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Psychology

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

All-Female Russian Crew Start Mock Mission To The Moon

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

The Crew Of 6 Russian Women Prior To Entering Isolation

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

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

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

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