Based in Baltimore (USA), Sarah Kendrew works for the European Space Agency as an Astronomer. She tells Rocket Women how strong female mentorship and inspiration from the sports world has allowed her to achieve success.
Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are now?
I currently work as an Instrument and Calibration Scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA), where I work on one of the instruments (called MIRI) for a next-generation space telescope for astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The mission is a partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), led by NASA; so even though my employer is European-based, I am actually based in Baltimore, in the United States. I also carry out astrophysics research into the formation of high-mass stars in our Galaxy, and how they impact their surroundings.
I work on one of the instruments (called MIRI) for a next-generation space telescope for astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The mission is a partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), led by NASA; so even though my employer is European-based, I am actually based in Baltimore, in the United States.
I joined ESA early in 2016. My education and early career were in astronomy, and particularly in developing technology and instrumentation for telescopes, both on the ground and in space. After spending my childhood and school years near Brussels in Belgium, I studied at University College London, both for my undergraduate and PhD degrees. Between graduating in 2006 and moving to ESA in 2016, I worked at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, and the University of Oxford, in the UK. I actually started working on the MIRI instrument for JWST in 2007 already, alongside other ground-based instrumentation projects; since I moved to ESA I’ve been working full-time on JWST.
What does an average day look like in your role?
My work is incredibly varied, and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it. I’ve worked on MIRI, the Mid-Infrared Instrument for JWST, for a decade, and the work has changed a lot throughout the life of the project. Right now, we’re only around 18 months from launch, which means a lot of my work is preparing to support the global astronomy community in their proposals for JWST, and ensuring that they’ll be able to get the best possible science from our instrument.
My work is incredibly varied, and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it.
That includes for example helping to build and test software tools, working on data processing algorithms and procedures, giving tutorials at conferences, and preparing for the critical 6-month commissioning period after launch, when we will be working round the clock to switch on our instrument, test all its functions and perform all the measurements that are essential for the first science observations. But a lot of my days look nothing like “the average day”. In recent months for example I spent a lot of time at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where we were testing the telescope and its instruments in NASA’s test facilities there over a 3-month period. That included overnight shifts and irregular working hours, particularly while the Texas coast was battered by Hurricane Harvey!
What are your favourite things about your job?
Working on the more technical side of astronomy, either for telescopes on the ground or in space, can mean working on design studies, assembling and testing hardware in the lab, writing software, analysing data, travelling to observatories. The variety and the travel keep it interesting! I like that my work actually produces hardware – physical stuff, rather than numbers and journal articles – that will be used to make incredibly exciting scientific discoveries. The people I work with on large international projects are also almost invariably very intelligent, interesting and conscientious, they come from different countries and cultures and have so many interests and talents. I always feel very privileged to be in such great company.
Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young women?
I actually came quite late to science. As a child I was a total bookworm (I still am!), I loved reading and history. I really enjoyed reading about people who explored the world and discovered new continents, and about the world’s ancient civilizations. I think my earliest role models were probably fictional characters in the books I loved: adventurous girls and women who broke the mould, defied expectations, and explored the world.
I think my earliest role models were probably fictional characters in the books I loved: adventurous girls and women who broke the mould, defied expectations, and explored the world.
I think role models are very important to young women, and I think inspiration and mentorship can come from many places. Some of the most valuable career advice I received particularly as a young scientist was from male colleagues and friends; only later in my career, when I became more sensitive to the particular challenges women face in STEM careers, did I seek out strong female mentorship and advice. Men can be excellent allies and mentors, but there are aspects of being a woman in science or engineering that I think only other women can fully relate to. I particularly admire those colleagues who are fantastic scientists, but also generous with their time and ideas for students, not ego-driven and honest in their work. I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with many such people in my career.
I also get lots of inspiration from the sports world, which is full of incredible women – I have learnt a lot from reading about athletes’ passion, work ethic, commitment to their training, dealing with adversity. Building a career in science isn’t that different: talent is helpful, but the key to success is persistence, hard work, plenty of recovery time and a dose of luck.
