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Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Niamh Shaw, Space Communicator, Artist & Engineer

21 January, 2018
Dr. Niamh Shaw

Dr. Niamh Shaw – Artist, Scientist, Engineer & Communicator

Dr. Niamh Shaw has dreamt of becoming an astronaut since she was a child and is actively making steps towards achieving her goal. She tells Rocket Women about realising that her passion involved combining science and the arts, ultimately leading her to create international theatre shows and outreach to ensure that the public are brought along and inspired on her journey to space.

Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are now?

It’s a very long story. Basically when I was very young, I was very clear that I wanted to go to space and as a child I wanted to be an astronaut. Because there were no role models in the town that I grew up or in Ireland indeed, apart from what you would see on television coming from NASA and the Moon landings, it was like I knew that I didn’t have permission to achieve that. I actually couldn’t figure out how to do it either. So it was a fear of failure and no one really pointing me in the right direction to do that.

It became very clear to me that I hadn’t really let that dream go and I had to do something about it.

So, I forgot about it for a very long time. Then I was making my very first theatre show, which was combining science and the arts together. I was looking at all of these decisions that I’d made, and one of them was about me wanting to be an astronaut as a child. While I was figuring that out, I realised that I got very upset because I’d done nothing about it. It became very clear to me that I hadn’t really let that dream go and I had to do something about it. That was in 2011 and since then I have been actively making steps towards ultimately achieving that goal.

Making theatre is a big part of it. It allows me to share my personal story and I’m now on my third theatre piece. The second piece toured internationally – it toured to Edinburgh and it toured to Adelaide, and it help get the message out there. Every time I do a show it gives me more confidence and more belief that I can move forward. The latest show, ‘Diary of a Martian Beekeeper‘ is set in the future this time, as I’m on Mars and I’m conducting an experiment about bees. Because, as I’m on this space journey, bringing this environmental message into it has been very important to me.

I’m always talking about space and bringing to as many people as possible.

As well as the theatre shows, I participated in the ISU Space Studies Programme, a 9 week intensive programme in 2015 and then out of that I was invited to participate in a simulated Mars mission in the Utah dessert in early 2017 and I was also participated in a zero-gravity flight in Star City in Russia. I’m always talking about space and bringing to as many people as possible.

Dr. Niamh Shaw performing

Dr. Niamh Shaw performing

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young girls?

I think they’re hugely important, we don’t realize that every time you’re around a child, you could potentially be a role model, they’re just picking up signals from us all the time. There was nobody really around me from the space perspective that I could call a role model. I think that’s why I didn’t achieve it until now.

My Dad really encouraged me to embrace that technical and logical part of my brain.

Other than that, a role model for me was my older brother – he was mad into space and science fiction, so anything he liked, I liked. My parents as well were really important role models for me. Dad really encouraged me to embrace that technical and logical part of my brain. He bought us a small personal computer when we were very young and I taught myself coding on that using Basic at the time which was the code. He showed me how to change a plug and he set me projects in the Summer where I would pick a planet and I would write a comic about it. So he obviously saw that in me and they were a big influence for me.

Some of my teachers at school too, my English teacher, Sister Lee-Mary showed me that I was a lot more creative than I’d realised and encouraged that in me. My chemistry teacher Mrs.Greer loved chemistry and it sort of rubbed off on me and because of her it just copperfastened my confidence in STEM and wanting to pursue that field of study after I finished secondary school.

Niamh on a zero-g flight in Russia with the Stargazing Lottie Doll

Niamh on a zero-g flight in Russia with the Stargazing Lottie Doll

I love that you bring the Stargazer Lottie doll along with you on all of your expeditions. How do you hope Lottie will inspire the next generation?

I think the ethos behind the Lottie dolls, all of them, is that children design them. So they wait for children to come up with suggestions about the kind of doll that they want to see, which is great. So you’re not getting one kind of doll that’s supposed to suit one million, or one billion girls. The girls themselves are dictating what kind of dolls they want, which is how Stargazer Lottie came about. A girl went and said, “Why isn’t there a doll who is an Astronomer, because that’s what I do.”

[Lottie] dolls mirror the expectations and dreams that young girls want.

So they are very much open to making dolls that mirror the expectations and dreams that those girls want. I think it’s just a fantastic initiative and I’m really proud that I bring her with me everywhere. When I go and talk to young girls in schools, the reason why I like it is that the doll – they attach with immediately and the fact that she’s also an Astronomer kind of shifts their perception of what a doll is for them.

[The Lottie doll] is hopefully feeding into the message that they can be anything that they want to be.

When I go in to talk to them we do a workshop around space and I map out the scale of the Universe, but we also talk about what they want to be when they grow up and all of that is positively attached to space, which is great, and also to the Lottie doll, so it’s hopefully all feeding into the message that they can be anything that they want to be.

What does success mean to you?

Success means to me without a doubt, that I didn’t give up on myself, that I was brave enough to live the life that I wanted. That I bet on myself. It’s been so many years that I’ve wanted to do this, and I never allowed myself to dream that big or to give myself that big a task without that big an objective. Every year that I work on it, that fear gets smaller and smaller and I’m able to take stronger and more brave steps forward.

Success means to me without a doubt, that I didn’t give up on myself, that I was brave enough to live the life that I wanted. That I bet on myself.

To me success would be knowing no matter what the outcome, that I didn’t give up on myself and the reason that if I achieve it or don’t achieve it, wasn’t because I gave up. I think that’s what success means to me and happiness – that in succeeding in what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve managed to bring as many people as I can with me along the way. So it can’t just be the action of me getting say to the Moon and looking back, it has to be something of much bigger value that that. That I can bring the general public with me and hope to get them to see the Earth from a new perspective.

Niamh taking part in a Martian simulation in the Utah desert

Niamh taking part in a Martian simulation in the Utah desert

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

I think because my career journey is so bizzare, to take you through it – I went to college and did a degree in Engineering, and then I did a Masters in Engineering and then I did a PhD in Science. This was around the time that I’d kind of forgotten my childhood dreams at the time. I was always a creative person and when I finished my PhD I was in full-time research – I really didn’t enjoy it and knew that I had to make a change.

