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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.

Media

Rocket Women Featured In Tease & Totes

4 April, 2016

“Wanting to be an astronaut, I printed out the astronaut candidate guidelines from NASA’s website when I was 12 and glued them to the inside cover of my school folder, as a daily reminder of how to reach my goal and set my focus on achieving them. Those guidelines set the direction for my career.” 🚀🌍 Awesome @vmarwaha is today’s #WednesdayWoman. From a young age, she knew what she wanted to do and she’s been 🚀 ever since. To read her inspiring story, and her advice for #womeninstem, please click on link in bio 💫 #inspiration #motivation #rolemodel #stem #space #nasa #astronaut #qotd #physics #quote #engineer #girlboss #girlpower #rocketwomen #ISS #explore #science #ilooklikeanengineer #femalefounder #inspire

A photo posted by Tease + Totes (@teaseandtotes) on

Rocket Women is honoured to be highlighted in Tease + Totes in their “Wednesday Woman” feature.

“This week’s Wednesday Woman is Vinita Marwaha Madill ~ Space Consultant, Founder of Rocket Women, and advocate for women in STEM. Vinita has a diverse range of experience in the space field which includes designing spacesuits for the European Space Agency (ESA), working as an Operations Engineer for the International Space Station (ISS) at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) where she guided astronauts through experiments on the ISS, and where she was involved in astronaut training. “

Tease+Totes is founded by tech stalwart Danielle Newnham, and her twin sister and fashion buyer, Natalie Bardega, with a mission to ‘marry the worlds of fashion and technology for social good’, through empowering statement tops and interviews. “We strongly believe in empowerment being the key factor for women and kids to achieve their potential, and that fashion is the best medium to transport that message far and wide.”

Read the full interview here at Tease+Totes or the highlights below.

“Newnham: Can you tell us what you were like growing up and what first sparked your interest in space?
Marwaha Madill: I’ve always being inquisitive about space and I remember being an enthralled six-year-old when I learned that the first British astronaut, chemist Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station. She was, although I didn’t know it yet, a role model to me. She showed me at a young age that my dreams were possible.

I’m lucky to have had adults, both parents and great teachers, around me at that age who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space. My parents helped me greatly, taking me to the National Space Centre in Leicester, UK on the weekends to experience space hardware firsthand and thankfully let me spend hours reading about space.

I’m also fortunate to have realized my passion at a young age and told my Physics teacher in Year 7 that I wanted to work in NASA’s Mission Control. Throughout my education, this drive was supported and 12 years later led me to fulfilling my dream, working on International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Germany’s answer to NASA’s Mission Control.

Newnham: What have been the biggest obstacles, if any, you have faced as a woman pursuing a career in STEM and how did you overcome them?
Marwaha Madill: 
The biggest obstacles initially were knowing that I could successfully undertake a career in STEM and being able to have my questions answered about what such a career entailed. Allowing girls access to women in STEM is key. With movies and media portraying mainly male scientists, meeting one female scientist can change the life of a young girl as many do not realize that a career in STEM is an option. Their future options can be influenced by a decision they make at a very young age. Positive female role models are essential to provide women with examples to look up to when they’re making the most critical decisions in their educations or career.

To encourage more women into engineering you also also need to inspire them when they’re young. Girls at the age of 11 decide to leave STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), when they’re in an education system where the choice of subjects at school severely limits their options for working in other fields later. Girls need to be allowed to be creative and inquisitive from a young age, rather than being told to play with toys that are seen by many as more appropriate for young girls is key. At 8, I was learning to programme the VCR and encouraged to read voraciously about science. The key is to initially spark an interest in STEM and then to allow that to grow over years, overcoming gender bias, especially in the early years and secondary school. There are an increasing number of companies helping parents to encourage girls when younger and avoid toys that are infused with gender stereotypes, including Goldieblox which allows girls to build and become engineers.

Read the full Tease + Totes article 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.

