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astronaut

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Ariel Waldman, Founder, SpaceHack.org & Author

17 June, 2017

Ariel Waldman in California at the space-communicating Stanford Dish [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

Ariel Waldman in California at the space-communicating Stanford Dish [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

With a background in design, working at NASA set Ariel Waldman on a mission to empower others to contribute to space exploration. Ariel founded Spacehack.org, a directory of ways for anyone to participate in space exploration and is the “global instigator” of Science Hack Day, an event that brings people together to prototype with science in 24 hours. Recently, Ariel authored the fantastic book “What’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There” and is the co-author of a congressionally-requested National Academy of Sciences report on the future of human spaceflight. Ariel describes her journey in the space industry to Rocket Women.

RW: Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are today? 
AW: My journey has been an unexpected one. I don’t have any childhood stories of wanting to be an astronaut or a scientist. I don’t blame that on my schooling (I was an A student who always found math to be a breeze while my schoolmates struggled), I just personally wasn’t very interested. As a young teenager I found myself entranced by art and design and pure creation. I suppose I actually found it to be more challenging.

My art classes were certainly more intimidating to me than any math class I ever attended. So, I went to art school and got my degree in graphic design. I had a job I loved that I can only describe as being like what I imagine it’s like to work at Pixar. But I hit a glass ceiling and ultimately left, not knowing exactly what I was going to do next. In the spirit of continuing to want to be around creators, I moved from Kansas to San Francisco to be alongside the freshly reemerging tech scene.

A few months later I was at home watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel called When We Left Earth. It was about NASA during the early days, when they were trying to figure out how to send humans into space. The documentary interviewed a number of the guys who worked in mission control in the 1960s. They spoke of how when they joined NASA that they didn’t know anything about rocketry or spacecrafts or orbits! They had to figure this stuff out as they went along. That sparked something in me. The idea that you could work at NASA without knowing anything about rocket science.

I said to myself that I knew nothing about space exploration but I’d love to work at NASA. I then told this to a friend who had just met someone who worked at NASA at a conference and he agreed to give me their email address. So, I sent this person at NASA that I had never met an email about how I was a fan of NASA and offered myself as a volunteer if they ever needed someone like me. It was a piece of fan-mail that I didn’t expect would get a response.

Serendipitously, the day I emailed the person at NASA was the day they had just created a job description that they sent back to me. They specifically wanted to hire someone who had no experience with NASA who could help bridge the gap between communities inside and outside of NASA to collaborate. They also wanted someone with design and agency experience who knew how to effectively communicate/translate concepts between different communities, as well as someone who was connected to the tech startup scene. I applied and ended up getting the job! It’s fair to say I was over the moon.

Getting a job at NASA awoke something powerful within me. Over time it made me realize what unique contributions I could make to furthering space exploration.

Never had I expected that someone like me could work at NASA. Even though I hadn’t considered myself a space geek, if at any point in time someone had asked if I, as is, would like to work at NASA, I would’ve said hell yes. And I think most other people would, too.

Getting a job at NASA awoke something powerful within me. Over time it made me realize what unique contributions I could make to furthering space exploration. My lifelong mission now is to give others this same empowering experience and realization – that they, too, as they exist right now can actively contribute to space exploration, and often in clever new ways. That’s what spurred me to create Spacehack.org, a directory of ways for anyone to participate in space exploration, and later to be the “global instigator” of Science Hack Day, an event that brings all different types of people together to see what they can prototype with science in 24 consecutive hours. My projects are all about infusing more serendipity and ingenuity into science through what I call “massively multiplayer science”.

My lifelong mission now is to give others this same empowering experience and realization – that they, too, as they exist right now can actively contribute to space exploration, and often in clever new ways.

Since my unexpected beginnings, I’ve had the honor of serving on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Spaceflight, which reported on how to build a sustainable human spaceflight program out to the 2050’s. I currently sit on the external council for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), a NASA program that nurtures radical, science-fiction-inspired ideas that could transform future space missions. I’ve had fun appearances on Syfy and the Science Channel. Last year I published my first book. I’m independent, so I also continue to do consulting work and create fun side projects like Spaceprob.es and my YouTube channel.

I wanted the book to be fun through sharing many of the awkward and amusing stories astronauts might only tell you over a beer.

RW: Congratulations on your new book, ‘What’s It Like in Space?’. How were you inspired to write the book?
AW: Thank you! It was so much fun to make. Throughout my time on the NRC Human Spaceflight Committee, I got to meet a number of astronauts who had so many great and hilarious stories to tell in their downtime. I’d often retell their stories at parties and I eventually decided that it’d be great to collect them all in a book as bite-sized vignettes about what it is like to be in space. I wanted the book to be fun through sharing many of the awkward and amusing stories astronauts might only tell you over a beer.

