar System for over 9 years, before allowing the world to learn about this icy dwarf planet during it’s 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour) flyby.

The story that most people have not heard of though is of the mission team, with the flight team comprised by 25% women, potentially making it the NASA mission with highest number of women staffers, including many scientists and engineers. These women have dedicated their careers and years of their lives to this mission, to gain unique data from the seven instruments aboard New Horizons and gain an unprecedented insight into Pluto and it’s largest moon, Charon, in particular, found to have a landscape covered with mountains, canyons and landslides.

5. Alice Bowman

Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM) made history as the first female Mission Operations Manager (MOM)

Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM), on console [Image copyright: NASA.gov]

Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM), on console [Image copyright: NASA.gov]

Relatedly, Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM) and group supervisor of the Space Department’s Space Mission Operations Group, made history as the first female Mission Operations Manager (MOM) at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The novel scientific discoveries gained by the instruments aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft were only made possible with the dedication of the women behind the mission.

pluto-colour_3386831b

A close-up view of Pluto, taken by the NASA New Horizons spacecraft in 2015 [NASA]

Astronauts, How To Be A Rocket Woman, Inspiration

Why The UK Needed A High Profile British Astronaut

15 December, 2015

As a child I was an avid reader and read every space book I could get my hands on. At the age of 6, I remember reading that Helen Sharman was the UK’s first astronaut and had travelled to space a mere 2 years before, in 1991. That moment changed my life. Rather than astronauts being primarily American NASA Shuttle crew that I saw on TV, or hearing stories of the Moon landing 20 years ago from adults around me, suddenly in the image in front of me was a woman in her 20s with short brown hair. A British woman with the Union Jack patch clearly visible on her left arm of her Sokol spacesuit. I had heard of Michael Foale, born in the UK becoming a US citizen to meet NASA Astronaut qualifications, but never of a British astronaut. I didn’t know it was possible. But in that moment looking at the image of Helen Sharman in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that that woman could be me. Being a girl born at the end of the 80s in the UK I realised right then that maybe, just maybe, I could be an astronaut too. That changed something inside me. Here was a woman in front of me born in Sheffield, who had studied chemistry, replied to a radio advert calling for UK astronauts, beat 13,000 applicants and had recently gone to space.

Helen Sharman recently with her Sokol spacesuit

Helen Sharman recently with her Sokol spacesuit

Even at the age of 6, I didn’t understand why nobody around me was talking about her mission. She had launched only a couple of years ago when I was 3 but I had never heard about it at school or on TV. I didn’t understand why this woman wasn’t treated like a star and talked about everywhere, possibly naively. I managed to find every scrap of information I could find about her. In an age before the internet I went to library after library (shuttled by my parents), reading about her story in small paragraphs as part of a larger book on space. What she was to me, even though I didn’t know it yet, was a role model. She had showed me that my dreams were possible. Even when I had wonderful supportive parents and teachers encouraging my interests, space went from an interest over the next few years to a career. Knowing that there had been a British astronaut, female at that, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger. Even if the career councillor at school wanted me to become a dentist, I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human spaceflight. And eventually I did, even working with the next British ESA astronaut Tim Peake at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany along with supporting astronauts on the ISS. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me. There had been a female British astronaut and maybe there could be again. Here was a British woman involved in human spaceflight and that had flown to space. It was possible.

The importance of role models at a young age is immeasurable. Which is why I’m so excited for Tim Peake’s flight and the fact that Helen Sharman is finally being talked about 24 years on from her mission. The outreach for Tim’s Principia mission by the UK Space Agency has been amazing and has the highest budget of any ESA astronaut mission. Tim and his Principia mission will hopefully go on to inspire the next generation to reach for the stars and follow their dreams in space, knowing that it is indeed possible.

Fulfilling a lifelong dream at the age of 23. Working with Astronaut Tim Peake at the European Space Agency's (ESA) European Astronaut Centre (EAC).

Fulfilling a lifelong dream at the age of 23. Working with Astronaut Tim Peake at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Astronaut Centre (EAC).

Today the first British European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Tim Peake launched to the ISS with London’s Science Museum hosting 2000 jubilant children following his every move. Simply fantastic. In less than 5 years the UK has gone from not contributing to Human Spaceflight through ESA, to having a high profile British astronaut launch to the ISS supported by a sustainable National Space Strategy, a first for the UK. That’s something to be proud about. Tim’s carrying a whole nation’s dreams with him but most importantly inspiring thousands of children to consider a career in space and follow in his footsteps. I wonder how many children watched the launch today and decided that they wanted to be the next Tim Peake?

A smiling Tim Peake, First British ESA Astronaut, gives a thumbs up launching to the ISS on 15th December 2015

A smiling Tim Peake, First British ESA Astronaut, gives a thumbs up launching to the ISS on 15th December 2015

Astronauts, Inspirational women

A Story Of A Spacesuit – Helen Sharman, First British Astronaut

13 December, 2015

In 24 hours Major Tim Peake will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) on 15th December 2015, becoming the first European Space Agency (ESA) British astronaut. His 6-month mission Principia will inspire a new generation to reach for the stars and follow their dreams. However 24 years ago the first British astronaut, a female chemist called Helen Sharman, launched to the MIR space station. Her privately funded 8-day mission as a research cosmonaut made her the first Briton in space. Helen’s story began as she replied to a November 1989 Project Juno radio advertisement calling for astronauts and worked hard to be selected from more than 13,000 applicants. After undergoing 18 months of strenuous training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Star City, Russia she launched into space on 18th May 1991.