Inspirational women, Media

Inspiring Women To Reach For The Stars In Silicon Republic

10 March, 2016

Vinita Marwaha Madill at the at DLR (German Aerospace Centre) in Cologne, Germany, working on ISS Operations

Vinita Marwaha Madill at the at DLR (German Aerospace Centre) in Cologne, Germany, working on ISS Operations [Silicon Republic]

Rocket Women is honoured to be featured by Ireland’s biggest science and technology news website, Silicon Republic. The article is part of their ‘Women Invent’ series, which highlights and profiles women in STEM, aiming to encourage young women to be more aware of STEM and pursue careers in it.

Here’s an excerpt from the article in which I discuss the importance of encouraging girls to consider a career in STEM, my reasoning behind starting Rocket Women and the path to achieving my goals in the space industry:

The sky is no limit for space consultant Vinita Marwaha Madill, who is keen for young women interested in STEM to have role models.

‘In space, no-one can hear your bones weaken, but some exercise and a specially-designed spacesuit can help – and this is where space engineering consultant Vinita Marwaha Madill comes in.

“Astronauts carrying out six-month missions on the International Space Station [ISS], including Tim Peake, can grow up to 5cm to 7cm in height, with the spinal growth causing tension in the vertebrae and back pain,” explains Marwaha, adding that, in microgravity, humans can lose 1-2pc of their bone mass per month and their muscles can waste.

Exercise can help protect against these changes, but what else can be done? Marwaha has been involved in designing a ‘gravity-loading countermeasure skinsuit’ with the European Space Agency to mimic the effects of gravity on the body and help prevent elongation of the spine.

The suit, which draws on several years of research and development, was evaluated last year onboard the ISS by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.

“With a force close to that felt on Earth, the suit effectively squeezes an astronaut’s body gradually in hundreds of stages from the shoulders to the feet,” explains Marwaha. “The suit could also be used alongside current exercise countermeasures on the ISS to help prevent bone loss. Bone responds to loading and the suit’s pressure on the skeleton could help to stimulate bone growth.”

Vinita Marwaha  Madill installing and developing the astronaut procedures for EML (Electromagnetic Levitator) using the training model at the European Astronaut Centre

Vinita Marwaha Madill installing and developing the astronaut procedures for EML (Electromagnetic Levitator) using the training model at the European Astronaut Centre [Silicon Republic]

Marwaha Madill has also helped astronauts to get to grips with spacewalk (EVA) skills at the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany.

“The astronauts train to carry out EVA,s or spacewalks, underwater,” she explains, because training underwater provides a microgravity-type experience. “Astronauts initially learned how to translate, or move along, the Station using its handrails, move in the spacesuit and operate tools, before eventually moving on to training for full-length spacewalks.”

Currently based in the UK and Canada, Marwaha has worked too on ISS operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), guiding and training astronauts through experiments on the Station as it orbits Earth.

Marwaha credits role models such as astronauts Helen Sharman and Sally Ride for inspiring her to work in the space sector.

Aged 12, Marwaha went to the library and printed the astronaut candidate guidelines (you can see a contemporary version here) from NASA’s website, then stuck them to the inside cover of her school folder. She recalls them as being a daily reminder of how to reach her goal and set her focus on achieving them. “Those guidelines set the direction for my career,” she says.

Today, as well as working as a consultant focusing on space engineering, Marwaha is heavily involved in STEM Outreach through talks and through her website Rocket Women, for which she interviews women in STEM and space around the world.

“Only 6pc of the UK engineering workforce are female, meaning that UK companies are missing out on almost 50pc of their engineering talent. This is coupled with the fact that girls make up under 20pc of students taking physics A-level,” she says.

“My passion, and the goal of my website Rocket Women, is to try and reverse this trend by inspiring girls globally to consider a career in STEM. I think you need those role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls to become astronauts, or be whatever they want to be. I started Rocket Women to give these women a voice and a platform to spread their advice.”

Read the full Silicon Republic article here.

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

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

How To Be A Rocket Woman, Inspirational women

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic

2 December, 2015
Sirisha Bandla Flying High During A Parabolic Flight

Sirisha Bandla Flying High During A Parabolic Flight

In 6 years Sirisha Bandla has risen from a Co-Op (Intern) to positions including Associate Director of Washington DC based Commercial Spaceflight Federation and her present Government Affairs role at Virgin Galactic. With a background in Aerospace Engineering and an MBA from George Washington University, her passion for space and outreach is paramount. I interviewed her recently to talk about her impressive career trajectory.