RW: Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

AW: I’d be hard-pressed to say I’ve had any expectations since beginning a career in space exploration!

Landing humans on the surface of Mars is something I see people consistently underestimate just how challenging it is. It will require international collaboration on an unprecedented level.

Author and Science Communicator Ariel Waldman  [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

Author and Science Communicator Ariel Waldman [Photo copyright: Helena Price]

RW: In your opinion, what are the main challenges that human spaceflight faces in the near future?

AW: There are a number of challenges in the near future for human spaceflight that are both intimidating and exciting. Landing humans on the surface of Mars is something I see people consistently underestimate just how challenging it is. It will require international collaboration on an unprecedented level. It’ll also cost hundreds of billions of dollars over decades, which requires strong political will.

Much of the technology needed to land humans on Mars, while it’s foreseeable, doesn’t even exist yet. It’s estimated that NASA’s budget needs to be increased to be 2-5% above inflation for several years in order to reasonably land humans on Mars. With NASA’s current trajectory of flat budgets, it will be unable to conduct any human space exploration programs beyond cislunar space. Landing humans on Mars, no matter who does it (and the most likely scenario is that it’ll be an international collaboration of countries and companies working together), requires a number of facets across politics, money and technology to work in harmony at the same time.

Because landing humans on Mars is so difficult, it will require a large portion of humanity to contribute to it in order to make it happen. If we do land humans on Mars in our lifetime, it will only be because people around the world worked together.

It is far from guaranteed to happen in your lifetime. While one could look pessimistically at this monumental challenge of getting all of these factors to come together at the same time, I think there is something to genuinely be excited about. Because landing humans on Mars is so difficult, it will require a large portion of humanity to contribute to it in order to make it happen. If we do land humans on Mars in our lifetime, it will only be because people around the world worked together. In this way, compared to the Moon landing, a Mars landing will an achievement owned by humanity more so than any one nation or organization.

Women across the board in both commercial industry and government continue to face work environments that retaliate against them when they report harassment. Women continue to be discriminated against more across a myriad of ways as they move up in the workforce.

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

AW: I have personally been extremely disappointed with much of the commercial space industry which actually has worse racial and gender diversity percentages than NASA does, and I don’t see much signaling to say that will change anytime soon. It’s sad that the commercial sector is doing worse given that NASA can not as easily recruit or refresh their workforce as commercial companies can. Women across the board in both commercial industry and government continue to face work environments that retaliate against them when they report harassment.

I certainly will keep fighting to make space exploration more accessible and inclusive from any corner I can get a toe-hold in, and speak up about the injustices and disappointments I see. I do hope it gets better.

Women continue to be discriminated against more across a myriad of ways as they move up in the workforce. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t get better and many times it gets worse. You’re often gaslighted every step of the way by colleagues and made to feel isolated in these situations. The only solace I find is that I continue to meet and hear about more women who have been through these situations and that helps verify that you’re not alone, that what you experience is extremely common, and there is a network of people you can confide in.

I certainly will keep fighting to make space exploration more accessible and inclusive from any corner I can get a toe-hold in, and speak up about the injustices and disappointments I see. I do hope it gets better, I’m just skeptical that disruptive change will come from the inside.

RW: 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?

AW: It’s okay to be interested in a lot of different things that have nothing to do with each other. It’s also okay to be obsessive about one thing. Focus is not a virtue, it’s just an option.

Education, Inspirational women

Inspired by Space: Engaging Girls in STEM

19 May, 2017

Engaging Girls In STEM [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

Engaging Girls In STEM [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

A fantastic new guide, launched by Curved House Kids, details how and why we should be lifting our girls up and encouraging them to further their STEM education. The Inspired By Space: Engaging Girls In STEM guide (pdf) features brilliant activities created by combining the classroom experience of teacher Claire Loizos with Curved House Kids materials and learning methods. The guide was released this week to mark the 26th anniversary of Dr.Helen Sharman’s mission launch, the first British astronaut!

Curved House Kids and author Lucy Hawking worked with
 European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake and the UK Space Agency to create the Principia Space Diary, marking the launch of Tim Peake’s Principia mission in 2015. The programme simplified the complex subject of space for a primary-aged audience using a series of activities that followed the story of Tim’s mission. In its first year, the Space Diary reached over 60,000 students and 38,500 printed books were distributed to schools for free!

Women In STEM Statistics [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

Women In STEM Statistics [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

As we’ve discussed at Rocket Women previously, the project highlights that the UK has a STEM skills crisis across all sectors, with an estimated shortage of 69,000 recruits a year. At the same time, only 7% of women are choosing STEM careers.