In this new video by the Royal Institution Helen Sharman takes us through the Sokol spacesuit she entrusted with her life when she became the first British astronaut and woman in space. Tim Peake will wear a similar Sokol suit during the launch and re-entry phases of his mission whilst in the Soyuz spacecraft.

British Astronaut Helen Sharman describing her Sokol spacesuit to presenter Dallas Campbell [Copyright: Royal Institution]

British Astronaut Helen Sharman describing her Sokol spacesuit to presenter Dallas Campbell

Astronauts

All-Female Russian Crew Start Mock Mission To The Moon

2 November, 2015
The crew of 6 Russian women prior to entering isolation

The Crew Of 6 Russian Women Prior To Entering Isolation

A year after Russia sent it’s first female cosmonaut to the International Space Station (ISS), a group of six Russian women are currently undergoing an 8-day analogue mission to the Moon. The accomplished women, with expertise in backgrounds including biophysics and medicine, entered a suite of wood-panelled rooms on October 28 at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems to simulate the mission. The psychological effects of spaceflight are being tested, with a team of doctors and psychologists remotely monitoring the study.

The institute has previously undertaken a 520 day isolation mock mission, Mars 500, in which 6 male candidates lived in similar conditions, simulating a mission to Mars. Another older analogue study with a mixed crew ended early after two male crewmembers fought and one male crewmember attempted to kiss a female crewmember.

One of the most challenging parts of the all-female Russian mock mission may have occurred before it had even started, during the pre-study press conference. The institute’s director Igor Ushakov remarked, “We believe women might not only be no worse than men at performing certain tasks in space, but actually better.” His casual derogatory remarks continued with, “I’d like to wish you a lack of conflicts, even though they say that in one kitchen, two housewives find it hard to live together.” A potentially inspiring endeavour for women in space was unfortunately reduced to a sterotypical comparison of being a housewife and not being good enough for spaceflight. His remarks deepening the fact that a lack of self-confidence in one’s ability is an internal barrier that women battle around the world. When Canadian Space Agency (CSA) retired astronaut Dr.Julie Payette was asked what her biggest challenge in the pursuit of her goals, she admitted that it was “Fear and doubt I wouldn’t perform as needed.”  Dr.Payette admitted that it had been her biggest challenge and it had taken a lengthy amount of time to convince herself that she was good for the job, even once she was selected and in training.

The institute director’s remarks continued to set the tone for the press conference, where the 6 women, all experts in their fields, were asked by the press how they would cope without men or makeup for the next week. When the subject being inquired into moved to how they could possibly cope for 8 days without shampoo, the women sarcastically remarked back to the press, “I don’t know how we’ll survive without shampoo. Because even in this situation, we really want to stay looking pretty.”  The media’s line of questioning is similar to that faced recently by cosmonaut Yelena Serova, Russia’s 4th cosmonaut(!) and the first female cosmonaut on the ISS. Yelena, an engineer with significant experience, was asked prior to her mission how she would style her hair in the microgravity conditions on the ISS and how she would continue to bond with her daughter during her 6-month mission. The then head of Russia’s space agency’s remarks about Yelena’s mission of, “We are doing this flight for Russia’s image. She will manage it, but the next woman won’t fly out soon.”, do little to inspire hope in the numbers of Russian women in space increasing in the near future. Though by choosing to conduct a study with 6 female candidates simulating a mission to the Moon, Russia will gain additional results that may help with this issue and hopefully inspire young Russian girls to realise that they can be a cosmonaut too.

Astronauts, Inspiration

The Martian’s Jessica Chastain Discusses Lack Of Women In Space

14 September, 2015

At the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) premiere of the highly anticipated movie The Martian, actress Jessica Chastain, who plays Captain Melissa Lewis, the Mars mission commander, took time to highlight the lack of women in space.

“Around 10% of astronauts are women, which seems low to me. In our film, out of a crew of six, two are women, which is great. If you look in our future, our interpretation says that we’re moving towards equality. But how great is it to get to play the commander of first manned mission to Mars.” When the reporter exclaimed that we’d ‘already made it’, in relation to the equality of women in space, Jessica stated, “Well, we’re not there yet in reality, but it’s pretty great in the film.”

"As a female you don't have to be like a man, you just have to be the leader of a team and recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of your crew." - NASA Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson

“As a female you don’t have to be like a man, you just have to be the leader of a team and recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of your crew.” – NASA Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson

Jessica Chastain also worked with NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson to prepare for her role. Tracy explained, “We spent half of a day together training in the same facility that I’m in everyday, just talking about what it’s like to live and work in space and what it’s like to lead a team of people. But when it came to being a commander, she asked specifically are you more like a director, do you tell people what to do, or do you sit back and let them do the work. So we talked about, as a female you don’t have to be like a man, you just have to be the leader of a team and recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of your crew.”

If it’s anything like the book it’s based on, The Martian will hopefully not only be gripping and one of the most scientifically accurate space exploration movies to date, but predict a believable future in which humans set foot on Mars, alongside making strides in the representation of women in the astronaut corps, inspiring the next generation to do just that along the way.