Could you maybe tell me a little about your journey from choosing to study aerospace & astronautical engineering to how you became involved in the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF)? How did you get started?

How I got to CSF is completely by, I would say, coincidence. I know I’ve always wanted to be part of the space industry since I was little. I think it’s kind of unique in the sense where that I’ve never had that turning point in my life saying YES this is the industry that I wanted to be in. I’ve always wanted to go into space since I can remember. That being said, I also wanted to be an archaeologist or a marine biologist, or whatever movie was hot at that time. Going into space and being to be an astronaut was something that I never grew out of no matter what phase I was into, and that really drove my decision.

Going into space and being to be an astronaut was something that I never grew out of no matter what phase I was into, and that really drove my decision.

In high school I played the cello and was a debater on the speech team, I liked math, I was good at math; it wasn’t my favourite thing to do. But because I wanted to go into space, I decided to study aerospace engineering at Purdue [University]. Actually [as for] how I got to CSF , after graduating I went to work for a defense company out in Texas and by chance my professor at Purdue that I flew on the Zero-Gravity aircraft with, called me and said ‘Hey this opening came up in DC, I know you’ve always wanted to be part of the commercial space movement. This is probably a good stepping stone, what do you think’. I said ‘Sure’, and I interviewed and that’s how I ended up here. So it wasn’t something I planned at all, I took some chances.

Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different?

I will admit that I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but when I was in High School I looked at the traditional route of maybe being a pilot or at least be an engineer, being great in my field and applying but my eyesight is awful. By the time I reached high school it reached the limit where I could never be a NASA astronaut and I was a little bit disappointed but I still wanted to be in the space industry. My sophomore year in 2004 was when Spaceship One claimed the XPRIZE and when I saw that I was revitalized and refreshed. One of the draws of that was that I didn’t have to go through NASA to go to space, and I could still be a part of something that’s expanding humanity’s outreach into space without going the traditional route. And when I decided there was still hope for me to go into space I joined the commercial space sector.

Who has been your inspiration throughout your life?

It was a combination, I was pretty lucky to have been surrounded by parents and teachers that support their students and encourage them to reach as high as they want to go. It wasn’t ‘Hey Sirisha, reach for space or for the stars’. It was whatever you want to do, you can do it. I think that really shaped how I thought, it wasn’t them telling me to reach for the stars and go above and beyond. It was whatever you wanted to do, there was nothing that prevented you from doing it, if you put your mind to it. I think a message that’s getting increasingly important, and one that really appeals to me about the commercial space side is that women or children in general, don’t need to be engineers, or don’t need to be the best mathematician to be a part of the space industry.

The commercial space industry is very business oriented. We need designers, we need business people we need finance people. You don’t need to be an engineer to be part of the space revolution. I think that’s really exciting and a message that will resonate with the younger generation.

I was speaking to students about space, and this young girl came up to me and said that she really loved space and wanted to be an astronaut, but she wasn’t not really that great at math. It was really discouraging to see that kind of thinking, ‘I’m not good at math, so I can’t go to space or join the space industry’. Whilst math and all the STEM fields are important, I think the messaging that you can do anything that you can put your mind to is very important. Someone that’s passionate about business, or passionate about the arts can be a part of the STEM field. Especially the commercial space industry, it’s very business oriented and we need designers, we need business people we need finance people. You don’t need to be an engineer to be part of the space revolution. I think that’s really exciting and a message that will resonate with the younger generation.

One my favourite quotes is by Sally Ride, “If You Can’t See, You Can’t Be” and inspired me to start Rocket Women. How important do you think role models are in today’s society and are they fundamental to ensuring future generations in STEM?

