Life

4 things you never knew about space travel according to a space engineer

Whether it’s how your body changes without gravity or how a person can ever be fully prepared to go into orbit, there are plenty of burning questions when it comes to space. We spoke to one woman who has the answers…

Space is something equally fascinating and inaccessible.

Whether it’s growing up with films like Apollo 13, having those fluorescent stars glued to your bedroom ceiling or imagining walking on the moon, most of us have had some kind of superficial brush with it.

But what goes on behind the curtain? We spoke to space operations engineer Vinita Marwaha Madill to scrape below the surface and find out exactly what goes into space travel.

Design impacts everything

“When I was at the International Space University in France, I studied space engineering, but there was also a course on space biology and space medicine.

“I went along to a lecture on spacesuit design one day and decided that’s what I wanted to do. I managed to find an internship in spacesuit design at the European Space Agency and I worked on something called the skinsuit.

“When astronauts are carrying out six-month missions in space, they lose 2-3% of their bone mass and they also grow 5-6cm in height. For example, Anne McClain – an astronaut who’d just returned from the International Space Station – grew about 5cm in the first four months she was there.

“It’s a real problem because spinal growth and spinal elongation can be quite painful for astronauts. It’s also something we need to look forward to and mitigate when it comes to exploring Mars.

“Journeys to Mars will take over six months, both there and back, and we need to be able to prevent this from happening. 

“We developed a suit that recreates the effects of gravity on the skeleton – it compresses your body from your shoulders to your feet.

“The technology used in the panels makes sure that spinal elongation doesn’t occur to the extent that it does at the moment, and it could be a countermeasure we can use for lunar exploration and visiting Mars. 

“That design was something I was really proud of so I was pleased to hear that Specsavers are supporting up and coming design talent like Joshua Teodoro. He’s taken inspiration from space travel and the NASA red stripe to design a range of frames.

“We have missions that are almost a year long, so spacesuit design is becoming an ongoing issue we need to look at.”

There’s still work to be done for equality

“The stereotype of an engineer needs to change. We need to make sure that women know it’s OK to be interested in engineering and it’s great to be smart.

“If you look at the future, there are so many jobs that are integral to technological engineering, so it’s important for women to feel comfortable in a technical environment.”

“Take, for instance, the UK – only 12% of all engineers are female. That’s the lowest in Europe. 

“To ensure that we have equal talent, we need to inspire the next generation of young girls growing up to want to study science and engineering.

“There are all these amazing stories that inspired me, such as British astronaut Helen Sharman, but their stories weren’t being heard.  

“I started a website called Rocket Women, which made sure that these role models were tangible and visible to inspire the next generation. 

“I was really inspired by a quote from US astronaut Sally Ride. She said, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ I think that’s so very true.”

It’s about changing the world as well as space

“One thing people don’t hear about are the benefits that space technology has on Earth today. 

“In the 1980s, when we were developing new space suits, we were looking at different materials that would protect the astronauts during space walks. 

“We looked at something called ‘phase-changing materials’, which maintain a current temperature for the astronauts while they’re in the spacesuit. 

“We didn’t use that in the spacesuit, but that technology was then used to develop incubators for premature babies. 

“The incubators cost around $200 each and that’s 1% of the cost of an incubator today. Those have been used in developing countries around the world and helped hundreds and thousands of premature babies.”

There are places on the planet that prepare you for space

“The biggest challenge we’re facing for the future is the medical aspect of space travel. 

“We need to learn how to overcome the effects of radiation on the human body when we carry out long duration exploration, and also how to prevent the bone loss we see on the International Space Station today. 

“To design these technologies, we’re not only using the International Space Station, but also places on Earth that are similar to space.”

“We’re using something called NEEMO, which is based in the Florida Keys. It’s 60ft under water, so it’s essentially a mini-habitat for astronauts to stay in.

“They carry out experiments and practice space walks where they test out the technology that will eventually be used to go to the moon in the future.

“We’re working on these problems today – and we’re working on them with Earth-based solutions.”

Vinita wears the space travel-inspired glasses and sunglasses from Specsavers new range, Design Collective. 

The unique collection of 14 glasses and sunglasses, designed by four students, draws on their own personal inspirations to create a range that celebrates individuality, encouraging everyone to wear their specs with pride. For the collection, designer Joshua Teodoro was inspired by space travel and uses space as a metaphor for the creative process.

Vinita wears: Look 1; dress by Finery, earrings by Vieri Fine Jewellery, trainers by Adidas, Look 2; dress by Finery, earrings by Whistles, Look 3; blouse by Alexis, jeans by Goldsign, slingbacks by Rupert Sanderson, earrings by Vieri Fine Jewellery.