I was going to emigrate to New Zealand to take up a new job in the same field of research and I thought that maybe it was the geography that was wrong. But it wasn’t, it was something in me that was wrong, there was something missing. I thought that it was the artistic part of my brain, so I stepped away from full-time research then and I started pursuing performing and getting work in that way, which was great. I think the thing that I didn’t expect was that after I was doing that for a couple of years, I really missed science terribly. I got a bit of a fright and thought that I’d made a major mistake, but I hadn’t. It was when things started to make sense for me.

I realized that the person I am is this combination of loving information and loving technical details, but wanting to make them human and wanting to represent them in an everyday way so people who have no relationship with science whatsoever can find a way to understand it, and hopefully that be a springboard for their own curiosity to kind of take off.

It was around the same time in 2011 that I realized that the person I am is this combination of loving information and loving technical details, but wanting to make them human and wanting to represent them in an everyday way so people who have no relationship with science whatsoever can find a way to understand it, and hopefully that be a springboard for their own curiosity to kind of take off.

I realized I wasn’t that bad in it, as the combination of those two skills made me literate in science but also literate in how to communicate it in an everyday way, because that’s what I’d been doing for a number of years. The lovely thing about that is that it’s really helped me in telling my Space story as well as me also being able to bring people along with me on my journey, because I’m able to humanize as best as I can – I’m not saying I’m perfect at it, but I’ve been able to humanize all of that science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). So I didn’t expect it to all work out, I just thought that with all these things that weren’t joined, I’d finally get to the point where they all kind of worked together.

Niamh on-stage at InspireFest 2017 [InspireFest]

Niamh on-stage at InspireFest 2017 [InspireFest]

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

Completely. Totally and utterly. There’s no doubt in my mind that they were the main influencers. My Dad is an Engineer and we were mad science fiction fans. He showed us the Moon landings and he showed me how to change a plug. It was just everywhere and I was very comfortable with science and technology from a very young age. I had a personal connection with it, so I was never afraid of it, or intimidated by it.

I don’t think I was the absolute strongest in the class in maths by any means, but I was never intimidated by it and would give it a try and hope for the best, so they are totally and utterly [responsible for shaping my career path in STEM]. My teachers at secondary school too, but my parents had a huge impact with my relationship with STEM and my comfort with it.

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 think all I would say to my 10-year-old self was that you were right, you should’ve said it to people and not be afraid to say it out loud. Just because you were a girl didn’t mean it couldn’t have happened for you.

I don’t think I could’ve changed anything about the course of my life, I think I should’ve just believed in myself more then that I could do it. Because I went right back to it anyway, so it was always there.

I wanted to go to Space Camp and I wanted to go to [NASA’s] Kennedy Space Center, but we just weren’t a family that could afford that. So I guess if my parents were wealthier I would’ve put my foot down and insisted that we went somewhere like that, but we didn’t have that so I never did. So I don’t think I could’ve changed anything about the course of my life, I think I should’ve just believed in myself more then that I could do it. Because I went right back to it anyway, so it was always there.

Read more about Niamh’s journey and recent events here.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Olga Stelmakh-Drescher, Director of Business Development and International Affairs

10 January, 2018
Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

Through a highly successful 14-year career in the space industry, Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher has lived and worked on multiple continents. Olga is impressively fluent in 5 languages, with experience in Europe at the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center, before relocating to North America, living and working in Montreal, Canada. She has most recently been based in Washington DC, USA as the Director of Business Development and International Affairs at the International Institute of Space Commerce.

Olga talks to Rocket Women about her path as an aerospace lawyer, why she is inspired by space entrepreneurs and how her family is a perfect model of the international space community.

From growing up in Ukraine, to now being based in Washington DC – how have your international experiences helped to shape your career and personal life?

During my school years I spent summer and most of my winter holidays in France with my French family. These people actually have been the ones who shaped my French identity and paved the way to my international professional future. As I was fluent in French and English I easily managed to enter the French business school and in parallel to my law degree in Ukraine over five years pursued business degree learning from the best. At that time, I already started working in the space sector providing legal support to the international space projects that also implied a significant international exposure strengthening thereof my cosmopolitan integrity.

My life is spread over the continents; that implies lots of travels and high flexibility.

Upon my graduation I had been offered to join an international law firm but decided to first get an advanced space and telecommunications law degree in Paris for which I was granted a scholarship of excellence by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The strong professional touch of that program further opened me the doors to the European Space Agency, German Aerospace Center and later on helped me with relocation to North America making me competitive for the job positions in Montreal, Canada (Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University) and in Washington DC, USA (GWU Space Policy Institute and currently the International Institute of Space Commerce).

My life is spread over the continents; that implies lots of travels and high flexibility. I believe that my international experience, including the network I have created, actually played a decisive role in many opportunities I have been given throughout my professional career. In addition to the job opportunities mentioned above, the latter included invitations to speak at different fora, nominations and elections to high profile professional associations, selection to leadership programs, recognitions and awards etc.

My husband, a German aerospace diplomat, and I, an aerospace lawyer with mix of Ukrainian and Armenian bloods, residing in Washington D.C. and communicating with each other in three languages, are a perfect family model of an internationalized space community.

This has also influenced my personal life. My husband, a German aerospace diplomat, and I, an aerospace lawyer with mix of Ukrainian and Armenian bloods, residing in Washington D.C. and communicating with each other in three languages, are a perfect family model of an internationalised space community.

Olga at a conference in the UAE

Olga at a conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Describe a typical day at work for you.

It is hard to describe a typical day for me as every day brings something new, especially keeping in mind that I am very often on foreign travels.

My day can be described as: Dream. Visualize. Rationalize. Implement.

Not going into much detail my day can be described as: Dream. Visualize. Rationalize. Implement.