I would tell myself not to worry about fitting in, looking the right way, or being liked – instead learn, read, be curious, be passionate, and be kind to yourself and to others.
If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?
I could nitpick over some decisions I’ve made over the years, but I don’t really think I would change anything. I don’t believe there is one right path when it comes to career choices. I would mostly go back to reassure my 10-year old self that everything was going to work out fine! I would probably also tell myself not to worry about fitting in, looking the right way, or being liked – instead learn, read, be curious, be passionate, and be kind to yourself and to others. And pay more attention in German classes: you’re going to live there one day!
These resilient individuals slept in Mission Control for days through the hurricane, maintaining communication and support from the ground to the space station and it’s occupants.
The second interview in this series features Jessica Tramaglini. Jessica’s role is to manage the International Space Station’s Power and External Thermal Control or ‘SPARTAN’ in NASA’s Mission Control Center.
What was the path to get to where you are now? How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?
We have such a diverse group of people who work in Mission Control in Houston who come from a variety of backgrounds. I personally attended college to study aerospace engineering, receiving a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Penn State University and then started working here. I grew up inspired by space, and knew I wanted to work in Mission Control after attending Space Camp at 12 years-old.
I grew up inspired by space, and knew I wanted to work in Mission Control after attending Space Camp at 12 years-old.
What does your average day look like in your role?
One of the best parts about my role is that there is really no ‘average’ day. Each day brings new and exciting challenges, such as training new flight controllers, working with other groups to update procedures and flight rules, and of course, working console.
Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?
Our goal on-console [in Mission Control] was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle [International Space Station] working
Our goal on console was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle working, minimizing any complicated tasks that could be postponed. The amount of support we received from each other and from people outside checking in on us was amazing.
What was the hardest part of maintaining ISS operations from Mission Control in Houston during Hurricane Harvey?
Especially working the overnight shift where I had to try to sleep during the day, staying in touch with family to let them know I was safe, and keeping in touch with friends who were experiencing flooding was difficult. Once you sat down to console for your shift, you had to block all of that out and focus on the job.
Has this experienced changed you from a professional or personal perspective?
This experience has just reinforced what a special group of people I have the honor of working with. They are incredibly supportive, organized, and everyone steps up to help when they are able.
What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?
I really can’t pick one single moment, but watching flight controllers you have trained succeed, and working console for Soyuz undockings are extremely rewarding opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.
If you want something, set your mind to it, and go for it.
If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?
If you want something, set your mind to it, and go for it. Goals can’t be achieved without taking a risk. You may stumble along the way, but learn from your experiences and keep your eye on the prize.
The experience of floating through the International Space Station is no longer solely the privilege of astronauts. Now you can experience it too. Thanks to an ingenious and hardworking team of Rocket Women from ThinkSpace Consulting, along with Google, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), the International Space Station is now available to explore on Google Street View. Working with astronauts, the entire interior of the International Space Station was photographed and mapped, even bringing the stunning vistas from the Cupola module to your screen. The project impressively took four months to complete from start to finish. Comparatively, experiments that astronauts conduct onboard on the ISS have been planned for at least two years.Rocket Women Marla Smithwick, Operations Engineer, and Ann Kapusta, Co-Founders at ThinkSpace Consulting, worked with NASA, Google, CASIS and the European Space Agency to develop a plan for astronauts to map the International Space Station, solely using equipment already onboard the station. The team only had two days to work in NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) scale mock up facilities at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to develop a mapping strategy, with their biggest challenge being camera stabilization in the microgravity environment onboard the ISS, in addition to the fact that the astronaut would be floating whilst operating the equipment. The Google and ThinkSpace Consulting team eventually decided to use bungee cords to stabilize the camera with images taken by the astronaut rotating around the bungee cords, to prevent parallax. Parallax as, Deanna Yick from Google explains is, “When images are taken from a slightly different angle and are stitched together, with a seam visible where it shouldn’t.”