It’s very important. It’s very easy for someone to tell you and it’s important that message it heard. But it’s not as powerful as having someone there, having someone tangible to show you that that message it true. It’s the difference between hearing about it and actually seeing it, there’s something that I think we’re wired to see. Something physical resonates with the younger generation and myself, rather than just reading something on paper and hearing that you can do it. As an example, my boss at CSF has a daughter that 5 years old, and I actually went and spoke to her class about space and what they can do in space. After the class his daughter came up to me and said that it ‘was so awesome but can girls be astronauts?’ My boss was like yes of course, there’s tons of female astronauts, astronauts can be anybody! She took that to heart and this past weekend she got to meet Sandy Magnus, an astronaut and a woman. It was one thing for her Dad to say, of course you can be an astronaut, girls can be anything they want to be, but there was another facet of it of her actually meeting an astronaut, who’s a powerful woman in the industry and been to space and the ISS [International Space Station] multiple times. Actually meeting Sandy really resonated with her on another level so I think it’s very important to have that role model and that physical evidence that you can do anything that they can.

One of the reasons that his daughter actually asked him if there were female astronauts, was that every time she saw astronauts either speaking at an event or on TV, it was a male. That’s what she got in her head that there weren’t any girl astronauts because of that lack of visibility. So even having some female astronauts speaking to them, it resonates in a different way.

It was one thing for her Dad to say, of course you can be an astronaut, girls can be anything they want to be, but there was another facet of it of her actually meeting an astronaut, who’s a powerful woman in the industry and been to space and the ISS [International Space Station] multiple times. Actually meeting Sandy [Magnus] really resonated with her on another level so I think it’s very important to have that role model and that physical evidence that you can do anything that they can.

What has been the proudest moment for you in your career?

When I was doing more engineering work, I think one of the things that’s a little bit tough about engineering is that you can work on a project that you’re passionate about, but it’s a long way down the road before you see the project come to life. Sometimes engineers don’t even get that moment because programs can be cancelled. But when I was working as an engineer, I did the Finite Element Analysis on CHIMRA, basically the dirt scoop [used for sample acquisition] of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), and now’s on another planet. So one of my proudest accomplishments is that some of my engineering work has landed on another planet. And something about that makes me very excited and proud that I’ve done a small bit to further exploration of our universe.

What was the most difficult phase of your career? Was it transitioning to another role or not achieving something you wanted to do?

Throughout people’s careers they get into ruts or have to re-evaluate their lives, to figure out what they’re doing. And for me I have a MSL sticker on the wall, that was given to me by the project manager at the time and anytime that happens I can just look at the sticker and remember that what I’m doing is something that I’m passionate about and it just takes that one image to boost my morale that day if I’m in a rut.

How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive?

I think it’s definitely changed from when it started. Just looking at the astronaut class, which has gone from all male, to the latest class which is 50/50, which was unheard of. In general of women getting positions in the aerospace sector I think it’s fantastic, because women are excelling in the field and landing jobs just as well as the men. That being said I don’t think it’s a completely equal playing field just yet, I think it’s a better environment for sure and everyone that I’ve ever worked with has been amazing. I’ve never felt that I’m less qualified than the next person and that’s because of the people I work with who are fantastic. But I have run into people that have felt that they didn’t have a problem getting the job, but in the workplace people may make comments or speak down a little bit, because you may be a woman. I think the struggle for our generation is that it’s hard to speak up sometimes, because you’re in a position where you speak up and it’s taken as you’re hardcore feminist and you’re sensitive. I think still with our generation there’re still some lines that you need to make sure aren’t crossed and we need to pave the way for the next generation. Like the previous generation made sure that it’s an equal playing field to get jobs, and now we just need to make sure that that playing field, just in terms or how women are treated is a little more equal. I think that in the US maternity leave is an area of improvement for sure. Even now some of my friends are having babies and that means I’m old! But just from their view, even outside the aerospace sector in the US there’s definitely areas for reform for women.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given or worst?

I think the best piece of advice was to take chances. I think you can get into a position where not everything is ideal and I think there’s times where you should factor in, what’s good in terms of salary you can live off, your happiness in the job, your proficiency. But I think there’s another portion of are you passionate about the job. When I was moving to CSF, which is a non-profit, I was leaving a very stable job to move to DC where I didn’t really know anybody, and hadn’t done anything in policy, but I knew what I wanted to do and how I could definitely help the industry move forward. It was a very big chance that I was taking there but it was one of the best outcomes I could’ve imagined. So I think at that point it was my parents saying that I should take a chance and right now if anything happens you can recover, you’re not done. I think that was the best piece of advice.