This is supported by the following common elements without which the day would not be complete: reading news (political, economical and of course space ones) and books (mainly business or innovation related), drafting, checking emails, having telecons and meetings, networking at space events.

I value the opportunities that enable looking at what I normally do through a different prism, encountering people whom I would more likely not met otherwise.

Last but not least, when shaping my agenda, I make sure that it allows for personal “upgrading”, recharging and expanding of my horizons. I value the opportunities that enable looking at what I normally do through a different prism, encountering people whom I would more likely not met otherwise.

Who were your role models when you were growing up?

In general, I think it is wrong to consider someone as a role model in its entirety. I would rather say that someone’s qualities, behaviors and accomplishments can serve as an inspiration for personal and professional growth. And to be honest in my case these are not “famous” people, but simply strong personalities with charisma and driving energy who are not afraid to take an action and be accountable for it. In one word (ok, four;) – I am “smart” addicted!

When looking at the space sector the most inspirational to me are space entrepreneurs, I admire them for their powerful belief in their somewhat “out of this world” dreams and all the risks they take.

My husband inspires me by his strength, power of generating great ideas, making impossible possible, strategic and comprehensive thinking, networking and presenting skills.

Personally, I come from a highly-educated family and therefore I was blessed to have my family members as role models to me. They have achieved a lot, each of them in their specific field. My mother, who is a medical doctor, by her example, taught me to be fully dedicated to what I do; my father, who is a nuclear physicist, taught me to set the bar super high and always strive for better; my sister, a smart engineer and mother of three, – how to make the right choices and set priorities in life.

My husband inspires me by his strength, power of generating great ideas, making impossible possible, strategic and comprehensive thinking, networking and presenting skills.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up? 

Self-doubts and adversity are part of existentialism; without them we would not 1) become more self-confident and mature, 2) duly appreciate our achievements and 3) enjoy taking the risks, making new steps and going further. The “perfect” world is utopia and consequently the “perfect” people who seem not having such moments are the most fake ones.

I am convinced that the turbulent times are the most promising ones, this is “where and when” we can most grow and evolve.

We learn much more out of critical and stressful situations, this is where we see our real limits and strength. I am convinced that the turbulent times are the most promising ones, this is “where and when” we can most grow and evolve.

Olga speaking on an expert space panel

Olga speaking on an expert space panel

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

The space industry remains dominated by men, however I am very pleased to see more and more women in leadership positions, especially if they manage to become influencers. However, the level of inclusiveness still highly depends on cultural differences and domestic “in-house” traditions. Not naming specific countries, it is evident that in some of them space industry is the men’s world, i.e. “space patriarchate”, where women are given mainly the support functions.

What are the biggest legal gaps and future challenges that the space industry is facing? 

Nowadays the space industry is facing numerous legal challenges, many of which occur as a result of a very fast pace of space technologies development and failing of a legal system to adjust accordingly to these NewSpace calls.

What we observe today is that a space law capacity-building is following the developments of technologies, not playing a proactive role and therefore not ensuring the needed legal certainty (or even jeopardizing it, as the entrepreneurs will not wait for a legal framework to be shaped but instead will set precedents acting experimentally, making their own “wake-up” calls for an adequate legal enterprise).

An appropriate legal enterprise should be established in parallel to (if not anticipating) major technological advancements, not allowing them to evolve detached paving their way in legal limbo.

Olga in the UAE

Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

What would you recommend to someone looking at a career in space law to focus on?

To someone looking at a career in space law I would recommend to first of all acquire a solid international and business law background combined with interdisciplinary space related studies (e.g. Space Studies Program of the International Space University).

Ideally, theoretical knowledge should be combined with legal practice, some academic work and strong emotional intelligence that is needed when dealing with various actors.

Ideally, theoretical knowledge should be combined with legal practice, some academic work and strong emotional intelligence that is needed when dealing with various actors. Very importantly, the successful space lawyer should not be skeptical, but rather has to foresee all possible scenarios with associated risks and opportunities and diligently guide towards the most appropriate way ahead.

I always advocate for global thinking that provides for transforming numerous puzzles into one holistic picture.

I always advocate for global thinking that provides for transforming numerous puzzles into one holistic picture. Similar to the data that can be acquired by means of remote sensing, a lawyer can much easier comprehend the problem if thinking big and not in the dimensions of a concrete case.

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?

Honestly, I do not like to think how something would have been if … Perhaps if I would have done something differently, I would have been a different person and honestly I am happy with current myself. Projecting and visualizing the future, especially successful implementation of my ideas and plans, this is what I prefer. Past is something that did happen to us but the future is what excites me more as we can influence it.

As a piece of advice to all 10-year-old kids I would say: dream, demonstrate more curiosity, be passionate about what you like doing, be open and hungry for new knowledge, be a personality and do not be afraid to be different / think differently.

As a piece of advice to all 10-year-old kids I would say: dream, demonstrate more curiosity, be passionate about what you like doing, be open and hungry for new knowledge, be a personality and do not be afraid to be different / think differently, be creative, challenge yourself, strive to become an educated person and not a nerd, do not anticipate time and do not look for a universal algorithm of success, instead create your own story, read more and learn more languages as it is a constituent part of culture and mentality and therefore an enormous facilitator for your future.

Education, Inspiration

Luciana Vega – The American Girl & NASA Doll To Inspire The Next Generation

30 December, 2017

In partnership with NASA, American Girl have created a brilliant new doll called Luciana Vega, an 11-year-old aspiring astronaut who wants to be the first person to step foot on Mars. In the accompanying book series written by Erin Teagen, Luciana is introduced as a young girl of Chilean descent, with a dream of landing on Mars, who wins a scholarship to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. However as Luciana graduates from a ‘Space Camp kid to youth astronaut trainee’, she encounters a multitude of challenges that ‘test her competitive spirit and self-confidence, pushing her to find the courage to embrace the unknown with bravery, curiosity, and wonder.’