The Space Diary aims to reverse this trend through helping primary-aged girls to see themselves in STEM careers, whether as an astronaut, scientist, mathematician or coder. Publisher Kristen Harrison stresses that this guide is ‘not just for girls’ and promotes the use of these ideas with all students. ‘True equality is not just about giving girls opportunities. It’s about developing empathy in all students to ensure we are all open to female voices and appreciate the benefits of diversity.’

The guide emphasises open tasks that require children to “learn on their feet”, with activities ranging from researching women in STEM and introducing positive female role models to writing a diary entry from the perspective of an astronaut and building a model of their own Soyuz capsule. They aim to encourage independence whilst enabling girls to be creative and crucially ‘allowing them to see themselves as scientists.’

Women In Science

Women In Science [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

I’m excited to be featured in the guide alongside Dr.Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut! Twenty-six years ago, astronaut Dr.Helen Sharman beat 13,000 applicants to become the first British astronaut and the first woman to visit the Mir space station! Her mission was and is a remarkable moment for the UK and for women in STEM, along with a timely reminder of the need to encourage girls into STEM careers.

Personally, Dr.Helen Sharman was hugely influential in inspiring me to consider a career in the space. At the age of six, I remember learning that Helen Sharman was the first British astronaut & had travelled to space a mere two years before. That moment changed my life. To now be featured alongside her & such inspirational women is an amazing honour! 

Two and a half decades on from her flight, achievements like Dr. Helen Sharman’s are unfortunately still all too rare. This fantastic guide aims to change this and encourage the next generation to pursue a fulfilling career in STEM.

Learn more about the Space Diary here: http://principiaspacediary.org/

The Space Diary by Curved House Kids and the UK Space Agency is now a ready-made programme that schools can use to deliver the science curriculum with secondary links to literacy, maths and numeracy, design and technology, geography, PE and more. To date, over 90,000 students have registered in schools and home education settings across the UK!

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sravanthi Sinha, Intern, NASA Frontier Development Lab

15 May, 2017

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

In her own words, Sravanthi Sinha has only ever been limited by her imagination. Sravanthi’s inspirational journey began in India before moving to the USA. After attending Holberton School, an alternative to college training software engineers, she was accepted in an internship at the NASA Frontier Development Lab. The NASA lab is aimed at developing new approaches to the asteroid threat by combining the expertise of NASA, academia, and the private research community with the powerful techniques of machine learning. Rocket Women had the chance to ask Sravanthi about her aspirations in space and her experience at NASA.

RW: Can you tell me about when your interest in space grew?

SS: It all started when NASA announced that Pluto will no longer be considered as a planet. I was baffled with the news and I started reading about the research. One article lead to an another and I was very intrigued with the technologies which are being used to make such observations. That fascination led me to a dream visualizing myself working in the field of space and technology in future. I was in primary school then.

Astronaut Kalpana Chawla is one of my role models and I always look up to her for her determination, hard work, and courage.

RW: How important are role models to young girls? Do you think more needs to be done to allow the younger generation to interact with women working in STEM?

SS: Role Models are super important in one’s life. They become a great example of making things or achieving honours of what one dreams of. I believe in the quote “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” One can gain paramount amounts of inspiration and motivation from their role models. Their experiences guide us in making correct decisions at every point of our lives. While I was in India, I never really had an opportunity to directly interact with women working in STEM. There were various science and technological conferences held in the country but I was never in a position to afford to attend one of those, where the well achieved scholarly women working in STEM speak and impart their knowledge and experiences.  Fortunately, the books and internet became my source of knowledge. I still remember the news of Kalpana Chawla’s tragic demise in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster during the re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Probably, that was the moment when I learned about Indian women working at NASA. Kalpana Chawla is one of my role models and I always look up to her for her determination, hard work, and courage.

We are only limited by our own imagination.

We are only limited by our own imagination. Providing the younger generation with an opportunity to interact with women working in the STEM, would certainly increase their knowledge and awareness. Furthermore, it will instigate their interests in pursuing a career in STEM. I look forward to the promising future where the younger generation is driven by science and technology and disregard any biases. #MoreWomenInSTEM

RW: What did your internship at NASA entail and what did you do specifically?

SS: The NASA Frontier Development Lab is aimed at developing new approaches to the asteroid threat by combining the expertise of NASA, academia, and the private research community with the powerful techniques of machine learning. I was selected as a Data Scientist to work on one of three projects titled “Finding Meteorites in the Field with an Autonomous Drone”. The objective of the project was to develop a small UAV (such as a commercially available quadcopter) equipped with cameras and onboard processors that can identify potential meteorite targets in the search areas calculated from triangulated meteor observations.