When you look down at the Earth you realize that it’s one big spaceship and if we don’t look after that spaceship, it won’t look after us. – NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren
The impressive project gives you a sense of the science and engineering it took to build the International Space Station’ with a volume of 5-bedroom house, or two 747s, and keep it running. As NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren describes in this video, the project also ‘gives you an idea of what is possible if countries come together to build a peaceful project on this scale and gives people an idea of the modules in the ISS, including the toilets.’ Based at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center, the team scheduled a test, with ISS crewmember ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet taking photographs onboard the ISS.
It’s a fantastic opportunity for everyone to fly with the astronauts.
ThinkSpace Consulting Operations Engineer and Co-Founder Marla Smithwick, supported the activity ‘on-console’ by communicating with ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the ISS. Astronauts subsequently took images of all of the ISS modules, creating a comprehensive interior tour. As Marla describes, bungees and kapton tape were used to mark the middle of the ISS module and as a reference point to rotate the camera around. The original activity with Thomas Pesquet took the astronaut two and a half hours to take pictures of the space station. Astronauts are trained extensively in photography prior to their mission, and worked with the team to quickly overcome any problems in real time. The Google Street View ISS collection gives viewers a sense of what it’s like to live and work onboard the ISS, in addition to digitising the station for history. As mentioned by the Google Street View team, it’s a ‘fantastic opportunity for everyone to fly with the astronauts.’
ThinkSpace Consulting Co-Founders Marla Smithwick & Ann Kapusta talked to Rocket Women about the project and their role in its success!
How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry?
Marla: I’m sure that most people will tell you that when they were a kid they thought space was cool, and I think I did too. But I wasn’t a big space geek and it was too out of reach for me to consider a career in it. Then when I was in Grade 7 I was selected to do some sort of space camp, where we spent a few days at the University of Saskatchewan learning about space, designing our own space station, and at the end we met Astronaut Marc Garneau. I realize that’s dating me a bit – but it was a big deal to twelve-year old me. Then in 2006 I met a Colonel who worked at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) when I was doing a tour with the Canadian Navy. I realized that I wanted to work at the CSA more than any other job I could think of, so I immediately began hassling him for a job. About 6 months later he finally relented and arranged an interview. They offered to do it over the phone but I asked if it was okay if I made the six-hour drive to do it in person. I remember when I was walking up to the CSA for the interview I thought, “Well, even if I don’t get this job at least I got to go into the Canadian Space Agency on business once in my life”.
What sparked the idea to bring the International Space Station To Google Street View?
Marla: To be honest I don’t know! It was a great idea but it wasn’t mine. We were brought into the project by Google after they had tried to get it done and hadn’t gotten traction on their own. It was quite lucky for us and because we know the industry and what the issues were with their original proposal we were able to get it approved by CASIS with some fun add-ons like flight patches and crew member interviews.
Ann: The idea actually stemmed back in early 2015 from a good friend and old colleague of mine, Emma Lehman, who was working at Google and had met Alice Liu, the ISS Google Street View Program Manager. Emma, being a space fanatic like myself, got to talking with Alice about how amazing it would be to experience the ISS in full 360-degree panorama and get a feeling of floating through our incredible orbiting laboratory. Emma, knowing that Marla and I had just started ThinkSpace and knew we had the ability to make this pipe dream a reality, introduced Google Street View Special Collects to ThinkSpace and the rest is history.
There were two major challenges with this project that were incredibly intertwined – the project timeline and the international negotiations. Google had a strict timeline and after all proper contracts were in place, the timeline shrunk to a mere 4-months from project kick-off to full collection of all images on-board the ISS.
What were the biggest challenges during the project?
Marla: The timeline was very challenging, we were trying to meet a product launch date that was less than a year away. Most payloads take a minimum of two years of preparation time.
Ann: There were two major challenges with this project that were incredibly intertwined – the project timeline and the international negotiations. Google had a strict timeline and after all proper contracts were in place, the timeline shrunk to a mere 4-months from project kick-off to full collection of all images on-board the ISS. In this 4-month timeframe, ThinkSpace needed to act quickly to develop requirements, build crew procedures, gain permissions to hardware on-board, dry-run the procedures at Johnson Space Center ISS mock-up facility, specify crew time for project completion, obtain approval for flight products, among other logistics.
