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Susan Buckle

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

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

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

Susan Buckle taking part in a Zero G flight!

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

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

On her path to the UK Space Agency:

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Buckle with British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake at the BBC

Susan Buckle with British ESA Astronaut Tim Peake at the BBC

On the education needed for her current role:

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

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

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

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

On unexpectedly entering the space industry:

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

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

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

On what she loves about her job:

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

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

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

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

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

On the impact of her family:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question everything.

Education, Inspirational women

Inspired by Space: Engaging Girls in STEM

19 May, 2017

Engaging Girls In STEM [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

Engaging Girls In STEM [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

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

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

Women In STEM Statistics [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

Women In STEM Statistics [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

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

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

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

Women In Science

Women In Science [Copyright: Curved House Kids]

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

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

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

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

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