On the other hand when I was leaving this company to go to DC, my boss who had been an engineer for his entire life at one or two companies at most, actually had told me in my exit interview that what I was doing was a stupid idea and if I failed I could come back there. That was some of the advice given to me about going to DC too and going into space, I know it wasn’t the most stable or 100% successful decision I could’ve made but I think because of that I will continue to take my chances and follow my passion.

When you’re young you definitely experience as much as you can. I thought it was always a little bit interesting to decide at 18 to choose a degree and decide your career for the rest of your life. Which to me is a little bit ridiculous, because I had no idea how I was going to get into space, because the NASA route had gone away. For other students that unlike me may not know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, to choose a degree at 18 seems a little bit ridiculous to me. So outside of that, you take time and chances and experience as much as you can, you’ll find what you want to do and what you want to be.

Take time and chances and experience as much as you can, you’ll find what you want to do and what you want to be.

Making these decision by the time they’re 11-years-old, they need to have exposure and role models in different areas of STEM. Really seeing what’s out there and knowing what’s out there so they can make an informed decision is really important. I think schools are trying to do better at that, but there’s so much more we can do. I’m really happy to see that with the rise of social media and connectivity we’re seeing right now, there’s a lot of ways you can transmit that information. You can have astronauts from the ISS speak to young [school] grades and I think there’s so much more potential that can be built on that.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10 year old self, what would it be? What would you change? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

I think that every decision I made since I was 10 years old had a consequence, whether it was a good outcome or a bad outcome, I think it taught me something. I don’t think I would go back and change anything, unless I could change my eyesight, but that’s something that’s completely out of my control. If I could go back and give myself some advice, I would say that I’m learning that I had lessons to learn from each outcome whether it was good or bad now. I think that if I was cognizant of that when I was young, even if I failed, I would’ve gotten a lot more out of it. So my advice would be, no matter what, just keep learning. You make a decision that ends up in total failure or you make a decision that ends up in complete success, and you might learn a lot more from the failure than the success. But no matter what, completely take in the lessons from your decisions and keep learning. There’s lots to acquire from skills and knowledge, role models and mentors. You can learn from everyone and everything, and I think that’s very valuable. I’ve gained so many mentors just from being in DC. I learn from my job, but I learn so much more from the people that surround me everyday.

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.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Sunita Williams To Be First Female NASA Astronaut To Fly On US Commercial Vehicles

27 August, 2015
NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams presenting at ISSRDC 2015

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams presenting at ISSRDC 2015

After launching to space on both NASA’s Space Shuttle and then the Russian Soyuz rocket, Sunita (Suni) Williams will be the first female NASA astronaut to fly onboard the new US commercial vehicles being developed. Suni, who holds the record for the longest EVA (spacewalk) time by a female astronaut, was chosen along with astronaut colleagues Robert Behnken, Eric Boe and Douglas Hurley to be the first 4 NASA astronauts to fly aboard the future Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Boeing and Space X were awarded contracts by NASA in September 2014 worth $4.2 billion and $6.2 billion each respectively, to develop the next generation of crew transportation to low-Earth orbit. The crew selection announcement was made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden with the selected astronauts including Suni to begin training with the commercial carriers this year.

Suni Karen

Coinciding with the announcement, Suni appeared on stage with fellow NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg to present an inspiring keynote address at the International Space Station Research & Development Conference (ISSRDC).

Get to the starting line

Suni discussed career advice for aspiring astronauts, emphasizing that “Understanding how things work and being an engineer led me to become a helicopter pilot and eventually to JSC. The path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight, but don’t limit yourself to what you know. Go out and try new things. Some of those things when I was young I would’ve considered a failure, but you just need to get to the starting line.” Karen added that her older sister used to laugh and say it was cute when she said she wanted to become an astronaut. However after an internship at NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center she knew that it was the career path for her ,“and here I am”.