One of the key other logistics that ThinkSpace needed to coordinate and could make or break the success of the ISS Street View project, was to gain permission to image non-NASA built modules of the ISS. The ISS is made up of 16 modules built by a group of International partners and commercial companies including NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and Bigelow Airspace. In the end, we not only gained permission and enthusiastic collaboration from all International Partners to image the full ISS, but we also received permissions from private companies SpaceX and Orbital to image visiting vehicles and get an incredible comprehensive survey of life on the ISS. This was a huge challenge and a personal success for me in the project that we have a full and complete tour of the ISS for everyone to see.How did the four-month timeline that you mentioned in the behind-the-scenes video come about?
Marla: We received approval from CASIS to do the project in October or November, and did the dry-run at JSC [NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston] in January and the on-orbit operations in February. Once we were approved we were off and running.
I have always had a courageous mind and sought opportunities to challenge myself and continue to learn, which ultimately has lead me in a chaotically consistent career journey. Consistency in that I have maintained focus on my passion for space, exploration, and innovation. Chaotic in the twists and turns I’ve taken while following my passion and desire to keep learning and pushing myself throughout my career.
Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?
Ann: I have always had a courageous mind and sought opportunities to challenge myself and continue to learn, which ultimately has lead me in a chaotically consistent career journey. Consistency in that I have maintained focus on my passion for space, exploration, and innovation. Chaotic in the twists and turns I’ve taken while following my passion and desire to keep learning and pushing myself throughout my career.
I started out a scientist, earning my degree in astrophysics. I studied cataclysmic binary variable stars at Kitt Peak Observatory and sought patterns in Ionspheric disturbances at the Haystack Observatory. The science was exciting but I always wanted to know the hows behind the data – so I transitioned to aerospace engineering. A pretty uncharacteristic move for a scientist. Utilizing my dual degree – I spent time in satellite data analysis, instrument calibration design and testing, and operations. Until I decided to take another courageous leap from satellites to a different world in space – human spaceflight. And even weirder, into designing and running a biological experiment in space – with no formal background in biology. And if that wasn’t enough organized chaos for my whole career, I recently took the most courageous leap of all and left Silicon Valley and aerospace to lead the R&D team at a digital innovation company, Vectorform, in Detroit. All while co-founding and running a space consulting company, ThinkSpace, in order to maintain a constant connection to my consistent lifelong passion of astronomy and space.
How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?
Ann: My family has always been and continues to be a huge contributing factor in my career and lifelong interest in the STEM fields. My family not only exposed me to the wonders of science and engineering from an early age, but also gave me constant and unfailing encouragement to always follow my passion no matter what. I grew up in a family of engineers and machinists in the Western Pennsylvania rust belt, and was the second of two daughters. From as far back as I can remember, my parents and grandparents taught my sister and I how things worked and to always ask questions when we didn’t understand. They were tinkerers, so we became tinkerers. They were critical thinkers, so we became critical thinkers and problem solvers. They taught us to wonder when things didn’t make sense and to think beyond when things did.
My father taught me to program CAD models for lathes and mills in the early 90’s. I played with LEGO, Barbie, and all of the original NES Mario Brothers games. There was never a thing I “shouldn’t” be doing or “should” be doing when it came to learning, all that mattered is that I was exploring and asking questions. When I look back now, I think the main thing that my family did to help me find my career was provide me constant encouragement of personal exploration to find my passion and never discouragement of any path. It allowed me to find and follow my true passion.What else did you want to be when you were growing up?
Ann: Throughout my life I’ve wanted to be a lot of different things – from marine biologist to concert pianist to architect. I was always passionate about learning new things and each new thing opened up a new career opportunity. However, the more I journeyed through life, the more I looked to the stars and the more they inspired me. The ability to be part of a field so vast and so unknown, fuels my desire to always push what’s possible and to never stop learning throughout my life. Once I realized that the boundlessness of space mimicked my requirements for personal fulfillment, I knew astronomy was where I wanted to take my career.