In terms of machine learning the problem was that of object detection, to identify interesting object(s) in an image. To date, state of the art object detection algorithms are based on deep learning architectures, specifically convolution based networks. Convolutional models need to be trained before they can be used to identify or classify objects in images. Typically, these networks require tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of images to train an accurate model. Unfortunately in our case, this database of useful images did not exist. In an attempt to avoid weeks of data collection and curation we decided to investigate approaches that do not require training such as traditional Computer Vision Techniques – Anomaly Detection and Hand Crafted Feature Detection. I worked on the Hand Crafted Feature Detection approach.

After striving to develop a model that could detect meteorites without having to be trained, we eventually conceded that we would not be able to build a generalised model using the traditional machine learning and computer vision approaches. We determined to proceed with Deep Learning which needed collection of data and GPU power. I was involved with data collection and augmenting the dataset by photoshopping images of meteorite on different terrains. I was accountable to administer the Nvidia Jetson TX1 which was used for the on board processing. While we were still training the model on the dataset, I came up with an idea of having a web app as an User Interface for this project The ADELIE Meteorite Hunter web application was built to carry on the off-board processing of the images collected in the field. It serves the purpose of analysing the images collected from drone and archiving the meteorite images which could become a potential data-set for future learning.

RW: What steps did you take that landed you such a prestigious internship?

SS: My first acquaintance with NASA was during my primary schooling when NASA announced that the Pluto would no longer be called a planet. I learned that it was the ultimate place where an intense research in space is carried out. Since then I have always dreamed and desired to work at NASA. I would totally credit Holberton School for allowing me to live my dream of working at NASA/SETI. When I joined the school, I had no idea what was in store for me, I did expect to become a Full stack developer and realise my dreams in Silicon Valley, but I wasn’t sure that it could happen in just 7 months of joining it. The school has got tremendous support from the mentors. I got the serendipitous opportunity to interact directly with two of Holberton’s great mentors, Gregory Renard and Louis Monier (Founder of Alta Vista).

As an initial step of my experimentation in deep learning, I employed a neural style algorithm to make an image of me as it would look if Vincent van Gogh painted it. When I heard about NASA FDL program from one of the founder of the school Julien Barbier, I was awestruck and determined to get this. The application needed a personal statement, team and collaboration work and a concept note to be submitted. For the concept note, I had to choose from one of the 3 challenges/projects provided and make a brief statement of my solution to it. Louis Monier played a key role in guiding me throughout the completion of the concept note. While I wanted to explore the techniques in Deep Learning he even offered me to use his GPU machine remotely. I was quite sure, that I would get it.

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

RW: How invaluable was this internship and what was your favorite aspect?

SS: Being on an NASA internship and working at SETI gave a plenty of opportunities to meet extraordinary people such as Ed Lu (former NASA astronaut) who founded B612 Foundation, Steve Juvertson (invested in SpaceX, Tesla, D-Wave, Skype, Box and a number “New Space” leaders – including Planet Labs). Getting a special talk from Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart and watching the movie Contact with astronomer Jill Tarter (on which the lead character is based!) and the former director of the Center for SETI Research.

Working with Peter Jenniskens (mentor) and my teammates Christopher Watkins from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation(CSIRO), Amar Shah from Cambridge University, Robert Citron from University of California, Berkeley on a project solving the problems in Planetary Defense. And of course living at NASA Ames Research Center, where 2 years back I just had the opportunity to visit on its 75th Anniversary.

RW: What did you take away from your internship?

SS: The internship gave me real-time exposure to the space industry. I felt the absolute need for more software “techies” to get involved with the space industry to bring in the latest technologies and leverage the NASA expertise and contribute to the space exploration.

Desire combined with effort pays off. Raise your hand when opportunities arise and make it known you are interested.

RW: Following this internship, what are your goals for the future and how has the internship helped you to achieve these goals?

SS: I desire to experience the universe of Star Wars and Star Trek. I believe that the “force is with me” in contributing to the AI research and hope that AI would reach the capability to turn my belief into reality.

During my internship I did have a great chance to work and learn from the machine learning and planetary science expertise. The project in which I was involved during my internship is still in progress and once I am back in the US from India I would like to continue my work on it and find a meteorite. And I would like to continue my journey in exploring the Artificial Intelligence and build real-time applications too.

RW: Do you have any advice for others who may want to follow in your footsteps?

SS: I would like to mention the words from A.P.J Abdul Kalam (Missile Man of India) “It’s a crime to dream small”. If one doesn’t dream about it, they never can make it. Desire combined with effort pays off. Raise your hand when opportunities arise and make it known you are interested.

RW: If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

SS: Oh wow!! A great and probably important piece of advice to myself would be: To never stop questioning and to keep looking up.

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

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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 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 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.