Suni Karen ISSRDC

Don’t forget the things you learned at Kindergarden

Suni’s next piece of advice was, “Don’t forget the things that you learnt at Kindergarden”. She recalled the experience of living on the ISS with “people from different cultures and backgrounds, people from all over the world”. Suni’s first mission to the ISS as part of a Soyuz crew of 3, was with an American and Russian, with her most recent with only Russian cosmonauts. She highlighted the international nature of spaceflight through her experience of training with an ESA astronaut and acting as backup crew for a Canadian & Russians. Suni described the sometimes stereotypical view, especially outside of North America that, “Canada, you think just above, is close to being American, but it’s very different.” She also sometimes forgot that her Japanese crewmember was from Japan, as he went to school in US. She described her 6 month missions on the ISS as “a marathon not a sprint”. She discussed the fact that astronauts have to prepare for any incidents that happens on the ISS when the crew are asleep, with the ISS systems and controllers waking the crew up at night if anything was happening. Before her flight she wanted to make sure she was prepared. Discussing the nuances of international work culture, her Japansese crewmate, Aki Hoshide, wanted to “just work Japanese style” Amusingly Suni finally got him to stop working by putting on the TV show Family Guy at 6pm.

Karen added that her philosophy was to “Always do your best. Always clean up after yourselves. Admit you’ve made a mistake”. She described astronauts on the ISS as being a “Jack of all trades up there, including scientists. For some science, we get the experiment rack up and running and leave it alone. Sometimes we get to talk to PIs (Principle Investigators)” which is her favourite time. She said that during her work on the ISS she was “always thinking about the people on the ground and doing her best, knowing how important that experiment is to that person”. Karen admitted that once she “changed up” the wrong igniter in combustion rack and delayed their research for a long time, feeling so awful afterwards.

She went on to describe a popular topic fielding questions. “Urine collections is a technique.” Her first time attempting this “was a disaster, I made a mess, and used so many dry wipes than allocated. By end it was easier with a hose and I got better with it.” But she missed the first data point for the research and knew that “data means so much to them”.

Stop and look at the foliage every now and again

Suni’s 3rd lesson to the audience was to “Stop and take a look at the foliage. Just take a moment out and enjoy the journey”. She depicted coming back to Earth on the Soyuz as “Anti climatic when you’re leaving the ISS and closing the hatch, in long underwear and doing leak checks.” You think “something’s exciting’s going to happen, then undock and sit there for whole orbit with the list of tasks in front of you.” She empathetically depicted the “ride home” as spectacular. “Your face is this close to the window and us knuckleheads are close to the fire. Russians in the middle seat. I was in the left seat, starting and stopping the procedures, not wanting to mess it up.” After deorbit burn she described the crew seeing pink outside the window and the window cover dramatically burning off. “The pyros are going off, we can’t talk to the ground. Then things calm down, the parachute deploys and you’re the walnut bouncing around.” Suni hoped the commercial crew that she had recently been selected to fly with, takes a note and learns from the Russians. Suni’s advice was to enjoy the time in space and the journey, mostly enjoying the work with the scientists on the ground.

Karen added that she wished everyone on Earth had 90 mins to see the view from the cupola on the ISS. She exercised on the ARED below the cupola, for an hour every single day. “I just took for granted that I was over the tip of South America again, 240 miles up. How many things on Earth that are magnificent that we take for granted very single day.“

Suni and Karen described that for girls to be interested in STEM and a career in space, videos from a female astronaut’s perspective were very important, even those describing how to wash your hair in space. The HAM radio project was also surprisingly impactful, taking up a tiny slice of an astronaut’s overall training. Suni stated, “We have a whole bunch of things to do, do a spacewalk, grab a visiting vehicle. The HAM radio is 5 minutes and we speak to 10 kids. Sometimes it’s super clear. We get a report afterwards on how many people were at the event and how much time the kids took to prepare. There’s 1000 kids at an event which is pretty impactful. When you’re flying around, doing science experiments there are 1 or 2 people on the ground that are watching. You start to forget there’s a whole load of other people out there and it really chocked me up. HAM radio was huge and public events. When you’re talking to a screen, you don’t know how many people are down there. It’s better for me when it’s down there. I get really nervous when there’s a lot of people and I’m on a big stage.”

She summed up the sole reason for her outreach activities, “We’re trying to inspire the next generation”.