Alongside Luciana, American Girl and NASA through the Space Act Agreement have also created a spacesuit outfit based on NASA’s Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), the spacesuit used onboard the International Space Station (ISS) and previously during space shuttle missions. Luciana’s other fantastic accessories include a Maker Station, a blue Space Camp flight suit and a Mars Habitat which is ‘loaded with science and research essentials for hours of pretend play’. American Girl and NASA have also created a new American Girl World app featuring the doll and aspiring third to fifth grade astronauts can take part in ‘Blast Off to Discovery’ an educational program by NASA, Scholastic and Space Camp featuring Luciana Vega content, including ‘lesson plans, classroom activities, videos and a game’.

“It is so important to find exciting new ways to inspire our next generation of space explorers. I always want to encourage girls and boys to pursue their dreams, no matter how big, and I think it helps to show how those dreams can become reality for any kid.”

A NASA advisory board, including former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, the CEO and Executive Director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Deborah Barnhart, Manager of Strategic Alliances at NASA Headquarters Maureen O’Brien and NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur, proudly worked with American Girl to create the authentic design and story. As Astronaut Megan McArthur mentions in a NASA post, “It is so important to find exciting new ways to inspire our next generation of space explorers. I always want to encourage girls and boys to pursue their dreams, no matter how big, and I think it helps to show how those dreams can become reality for any kid.”

Luciana Vega is certainly the doll that I wish I had when I was younger, and will be available to buy for any young budding astronauts in January 2018! If you’re an aspiring astronaut like Luciana and want to attend Space Camp, American Girl are providing 20 scholarships to Space Camp through the project!

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The NASA Rocket Women That Kept The Space Station Flying During Hurricane Harvey: Part 2

8 September, 2017

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in NASA's Mission Control Center [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: Bill Stafford]

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in NASA’s Mission Control Center [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: Bill Stafford]

In a special four-part feature, Rocket Women are highlighting the untold stories of the dedicated Orbit1 team that remained in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center to tirelessly battle Hurricane Harvey, keeping the space station flying and the astronauts onboard safe.

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.

Our goal on-console [in Mission Control] was just to keep the crew safe and the vehicle [International Space Station] working

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in Mission control supporting Expedition 45, during prelaunch and launch of Expedition 45/Visiting Crew (Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen & Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov) launching on Soyuz TMA-18M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan  [Copyright: NASA, Photographer: James Blair]

Jessica Tramaglini on-console in Mission control supporting
Expedition 45, during prelaunch and launch of Expedition 45/Visiting Crew (Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen & Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov) launching on Soyuz TMA-18M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan
[Copyright: NASA, Photographer: James Blair]

Describe your experience of being on-console during Hurricane Harvey?

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.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The Rocket Women That Brought The International Space Station to Google Street View

7 August, 2017

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.

The stunning views from the International Space Station's Cupola module [Still taken from Google StreetView]

The stunning views from the International Space Station’s Cupola module [Still from Google StreetView]

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.

Marla Smithwick, Operations Engineer & Co-Founder, ThinkSpace Consulting

Marla Smithwick, Operations Engineer & Co-Founder, ThinkSpace Consulting [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

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.

Alice Liu - Google Street View [Still from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View  https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

Alice Liu – Google Street View Program Manager [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

Deanna Yick. Google Street View Program Manager [Still from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

Deanna Yick. Google Street View Program Manager [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

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.”

The Google Street View and ThinkSpace Consulting team discussing their mapping method with NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren

The Google Street View and ThinkSpace Consulting team discussing their mapping method with NASA Astronaut Kjell Lindgren [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

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.

Marla Smithwick on console communicating with ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the International Space Station

Marla Smithwick on-console communicating with ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the International Space Station [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

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”.

Ann Kapusta, ThinkSpace Consulting Co-Founder, at NASA Johnson Space Center's Mission Control

Ann Kapusta, ThinkSpace Consulting Co-Founder, at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Apollo-era Mission Control

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.

AnnThere 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.

ThinkSpace Consulting Operations Engineer & Co-Founder Marla Smithwick communicating wtih ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the ISS

ThinkSpace Consulting Operations Engineer & Co-Founder Marla Smithwick communicating wtih ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet onboard the ISS [Still taken from Behind the Scenes: Mapping the International Space Station with Google Street View https://youtu.be/IBTP62jd4DA]

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.

The ISS Google Street View Mission Patch [ThinkSpace/Google]

The ISS Google Street View Mission Patch [ThinkSpace/Google]

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.

Take a tour of the International Space Station on Google Street View and learn more about the project here.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty, Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI)

9 July, 2017
Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty speaking on-stage

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty speaking on-stage at the University of Waterloo, Canada

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty’s career has spanned continents. Beginning in Nigeria with a space law background, her high achieving career trajectory has included a PhD in Space Law at McGill University to presently researching the link between space and climate change in her current role as a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada! Timiebi was also recently awarded the IAF Young Space Leaders award in 2017. She talks to Rocket Women about her achievements, space law, how her family shaped her career and the one piece of advice she’d give her 10-year-old self.

RW: Congratulations on your IAF Young Space Leaders 2017 award! How were you inspired to consider a career in the space industry & law?

Thank you. I know that there are literally millions of people who do amazing and necessary things everyday and don’t get the opportunity to showcase their passion and talent. I am very grateful that my work has been recognized by the International Astronautic Federation.

Not only did I not imagine having a career in the space industry, I didn’t imagine that I would have had such a wide array of experiences in the industry. I have worked as a consultant for Euroconsult, a boutique consulting company in Montreal, Canada that serves the space sector, I have worked at the Nigerian Space Agency in Legal Affairs and International Cooperation, I was executive director of the World Space Week Association coordinating the global response to a UN declaration that World Space Week should be celebrated from October 4-10 each year.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear “space law is a real thing? Tell me about it!” By sharing my story with others, people share their stories with me, so I’ve met a lot of people I ordinarily wouldn’t have met through being in the space industry.