What are you favourite things about your job?
Ann: My favorite thing about this career path and my job is the constant opportunity to learn and create something new. I have the ability to be innovative and solve problems in unique and new ways, and I have access to some incredibly smart people to inspire me, teach, and collaborate with. It is something that is so critically important to me – to do something I am passionate about, continue to learn, have the opportunity to be creative and innovative, and to make a difference. And I get to do all of those things in my job and I couldn’t be happier with my career choices.
Name the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Marla: There are so many lessons. The biggest for me is appreciating the different mindset you have to be in when all of the responsibility is on you, and the amount you make is dependent on your ability to get business, negotiate and be efficient. And that percentage companies charge called “overhead” is totally legit.
I took a very meandering path to where I am but if I’m being honest with myself, the failures were just as important in contributing to the direction as the successes.
Is there a follow-up Google Street View project planned as the ISS expands or to incorporate commercial crew vehicles?
Marla: This time around we got the BEAM [Bigelow Expandable Activity Module], the SpaceX Dragon and the Cygnus vehicles so the cooperation from the commercial companies was fantastic. Once commercial crew vehicles are flying that would be a great follow-on project! We are discussing some other projects, some on the ISS and some not, but nothing is on paper as of yet.
If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?
Marla: That’s tough because usually advice comes from things you feel like you could’ve done better. I took a very meandering path to where I am but if I’m being honest with myself, the failures were just as important in contributing to the direction as the successes. So maybe that’s the advice – don’t beat yourself up too badly for the failures, just try to learn from them and keep moving. Oh and I would like to tell my past self that at the end of my final exam in senior year of high school I really need to pick up my feet so I don’t trip and fall on my face in front of the whole class. That would’ve been nice to avoid.
Ann: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to try. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even when they may seem dumb. Don’t be afraid to change your mind or your career or your path when you aren’t happy or fulfilled. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when something doesn’t feel right and don’t be afraid to stand up and say “yes” when you feel it. Don’t be afraid to stand alone (even though I know from experience that is incredibly scary). Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to do something different. And don’t be afraid to be an inspiration to others.
This isn’t just advice that I would give to my 10-year-old self, but advice that I give to myself every day. In the career I chose and the path I am on, some days are still tough and some days are scary, but that comes with the territory of challenging yourself to so something new and incredible every single day.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!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.’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!
In 1961 Wally Funk undertook secret tests to become an astronaut in the USA. A full twenty-two years before Sally Ride became the first American Woman in Space. She, along with 12 other female pilots, passed the tough rigorous physical tests to become an unofficial member of the ‘Mercury 13’ – the US women who could have gone into space over 20 years before the first American woman eventually did and even before Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963.
In the BBC’s Women With The Right Stuff, Wally Funk leads the listener through the story of the Mercury 13, a group of trailblazing and driven female pilots – some with more flying hours than John Glenn, the first American man in space that unfortunately never got the chance to fly to space, to the current NASA class chosen, being 50% female. The piece also features insights from trailblazing female astronauts including NASA’s Jessica Meir and Eileen Collins, the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti and the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman. I’m excited to also be featured in the documentary among such fantastic company and represent Rocket Women. (You can find my interview at 9 minutes into the documentary and again at 30 and 40 minutes.)
Listen to the piece here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041kpmw
Additionally, here’s an insightful article by the documentary’s producer, Sue Nelson, about the documentary and working with Wally Funk: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-36824898
If you’re a Canadian student studying science or engineering and would like to attend a European Space Agency (ESA) hosted conference in Canada, then apply now for this incredible opportunity.
Attending conferences is a great way to for students to ‘forge valuable ties with professionals and other students from all over the world who share their interests. Students will have a chance to talk to professionals, learn from their expertise and be exposed to the latest science discoveries from those missions’. Students will also be ‘full participants in the conferences, lending the workshops and plenary sessions a new energy and outlook that are greatly appreciated.’
