Men dominate the roll call of people who have been to space, but these three inspirational women are looking for that to change in the future…
On 16 July, it’s 50 years since astronaut Neil Armstrong climbed down the short ladder of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle to step foot on the sterile surface of the moon, declaring it “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
Half a century on, growing numbers of women are carving out some space of their own within a UK sector that fuels an annual yield of billions, ranging from satellite technology to the development of lunar vehicles.
However, the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are still largely male dominated. Here, Stylist catches up with three young women who want that to change, and have ambitions to reach for the stars.
Vinita Marwaha Madill
Vinita is a space operations engineer at the European Space Agency (via TERMA BV) and founder of Rocket Women.
How did you get into the space industry?
I told my physics teacher in Year 7 that I wanted to work in NASA’s Mission Control, and 12 years later I fulfilled my dream, working on International Space Station (ISS) operations in Europe. At university learning physics, I learned about an organisation called UKSEDS (UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space).
What attracted you to working in the industry?
I remember learning at the age of six about the first British astronaut, Dr Helen Sharman, who flew to the Mir space station. Looking at her in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that woman could be me.
What is your typical day/job overview?
As an operations engineer it varies from developing cosmonaut spacewalk training with colleagues in Russia to creating and testing missions for the astronauts to control the European Robotic Arm (ERA), due to be launched to the International Space Station.
What projects are you currently working on?
Operations for future human spaceflight projects, including the European Robotic Arm (ERA). Through Rocket Women, I’ve been involved in a round table on Instagram with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, highlighting the importance of education.
What skills/knowledge/qualifications do you need for your role?
My background is in physics and space engineering. Ultimately, engineering is about problem solving, communication, teamwork and creativity.
What has surprised you most about working in the industry?
It’s inherently global in nature. I work with colleagues from around the world to design future human spaceflight projects. We need this diversity and creativity to solve the problems we have today.
What is the most challenging part of your career so far?
Completing a 9-week course at the International Space University (ISU) in France was life-changing, with daily lectures given by astronauts and space industry experts. It was where I decided to work on human spaceflight operations.
What is your proudest achievement so far?
Contributing to the development of the European Space Agency’s SkinSuit at the European Astronaut Centre. In space, astronauts lose 2-3% bone mass in six months and grow 4-6cm taller – which impacts their spinal health and can be quite painful. The SkinSuit provides loading onto the astronaut’s body, recreating the effect of gravity.
What has surprised you most about the industry?
That Europe has amazing roles in different fields of space, and the UK is a world leader in building communication satellites.
How do you think the industry is perceived by young people?
It’s becoming more accessible to young people. We also need to change the typical stereotype of a space engineer as being usually male and nerdy. Many men and women who work in STEM don’t consider themselves a stereotypical ‘nerd’. Girls also need to know that it’s fine to be nerdy, or simply smart.
Do you think the industry is changing?
NASA and the global space industry are really looking forward. The recent 2017 astronaut class has five girls out of a total of 12 astronauts, with two astronauts selected at 29 years old. That’s close to 10 years between completing Year 13 at secondary school or sixth form, to being selected as an astronaut!
Why would you encourage other young women to consider a career in the space industry?
You can have an amazing impact on the world. And there are lots of different pathways to work in the space industry - through communications, marketing, human resources, graphic design, space policy and law to name a few.
Who are your female space heroes?
One of the most inspirational people that I met whilst teaching on an International Space University (ISU) course at NASA was Jill Tarter – the real-life Ellie Arroway from the film Contact.
Libby is human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency.
Give us an overview of your job.
I look after human exploration, which is everything from astronauts through to scientific experiments on the International Space Station.
What projects are you currently working on?
I work closely with the ESA and we are developing three new experiments here in the UK with UK Space Agency funding that will be on the ISS in the coming years.
What have been the most exciting experiences?
I was lucky enough to do a parabolic flight where the whole aeroplane is in freefall for about 30 seconds and everyone is weightless. It’s an amazing feeling.
Why do we need women in the space industry?
Diversity anywhere only increases the strength of the workforce. Everybody has different skills and takes on the world.
Why should young women consider working in the space industry?
I’d encourage anyone to think about a career in space. The sector is so wide ranging. Space underpins our everyday lives, from checking the weather or using a map app, to getting money from a cash machine. All of these things are enabled by space technology and the satellites in space.
What has been your greatest achievement?
The work we did around Tim Peake’s flight and the education programme, which I managed and drove. We had 34 different projects across the country and engaged at least two million children in one in three schools across the UK.
What are the challenges?
In society, the ‘genderfication’ of greeting cards and other things, with people saying this is what girls do and this is what boys do – that, to me, is what we have to challenge.
Do you face challenges as a woman?
I’m very used to looking around the room and seeing that I’m the only woman. But very rarely do I feel that my colleagues are thinking any less of me. I do think that the sector as a whole is welcoming of women.
Who is your female space hero?
I saw Helen Sharman’s flight to the Mir space station in 1991, and that was an amazing thing to watch.
Shahida is business director at the Swedish Space Corporation’s SSC Space UK.
Tell us about your job.
Defining the overall strategy for growing SSC Space UK, identifying the opportunities within the government and civil space sectors and within institutions. Growing a subsidiary to take advantage of the booming UK space market.
What attracted you to the space industry?
I wanted to be a jet pilot with the Royal Air Force, but I’m too small!
How did you get started?
After studying a degree in aeronautical engineering, I accepted a job as an avionics engineer on Tornadoes at GEC Marconi, but then saw an advert to work at Airbus in the mission and operations team. They offered me a job for less pay, but it was so exciting because it meant working within the space industry.
What has been your greatest challenge?
I became the youngest operations director for the SKYNET5 LEOPs (Launch and Early Operations Phase) satellites, part of the British Military Satellite Programme. We launched three satellites within the space of 12 months. I was the youngest and only female operations director.
Why is it an exciting time to be in the UK space industry?
It’s currently generating upwards of £13bn a year — that’s a lot of money. We want to increase that annual revenue to be 10% of the global space revenue. The UK is really innovative and has a culture of innovation and risk-taking. The government has put in a strong framework to enable innovation, growth and job creation.
Is the industry male dominated?
When I joined Airbus as a graduate, I was probably the only Bangladeshi girl to have gone into the Missions and Operations team, but I’ve never made it about gender or ethnicity. For me, I’ve just wanted to work hard, learn and grow. I’m exceptionally ambitious and wanted to prove to myself that I could be the best at whatever I was working on. But, now I’m in a more senior position I can see that I’m not in a diverse work pool and feel a little sad that, as a whole, UK industry seems to be regressing.
Why should young women work in the space industry?
Why not? It’s highly paid, it’s very sexy and you get to do things that very few jobs offer. I have touched pieces of equipment that are now in space, I get to travel around the world, I meet and work with different cultures. What’s there not to like?
Do you have a typical day?
There isn’t one. You might have one which is exceptionally boring, catching up with emails; then the next day you’re off to a conference; the day after you could be a speaker; then immersed in meetings about the design for a new platform.
Where will women be in the space industry in the next 50 years?
I’m an eternal optimist. We’ve made huge advances in equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. We’ve got a long way to go, but there are many organisations who are really addressing these topics and moving forward. Women have been fundamental to the success of the space industry, from the Moon landing to Israel recently becoming one of the few countries in the world to take a spacecraft to the moon. At every milestone in the space story there has always been a woman involved and this will continue.
Images: Getty, Vinita Marwaha Madill, Michael Cockerham, Shahida Barick