I have been a researcher in space issues doing a PhD in Space Law at McGill University and researching the link between space and climate change in my current role as a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. I’ve also had the opportunity to support space initiatives such as the New York Centre for Space Entrepreneurship and act as Associate Chair for the space policy, law and economics department of the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program.

What I love best about this career choice is interacting with smart people who do things that I can’t, like build rockets and satellites and the inspirational and wow factor of space. I get to have really cool conversations with people because space is such a great conversation starter. I can’t tell you how many times I hear “space law is a real thing? Tell me about it!” By sharing my story with others, people share their stories with me, so I’ve met a lot of people I ordinarily wouldn’t have met through being in the space industry.

RW: Did you need any specific education or training in order to qualify for your current role?

I currently work for a think tank that makes a difference in today’s world by bringing clarity and innovative thinking to global policy making, focusing on governance of the global economy, global security and politics, and international law. The required attributes for my job are reading and writing skills, creativity to come up with new ideas, public speaking as there are lot of presentations and relationship building and networking to share ideas and to influence.

While I worked as a consultant during my PhD studies, doing a PhD was a good way to develop all these skills. One of the best things that I did was to write regular opeds for a newspaper on space issues as they affect Africa and this was really useful for my current job because I had to learn how to communicate clearly to a general audience, in an actionable/call to action manner, which is different from academia. For my role as associate chair at ISU [International Space University], a PhD is not required, rather creativity, teaching and mentoring and organizational skills, but it demonstrates an interest and commitment to the area which gives a bit more credibility with the students.

Having started my career in Nigeria and with a space law background, people are often surprised that I have been able to have all these exciting international experiences! I think most people think that because space law is such a niche area, that it would be hard to find work.

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty

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

Having started my career in Nigeria and with a space law background, people are often surprised that I have been able to have all these exciting international experiences! I think most people think that because space law is such a niche area, that it would be hard to find work. However, I think that most people have to be creative about what they do when they take the path I’ve taken. There are not many jobs with the tag  “space law” in the description and nationality can be an issue with finding work.

My ability to connect with people is what has set me apart, not necessarily knowledge of law or technical skills. I’m ultimately a communicator and my passion for space policy is my story.

I was born in the UK so it is easier for me to get over the nationality issue but I have found that my ability to connect with people is what has set me apart, not necessarily knowledge of law or technical skills. I’m ultimately a communicator and my passion for space policy is my story. Working on my post-doctoral fellowship in international environmental law with a focus on climate change has taught me how to better communicate to non-space people, which I think is very important. Sometimes space people are so used to talking to themselves that they are not persuasive and can seem out of touch when they speak to non-experts, many of whom are key decision makers and influencers.

Sometimes space people are so used to talking to themselves that they are not persuasive and can seem out of touch when they speak to non-experts, many of whom are key decision makers and influencers.

 RW: What does an average day in your job look like?

There’s quite a bit of travel involved in my work but core to my everyday are the following 6 steps. Read a lot, think a lot, write a lot, find someone to share my idea with and see what they think, Incorporate their feedback. Repeat. In my work there is not really someone on top of you, so you have to be a self-starter, and keep yourself on track. It is really great to have the freedom that I have. I also have to look for opportunities to present my work, and stakeholders that would be interested in it.

If I take my experience, my Dad was a fantastic role model but I was always thinking he was on my case and pressuring me, like many immigrant parents. Now I see all that he tried to do for me and exposed me to and how he has tried to live his life as an example.

RW: Who were your role models when you were growing up?  How important are role models to young girls?

Role models are so important however, it takes a special child to realize the exposure they have and make use of role models that out there. If I take my experience, my Dad was a fantastic role model but I was always thinking he was on my case and pressuring me, like many immigrant parents. Now I see all that he tried to do for me and exposed me to and how he has tried to live his life as an example. One of the defining people he put in front of me was a math tutor when I was 14. Before I met this math tutor my grades were poor. Not because of lack of intelligence but simply lack of effort.

In a few short months, with this math tutor my grades went from C’s to A’s. I attribute this to one single factor. The math tutor built my self-confidence and made me feel like I was important and worth investing in. He taught me so much that went beyond math and spilled in to all my other subjects and my sense of self-worth. I’ll never forget during one of our tea breaks, I was slurping my tea, and he said to me “Timi why are you slurping your tea? Don’t you know you are too special and important not to have good manners?” That may seem like a trivial example, from a retired very British man, but I always left my math session feeling slightly better and more refined in some way.

For me, I’ve always been inspired by what I do, and it just so happens to pay the bills. I have been able to get recognition for the things I do and inspire a few people along the way.

So many young girls grow up like I did feeling like they are not important or will not make a difference in life, even when they are as lucky as I was to have supportive parents. How then is it for children who do not have a stable home life, nor have someone fighting for them or have examples of people who are successful. By successful I don’t just mean material wealth as a measure of success but knowing how to define success holistically. For me, I’ve always been inspired by what I do, and it just so happens to pay the bills. I have been able to get recognition for the things I do and inspire a few people along the way. I’ve received 4 awards in the past 2 years after overcoming tragedy and know my purpose. I have married my best friend someone who is my number one cheerleader. These things make me feel successful.

I come from a family of achievers. The Aganaba clan are doing interesting things so I don’t have to look far beyond my immediate and extended family to get inspired. I lived with my cousin Tukeni Obasi for a year and she opened my eyes to what hard work looked like.

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty with her husband Jean-Moise Jeanty

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty with her husband Jean-Moise Jeanty

RW: How did your family help to shape your career path?

I come from a family of achievers. The Aganaba clan are doing interesting things so I don’t have to look far beyond my immediate and extended family to get inspired. I lived with my cousin Tukeni Obasi for a year and she opened my eyes to what hard work looked like. My dad, Dr Tari Aganaba has always encouraged me that the world is my oyster even though there have been set backs along the way.

When I doubt myself, he [my husband] is always there to remind me that he is my number one cheerleader. At the dinner table, he asks me questions like, “What will you win a Nobel peace prize for?”

