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Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

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

Susan Buckle taking part in a Zero G flight!

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

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

On her path to the UK Space Agency:

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Buckle with British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake at the BBC

Susan Buckle with British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake at the BBC

On the education needed for her current role:

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

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

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

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

On unexpectedly entering the space industry:

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

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

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

On what she loves about her job:

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

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

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

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

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

On the impact of her family:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question everything.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Helen Sharman On Being The First British Astronaut

22 April, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Helen Sharman’s feature with The Guardian here.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

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