Visible Women

Meet the woman who keeps astronauts safe in space

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. Here, we talk to Libby Jackson, Human Spaceflight and Microgravity Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency.

Libby Jackson spent her childhood dreaming of space.

“If I could tell my younger self what I’m doing now, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible,” she says over a phone call, discussing her selection as Stylist’s first ever Woman of the Week. 

“In 2015 I found myself in the Science Museum with over 3,000 screaming children watching Tim Peake go into space. I realised I was standing next to Helen Sharman [the first British astronaut and woman to visit the Mir space station in 1991], and it dawned on me I had found myself at the heart of this world I had dreamed of [as a child].”

Jackson is not just at the heart of the UK space industry: she’s also a vital cog in the machinery that keeps astronauts exploring the wilderness above us. As the Human Spaceflight and Microgravity Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency, she ranks as one of the leading space flight experts in the country, and is responsible for overseeing scientists carrying out experiments on earth and in interplanetary waters up on the International Space Station. 

It’s a role Jackson has been working towards since the age of 17, when she applied for work experience at NASA. It was a long shot, but – to her surprise – it landed. She soon found herself sitting in mission control at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

Nearly 20 years later, she’s a rare female leader in the upper echelons of a field suffering from an intense gender imbalance. Recent research revealed that women only make up 21% of the workforce in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) industries.

A Galaxy of Her Own recounts the stories of 50 inspirational women who’ve been fundamental to space exploration 

Jackson has overseen such triumphs as the educational programme surrounding Tim Peake’s 2015/16 mission to the ISS, reaching 1.6 million children across the country. She has also penned a children’s book – A Galaxy of One’s Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space – which highlights the contributions women have made to humanity’s efforts to explore the cosmos. 

“I knew this is where I wanted to be,” Jackson says of that first day at NASA. “I was not a cool or popular kid at school – even at an all-girls’ school, people judged me because I liked physics and maths. My parents have always been incredibly supportive and said ‘Just go and do what you what you want to.’”

As far as her advice for young girls who want to follow in her footsteps goes, Jackson says: “All I want any young child to realise is anything is possible. You have to work hard and be determined but whatever your passions and interests are, you should follow them.

“As I’ve got older, I’ve tried things I thought were impossible like running the London Marathon or writing a book. You just chip away and suddenly, you’ve found you’ve [achieved] them.”

A Galaxy of Her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space by Libby Jackson is out now (Penguin Random House, £16.99).

Throughout 2018, Stylist will be raising the profiles of important women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women initiative. To find out more, click here

Main image: Tom Griffiths