Now I attribute my success to my husband Jean-Moise Jeanty. When I doubt myself, he is always there to remind me that he is my number one cheerleader. At the dinner table, he asks me questions like, “What will you win a Nobel peace prize for?” He keeps me on track with my walk with God and on my personal goals.  It doesn’t sound politically correct to say this but I think that the narrative that young women hear that they don’t need a man is unhelpful. While you should not be defined by your relationship status and should not feel any less of a person because you have not found the right person or are not looking, finding my partner has brought joy and wholeness to my life and being a loyal, humble and supportive wife is something that I continuously strive to achieve. Thank you baby for being you!

RW: What else did you want to be when you were growing up?

I always wanted to be lawyer because I hated the idea of people being mistreated and felt called to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.  Unfortunately, my law undergrad experience did not live up to the legal drama TV shows, nor did working in a law firm. I am thankful I found space law because the international aspects of it, as well as diplomacy which sparked my new-found passion in law. However, I’m now more drawn to public policy because law is simply one tool in the tool box to meet specific objectives that impact society.

I graduated from primary school at 10 and was about to start secondary school. I was young and had no idea of my value. I had no idea that I could be someone of influence, or someone that could inspire others. I would tell myself that I am important and that I can do anything that I put my heart to.

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

I graduated from primary school at 10 and was about to start secondary school. I was young and had no idea of my value. I had no idea that I could be someone of influence, or someone that could inspire others, or someone that could find purpose through taking a road less travelled. I would tell myself that I am important and that I can do anything that I put my heart to. I would tell myself that I have the voice that can speak for the voiceless and that if I stay grounded, God will perform amazing things through me.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sophia Nasr, Astrophysicist, University of California (UC) Irvine

26 June, 2017
Sophia Nasr, Astrophysicist, University of California (UC) Irvine

Sophia Nasr, Astrophysicist, University of California (UC) Irvine

Trailblazing Astrophysicist Sophia Nasr on her career in astrophysics, overcoming societal barriers, realising her own dream and the one piece of advice for her 10-year-old self.

On being inspired to choose a career in astrophysics:

I began my undergrad not quite knowing what I wanted to do. I had a “dream” of being a medical doctor imprinted on my brain (I put “dream” in quotes because it wasn’t really my dream—it’s what my father’s dream was). I knew I needed to discover who I was.

As a child, the questions that fascinated me were all related to space: What are black holes? What is dark matter? How did the Universe begin, and how will it end? Does life exist beyond Earth? (How could it NOT exist beyond Earth in such a vast Universe?!) With all we know about this Universe we live in, there’s far more that we don’t know, and these questions burned like embers in my mind when I began my undergrad. That’s when I realized I wanted to study astrophysics, to be able to work on figuring this type of stuff out. So, I enrolled in the program, and a couple of years down the road, I met a professor who I’d work with for the rest of my undergrad (and continue to work with today): Dr. Sean Tulin.

Under the supervision of Dr. Tulin, I started working on a type of dark matter that interacts with itself, called Self-Interacting Dark Matter. The beautiful thing about this research is that I get to use all my favorite disciplines to tackle problems we are trying to solve: cosmology, particle theory, and astrophysics! It was through this research that I realised astroparticle theory was what I wanted to work on. This is when I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to physics. And, here I am, off to work on my PhD in Physics at UC Irvine this fall!

My biggest role model was Albert Einstein. I loved his brilliance, and always wanted to have a brain that worked the way his did.

On the brilliance of Albert Einstein:

My biggest role model was Albert Einstein. I loved his brilliance, and always wanted to have a brain that worked the way his did. It probably stemmed from my affinity with mathematics, which I probably owe to my Dad; he has a PhD in Applied Statistics, and as a child, he’d teach me math beyond the elementary school curriculum. I loved it so much that when I wanted to play a game, I’d ask my dad to make me a math test! And I think I wanted to build a brain like that of Einstein. I laugh saying this now, not because I think Einstein is out of my, or anyone’s, league, but because everyone is different, and being “brilliant” comes in many forms.

I also enjoyed Bill Nye’s TV show “Bill Nye The Science Guy”. But I also had different role models—singers, and actors. I really liked the entertainment industry and wanted to be part of it. I think my childhood was a rather diverse one.

I thought I’d likely end up in some medical field during my youth. I also enjoyed music, singing, and playing guitar, so I thought these things would be part of who I would become. Eventually, I realized physics was where my heart lies, in those burning questions that remain unsolved today.

Sophia Nasr working out equations for her dark matter research

Sophia Nasr working out equations for her dark matter research

On whether there was anything unexpected during her career journey:

Absolutely. For starters, I thought I’d likely end up in some medical field during my youth. I also enjoyed music, singing, and playing guitar, so I thought these things would be part of who I would become. Eventually, I realized physics was where my heart lies, in those burning questions that remain unsolved today. That being said, I plan to pursue the entertainment industry, using my knowledge of physics to help people learn about this mysterious Universe we live in, and make learning about it fun!

On what helps her get through a stressful and bad day:

One easy answer to this—my hamster Neutrini! You may wonder about his name, and it came from these “tinisymmetric particles” I came up with (tinisymmetry is not a theory, it’s just a naming scheme for furry little friends, taking a particle and replacing the last letter with an “i”, or appending an “i” to it, depending which particle it is). So Neutrini is the tinisymmetric partner of the neutrino, and I named him that way because he’s tiny, very quick, and when I first got him, he was so reluctant to interact that when I’d put my hand in his cage, he’d seem to run through it, much like neutrinos just pass through matter! Now it’s less of an issue as he’s grown more comfortable with me, so I take this development as me having become a really good detector.

Animals in general get me through bad days. I tend to be great with squirrels, and most of the ones on campus know me because I carry a bag of peanuts for them!

