Tell us about your job. What do you do?
I’m a Space Operations Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA) working on future human spaceflight projects, including the European Robotic Arm (ERA) and future lunar exploration projects.
The European Robotic Arm has been developed by ESA and is soon be launched to the International Space Station (ISS). The European Robotic Arm will help astronauts and cosmonauts carry out spacewalks (or EVAs) and install new parts of the space station.
What does an average day look like for you?
As an Operations Engineer I work on developing the operations for the project – including preparing a smaller version of Mission Control at ESA’s technology centre ESTEC in the Netherlands – and astronaut training.
My typical day could vary from developing astronaut/cosmonaut (Russian astronaut) spacewalk (or EVA) training with colleagues in Russia, to creating and testing missions for the astronauts to control the robotic arm at ESA. Once the robotic arm is launched I’ll be working on-console at ESTEC and from Mission Control in Moscow on robotic arm operations and supporting the spacewalks conducted by the astronauts and cosmonauts on board the ISS.
Having wanted to work in the space industry since I was young, working at the European Space Agency is a dream come true. The environment at ESA is extremely international and I enjoy being able to design future human spaceflight projects with colleagues from all around the world.
How did you first become interested in engineering/what inspired you to be an engineer? How did you end up in such an offbeat and unconventional career?
As a child I was an avid reader and read every space book I could get my hands on.
I’ve always being inquisitive about space and I remember being enthralled, aged six, when I learned that the first British astronaut Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station. In that moment looking at the image of Helen Sharman in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that that woman could be me. Being a girl born at the end of the 80s in the UK I realised right then that maybe, just maybe, I could be an astronaut too. That changed something inside me. Here was a woman born in Sheffield, who had studied chemistry, replied to a radio advert calling for UK astronauts, beat 13,000 applicants and had recently gone to space. She was, although I didn’t know it yet, a role model to me. She showed me at a young age that my dreams were possible.
For me as a child knowing that there had been a British astronaut helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger. Even if the career councillor at school wanted me to become a dentist, I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human spaceflight. And eventually I did, even working with the next British ESA astronaut Tim Peake at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany along with supporting astronauts on the ISS. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me. There had been a British astronaut and maybe there could be again. Here was a British woman involved in human spaceflight and that had flown to space. I knew it was possible.
I’m also extremely lucky to have had adults, both parents and wonderful teachers, around me at that age who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space. My parents helped me greatly, taking me to the National Space Centre in Leicester on the weekends to experience space hardware first-hand and thankfully let me spend hours reading about space.
There are a number of different routes you can take into a career in engineering. What route did you take (and why)?
I’m fortunate to have realized my passion at a young age and told my physics teacher in Year 7 that I wanted to work in NASA’s Mission Control. Throughout my education this drive was supported and 12 years later led me to fulfilling my dream, working on International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Germany’s answer to NASA’s Mission Control and now at ESA.
Knowing I wanted to work in the space industry, whilst at university (King’s College London, University of London) studying Mathematics & Physics with Astrophysics I learned about an organization called UKSEDS (UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), through which I met space professionals for the first time, some of whom I actually went on to work with. I also completed a 9-week course called the Space Studies Program at the International Space University (ISU), which gave me an overall view of the international space industry and was where I decided that I wanted to work on human spaceflight operations, specifically related to spacewalks (EVAs), and spacesuit design.
After this I went on to complete Masters’ degrees in Astronautics and Space Engineering and in Space Management at ISU, to complement the technical skills that I had learnt.
Prior to my current role in the Netherlands, I enjoyed being based at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre focused on spacesuit design and spacewalk training and later operating experiment payloads onboard the ISS at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne, Germany.
How important was studying maths and science in school for what you do now?
A good technical understanding with a solid foundation of maths and science is important to work in space engineering.
Personally, learning fundamental physics and maths at university before applying that knowledge and science in an engineering capacity, has helped a great deal. Engineering is also quite a creative career. Problem solving and lateral thinking are necessary skills daily in my role and to provide solutions to the technological challenges that we face today.
There are fewer women working in engineering than men? What would you say to girls who might be interested in a career in engineering?
If you look at the numbers, on 15% of engineering graduates are female in the UK, with ultimately 9% of engineering professionals in the UK being female.
It’s important to inspire the next generation to consider science and engineering because otherwise there will be massive skills gap in engineering recruitment over the next few years. According to a recent report released by the Young Women’s Trust, one in five schoolchildren would have to become an engineer to fill that gap in the UK.
Encouraging more girls to pursue engineering will help to fill this gap, ensuring that they make up 50% of engineering talent. Moreover, technology and innovation will only reach 50% of its potential if we only have half of the workforce working on it. There also seems like there’s a disconnect between women wanting to make a difference and knowing about the impact of a degree in engineering.
One thing that has always helped to portray the difference that a career in engineering can make, is rather than thinking about the technology itself, think about the impact that technology will make on people. Humanize the technology itself. For example, consider the impact of satellites. Initiatives are now being undertaken to provide affordable internet access worldwide through a constellation of microsatellites. This includes a project called One Web, with the potential to have an unprecedented impact on those around the world without access to basic communication. Rural communities will have high-speed internet access where once there was none, providing education and knowledge to those currently without. The impact of the project is from where, I believe, you can inspire an increasing number of girls to study engineering and space.
What do you like most about engineering?
The ability to make a difference and to inspire the next generation through the work that I do in the space industry especially.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
My passion, and the goal of my website Rocket Women, is to try and reverse the decreasing trend of female representation in STEM careers, by inspiring girls globally to consider a career in science and engineering.
Outside of my day job at ESA, I’m focusing on outreach – I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in projects including a campaign and round table with Instagram and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, highlighting the importance of education.
During my career I’ve met some amazing people — especially other positive female role models. I think you need those role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls to become astronauts, or be whatever they want to be. I started Rocket Women to give these women a voice and a platform to spread their advice. I’m interviewing women around the world in STEM, particularly in space, and posting the interviews on Rocket Women, along with advice to encourage girls to be involved in STEM.
What personal qualities are important for being an engineer?
An inquisitive nature, creativity, patience, being a self-starter and the ability to work well in a team.
If you could go back in time and invent anything, what would it be?
Working on the NASA Apollo A7L and A7LB spacesuits for the Moon would have been a fascinating challenge!
What advice would you give a young person who was considering engineering as a future career?
My advice to those considering their career path is that it’s possible to achieve your goal, whether it’s to work in the space industry or otherwise. It takes hard work and dedication, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Also, in the words of Zena Caldman, NASA Astronaut Candidate (Class of 2017):
“Pursue something that you love. Because if you wake up curious and excited every morning, you’re going to be really happy no matter what the end result is, whatever career you wind up in. Just pursue whatever interests you. You know, I sit here in this blue flight suit, and I have to say it’s possible. So you just have to go for it.”