Successful applicants will get the chance to attend The Fourth Swarm Science Meeting & Geodetic Missions Workshop, in March 2017, hosted by the European Space Agency (ESA) in Banff, Alberta and The North American Cryosat Science Meeting, in March 2017, also hosted by ESA in Banff, Alberta.
The deadline for applications is 27th January, 2017. Good luck! Click here for more information about the Student Participation Initiative and to apply.
Eloise Matheson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in space. Her passion has culminated in her being based at the European Space Agency (ESA) as a Telerobotic Engineer! She recently shared her story with Rocket Women.
On her path to get to where she is now:
I started working at ESA as a British Young Graduate Trainee in September 2014. This program is aimed at providing experience to recent graduates, allowing them to gain an understanding of the European and international space arena. I was placed in the Telerobotics and Haptics Lab at ESA under the Mechatronics and Automation Section. It’s a really wonderful lab of around 10 dedicated and passionate people. When my traineeship finished a year later, I was lucky to stay on as a contractor which is how I am here today. Working at ESA was always a goal of mine. Having previous industrial experience and a strong academic record helped to achieve this.
On the qualifications she needed to gain to become a Telerobotic Engineer:
By education I’m a Mechatronics Engineer. I completed a combined Bachelor’s degree in Mechatronic (Space) Engineering/Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney, Australia in 2010. After 18 months of working and travelling, I started a 2 years European Master of Advanced Robotics (EMARO), an Erasmus Mundus program, which finished in 2014. In this program I studied for one year at Warsaw University of Technology, Poland, and my final year at Ecole Centrale de Nantes, France. It was a fantastic program where I learnt not only technical skills, but also had the unique opportunity to experience different cultures and make friends from all around the world.
My favourite thing about my job is how dynamic it is. Since the time I’ve started there, we have been involved in three different space experiments.
On her favourite things about her job:
My favourite thing about my job is how dynamic it is. Since the time I’ve started there, we have been involved in three different space experiments under the international METERON project. METERON aims to test telerobotic technology through a series of experiments from the ISS to robotic labs across the world. For us, the latest of these was INTERACT, an experiment where the Danish astronaut Andreas Mogenson controlled our rover on the ground from the ISS to localise and find a taskboard, before driving there and performing a peg-in-hole task with force feedback. It sounds easy to put a peg in a hole, but it is much harder when you are hundreds of kilometers away, controlling a robotic manipulator over a communications link with a nominal delay of 800ms and the peg tolerance to the hole is measured in micrometers! The experiment was a success, and proved that our control strategies, visual interfaces, haptic feedback and master and slave devices were able to complete useful tasks over a space-to-ground link. It was a very exciting, challenging and rewarding project for us. What I physically do each day changes – ranging from mechanical integration of parts, to testing of electrical circuits, to coding for embedded systems and documenting manuals and other procedures.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space. My sister would say that someone once told me as a kid that I couldn’t be an astronaut, so from that moment on it was decided in my mind what I would be.
On how her interest in space grew:
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space. My sister would say that someone once told me as a kid that I couldn’t be an astronaut, so from that moment on it was decided in my mind what I would be. The notion of exploring what is beyond our world, of discovering where humanity came from and furthering the boundaries of known knowledge is, I believe, an entrenched human trait that everyone shares. Working in space helps us to achieve this one little bit at a time.
On whether there was anything unexpected about her career journey that was different to her initial expectations:
To be honest, I’m not sure I had initial expectations of what my career journey would be, except that I knew I wanted to work in space. I’m always planning what could happen in the future, but really, the future is impossible to plan in such detail! In hindsight, the steps that pushed me to be on the path I am now were all fortuitous. Of course it took, and continues to take, a lot of hard work, but I truly believe it’s important to be open to opportunities and make the best of every situation as it comes your way. Perhaps my only expectation is to one day experience what it is to look at the Earth from the outside of it…I fully expect this to be a difficult, but incredibly rewarding, path.