Sophia graduating from York University, with a B.Sc. in Astrophysics with Specialized Honors. Wearing a custom dark matter print dress from Shenova Fashion! The dark matter print is from the Millennium Simulation. #GeekChic

Sophia graduating from York University, with a B.Sc. in Astrophysics with Specialized Honors. Wearing a custom dark matter print dress from Shenova Fashion! The dark matter print is from the Millennium Simulation. #GeekChic

On following her own dreams:

As a child, I thought I’d end up in the field of medicine because it was my father’s dream, what he wanted me to be. I later learned I loved playing the guitar and singing! I have an electric guitar that I eventually stopped playing because I didn’t have an amp, so it didn’t sound good playing without one. I still have my guitar, and perhaps will take on learning it again sometime.

On whether science has become more inclusive for women:

I want to say it has, but the disparity remains. Faculty in physics are by far men, white men, with women comprising only a small percentage. I am pleased to say that the number of women going into the fields of physics and astronomy has grown, which tells me that change is on the horizon! There are, however, remaining concerns with regards to the treatment of women in the field, and these need to be addressed. Women need to feel safe going into the fields of physics and astronomy, and feel safe remaining in them. It’s not enough to bring women into the field, when they may leave anyway due to issues like harassment.

We need to listen to people of colour, to hear what they say, and help solve these problems and make them feel safe going into these fields, and again, safe to remain in these fields.

I am also concerned with the disparity between people of colour versus white people in the field. This stems from societal barriers people of colour face. This needs to be addressed. We need to listen to people of colour, to hear what they say, and help solve these problems and make them feel safe going into these fields, and again, safe to remain in these fields. This was probably the most noticeable gap I saw in my undergrad, and we need to work to change this.

While I’m speaking only of physics and astronomy because this is where my experience comes from, this can be said of most STEM fields. And these problems need to be addressed now. Not tomorrow, but right now. We have a world of women and people of colour that are being discouraged about getting into these fields due to societal barriers. We cannot allow this to continue.

Would I change things? I can’t say I would, because if I did, I might have just fallen into a dream that wasn’t mine.

On the one piece of advice for her 10-year-old self:

One piece of advice to myself: Don’t feel like being good at maths makes you an outcast (because I did feel that way).

One piece of advice that I’d give to any 10-year-old child: Never feel discouraged to be who you are, to do what you want to do and what you are good at. You are the determining factor of what you love. There will be obstacles, but never stop aiming for your dream, whatever that dream may be.

Would I change things? I can’t say I would, because if I did, I might have just fallen into a dream that wasn’t mine. I think I needed to take the path in life I did to get where I have. I’ve learned things I’d otherwise never have known, and in the end, discovered myself, who I am, what I’m good at. And I can say I’m genuinely happy today.

Follow Sophia at astropartigirl.com & on Twitter @Astropartigirl!

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.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Madhurita Sengupta, Program Manager, American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA)

10 June, 2017
Madhurita during a flight on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft

Madhurita during a flight on NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft

At the age of 8, Madhurita Sengupta was transfixed during a visit to NASA’s Mission Control Centre and declared that she would work there some day. Seventeen years later she did just that, going on to train astronauts and work on commercial launch activities. Madhurita tells Rocket Women about her passion for human spaceflight and her impressive career journey.

On how she was inspired to consider a career in the space industry:

I’ve had a passion for space since I was very young – I still remember peering through astronomy books I brought home from the library and deciding I wanted to be an astrophysicist after I learned more about Sally Ride. At age 8, my family and I visited the NASA Johnson Space Center, and as we visited the Mission Control Viewing Room, I remember sitting transfixed by the hustle and bustle of our nation’s human spaceflight program. I came home from that trip declaring I’d work in Mission Control one day and eventually become an astronaut. The dream never escaped me, and seventeen years later, I sat in Mission Control, working with my very first crew on-orbit.

I came home from that trip declaring I’d work in Mission Control one day and eventually become an astronaut. The dream never escaped me, and seventeen years later, I sat in Mission Control, working with my very first crew on-orbit.

On the education and training needed to qualify for her current role: 

I began my career at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a Space Station Robotics Instructor, where I taught astronauts how to operate the robotic systems on the International Space Station (ISS). In this capacity, I trained the crews of Expedition 21, STS-132, and STS-135 (the last Space Shuttle flight)

For this role, I completed a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and participated in the Cooperative Education Program, while I was pursuing the degree. This program enabled me to take semesters off from school to gain real-world experience in various parts of NASA JSC.

Through this period, in the U.S., our nation’s space policy was shifting slowly over the previous few years, and I began to take an interest in understanding the changes and their effects. In 2011, upon the completion of the Space Shuttle Program, I decided to go to graduate school to study public policy, to specifically learn how policy is developed and implemented, so I could bring that knowledge back to developing future space policy. As space has traditionally been used as a foreign policy tool, I decided to concentrate my studies on International Relations.

Upon completion of my graduate work, I began working for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which is responsible for ensuring public safety during commercial launch and re-entry activities and, more broadly, promoting the commercial space industry in the U.S. This role allowed me to combine and apply my technical and policy backgrounds and contribute towards developing strategy and policy for my organization.

After some time in AST, I began my current role at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), as the Program Manager responsible for the planning and execution of the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to be held in Washington, D.C., in October 2019. This role has been the perfect culmination of the knowledge and skills I’ve developed thus far in my career, as I’ve been able to use my experiences within different parts of the space industry, as well as my academic work in international relations.

I have no regrets. I’ve had incredible experiences in all of my roles, and I’ve been able to pursue my biggest passion in life. My journey thus far has helped me appreciate the old adage, “The only constant is change.”

Madhurita with astronaut Ron Garan during a training session to practice a spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

Madhurita with NASA astronaut Ron Garan during a training session to practice a spacewalk in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

I began my career at the Johnson Space Center thinking it would be where I’d stay for my entire career.

On her career journey and unexpectedly leaving the world of NASA behind:

Given my consistent interest in human spaceflight through my formative years, I began my career at the Johnson Space Center thinking it would be where I’d stay for my entire career. I think the most unexpected thing in my journey thus far was leaving that world behind. To be sure, I have no regrets. I’ve had incredible experiences in all of my roles, and I’ve been able to pursue my biggest passion in life. My journey thus far has helped me appreciate the old adage, “The only constant is change.”

On growing up with an Indian background and how her family helped to shape her career path:

My parents instilled values shaped by the dedication and perseverance they displayed as they raised my brother and me. Education was of course highly regarded, and math and science was seen as a cornerstone of that education. They supported my interests from the very beginning, and I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had because of their support.

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis's Flight Deck

Madhurita on the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis’s Flight Deck

On what helps her get through a stressful and bad day:

It will sound a little clichéd, but I tend to gravitate towards reminders of my passion and why I’ve pursued the career I’ve chosen. Something as simple as a picture from crew onboard the International Space Station, a recording of a conversation I had with the very first Space Shuttle crew I trained, or just stepping outside at night to look at the Moon (something I loved doing when my family and I would take road trips, and I could see the Moon out of my window). My passion in life is and always will be human spaceflight. When I’m having a bad day, I just have to take a few moments to remember what I’m grateful for and appreciate the journey I’ve been fortunate enough to take.

On the one piece of advice for her 10-year-old self:

Be open to change. Life is never a series of events planned on a particular timeline. Embrace the unexpected. Life’s too short to worry about what can’t be controlled.

Inspiration, STEM TV & Movies

Seat 25: A Story of Determination

8 January, 2017
Seat 25 - Faye Banks, played by Madeline Cooke, imagining a journey to Mars [Seat 25]

Seat 25 – Faye Banks, played by Madeleine Cooke, imagining a journey to Mars [Seat 25]

“This is the story of an ordinary woman. But like all ordinary people, she’s capable of doing something extraordinary. This is Faye.” – Seat 25

What would you do if you won a seat on a mission to Mars? Would you leave everything behind to follow a life-long dream?

Seat 25 is set five years after NASA has found liquid water on Mars, all contact has been lost to the planet due to changes in the Martian atmosphere. However, entrepreneur Michael Macmillan is ‘preparing the first manned mission to the Red Planet, with a seat reserved for an ordinary person willing to do something extraordinary’.

And that person is Faye. Faye, a British woman in red with a seemingly normal life, “a life Faye has weaved for herself, one tiny web lost among billions of tiny webs all covering a vast planet.” Faye was inspired by space when she was young, especially by the first British astronaut Helen Sharman. Her love for space seemed to have been sparked by a teacher’s comment at school, “What was so remarkable about Helen Sharman, not only was she the first Briton in space, she was also a woman. How many of you girls will leave such an impression?”

“Mars is breathtaking. One hundred years ago astronomers were looking up at the canals, convinced that intelligent life was living there. And here we are now, looking up at that same planet convinced that any time now it’ll be us up there.” – Faye Banks, Seat 25

Throughout the film Seat 25 we follow Faye’s journey as she learns of her chance to go to Mars and subsequent agonising decisions of whether to leave her carefully constructed life behind. Less than 30% of speaking film roles are given to women in Hollywood, making it no surprise that lead space and sci-fi characters are predominantly male. Seat 25, directed by Nicholas Agnew, provides a refreshing take on the space genre, depicting a relatable and inspiring female character finally realising her dreams and taking a chance.

Seat 25 - What Happens When You Win A One Way Trip To Mars? [Seat 25]

Seat 25 – What Happens When You Win A One Way Trip To Mars? [Seat 25]

Rocket Women had the fortune of speaking to Madeleine Cooke, who plays Faye Banks in Seat 25 along with co-producing and co-writing the film.

What inspired you to write SEAT 25?

Nicholas who co-wrote the screenplay and myself both wanted to make a film about space and in particular the exploration of other planets and worlds and this is something that really interests us as people. The basic story for SEAT 25, the idea that someone could win a ticket to Mars was inspired by Mars One and their competition to Mars. I read an article in a newspaper about someone who was now in the ‘Mars 100′ and was hoping to be eventually chosen and win the competition. It made me wonder about the type of person would be willing to leave earth forever and start a new life on Mars? What would be there reasons? How might winning affect them? We have also more recently been greatly inspired by SpaceX and their plans for Mars. Elon Musk in particular was big inspiration for the character of ‘Macmillan’ in SEAT 25 and is a bit of a personal hero.

It was also extremely important to me that the central character be a women as women in both film and science are so terribly under represented. I would love to think that SEAT 25 and the character of ‘Faye’ captured young women with ambition and encouraged them to dream big.

What were your aims behind the project?

The idea of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is something that really appeals to me as a screenwriter so it was very important to have a relatable person like ‘Faye’ as our central character. It was also extremely important to me that the central character be a women as women in both film and science are so terribly under represented. I would love to think that SEAT 25 and the character of ‘Faye’ captured young women with ambition and encouraged them to dream big.

I love the scene where Faye discovers her space toys and posters from when she was young. Were you interested in space or science when younger as your character Faye was?

You have found me out! Yes that part in particular had a lot of me in it and as a screenwriter I think you can’t help but put a lot of yourself in your characters to an extent. Certainly for me there is a lot of me in ‘Faye’. I have always been fascinated with space and as a little girl I dreamt about leaving earth and visiting other planets. The Apollo missions were also inspirations for SEAT 25 and greatly inspired me as a child.

You both co-wrote and co-produced Seat 25, impressively along with playing the lead role of Faye. How did you balance these during the film’s production?

I loved playing the character of ‘Faye’ and I was able to balance my other roles really due having an such a great team of people working with me and Nick on SEAT 25. There was only really 4 of us working on SEAT 25 but everyone was hard workers and were all very passionate about the project which was incredible.

The brilliant Seat 25 recently won awards for Best Feature Film and the Jury Prize at the Raw Science Film Festival in LA, the Best Feature Film at the Birmingham Film Festival and an award for the Best British Film at the London Film Awards in January 2017! Make sure you catch this movie at a film festival near you soon! (Seat 25 is due to open the Vault Film Festival on January 28th in London)