As a young girl I never considered that any particular job was more for men than it was for women, however it was clear that some industries like STEM were more male dominated than others. This was a challenge to change the industry, not a reason to avoid it.
On how important are role models to young girls:
I think role models, of either gender, are very important to young girls, so that they can see the myriad of options that exist from working in STEM. As a young girl I never considered that any particular job was more for men than it was for women, however it was clear that some industries like STEM were more male dominated than others. This was a challenge to change the industry, not a reason to avoid it. One of my role models was Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering female aviator in Australia who I had the fortunate chance of meeting on multiple occasions. She encouraged me to fly, to follow my dreams, to explore and most of all to never lose a strong sense of curiosity about the world. Just as inspirational was my undergraduate thesis supervisor – he said that if the motivation for a choice was to continue learning about the world, then it was the right choice. Of course having opportunities to meet and interact with women and men working in STEM that are supportive and encouraging of girls working in STEM is vital.
One of my role models was Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering female aviator in Australia who I had the fortunate chance of meeting on multiple occasions. She encouraged me to fly, to follow my dreams, to explore and most of all to never lose a strong sense of curiosity about the world.
On if she had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self:
When I was 10, I think my main goals in life were to be an astronaut OR a parking police officer OR a dermatologist – to me these were all incredibly exciting jobs. As I grew older I found I was good at maths and science, but I equally enjoyed English and music. After high school, I wanted to study science – believing it to be a good path to astronaut-hood, and falling into engineering happened almost by a lucky mistake (it’s a long story involving a potential move to a new city, a high school romance and last minute choices). My advice to my 10 year old self, or any 10 year old, is to listen to your instincts about your choices and know that your interests and dreams will change and that’s ok. It’s also ok to not know what you want to do…but if you don’t know, studying engineering is an awesome option as it probably gives you more choices for career paths after finishing than any other degree.
Don’t think you can’t succeed on a certain career path simply because you don’t tick all the boxes at that point. I failed my first programming course in C at university – I had never coded before at high school. In hindsight I would have changed when I started seeing computers as a tool rather than a box playing music and accessing the internet, but at that time of my life I didn’t know what coding was. Now I see it as a language, and a fairly universal one at that. I finished high school in 2005 – I think there is a huge difference between the online learning facilities that exist for children now compared to then, as well as a shift in educational curriculums putting more emphasis on technical skills. Would I have done things differently? I don’t think so. I’m very happy where I am now. I’m excited what the future holds. Probably the advice my 10 year old self would tell me today is not give up dreaming, not give up on optimism and maintain the strong belief that everything is possible with enough motivation and drive.
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.”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.
UPDATE: Here’s a new photo of the Stargazer Lottie doll on the ISS:
Tim Peake, the first British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut arrived at the ISS on Tuesday 15th December, but he’s also in charge of precious cargo designed by a talented 6-Year-Old space-loving Canadian girl called Abigail. A Stargazer Lottie doll. The doll was created by the European Space Agency and with the help of Lucie Follett, (Creative Director, Arklu). Lucie Follett describes how the company worked with Abigail, “to really create something that reflects Abigail’s ideas of what other kids would like and what gets her excited about all things astronomy related.”
The project began as Abigail’s Mum emailed the doll company to thank them for inspiring her daughter through their dolls and convey that she loved interacting with them. Each Lottie doll has a specific activity theme, meant to promote careers to children through their interaction (a fantastic idea!). The Stargazer Lottie doll comes complete with a doll sized telescope, a set of planet cards and as Abigail’s Mum describes is, “wearing clothes that a child would wear to look outside at the stars as well, so she’s a natural companion.” Abigail’s signed book by astronaut Chris Hadfield, her self-proclaimed hero, is her prized possession and her passion for space is apparent, “Sometimes I look up and think maybe I could go up there one day, somehow maybe I could see what’s up there.”
The Stargazer Lottie doll is available now worldwide and would make a fantastic Christmas gift for any young budding astronomers!