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Interview with a Space Operations Engineer.

Isla Macneil

We were lucky enough to interview Vinita Maarwaha Madill.  She is a Space Operations Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA) and runs the incredible Rocket Women, a site devoted to encouraging girls to get involved in STEM.
This is Vinita.
Hi Vinita, can you tell us a little bit about yourself.  What is your job? 

 

I’m a Space Operations Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands working on future human spaceflight projects. Prior to this, I worked in Canada and as an International Space Station (ISS) Operations Engineer at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and at the European Space Agency (ESA) focusing on spacesuit design & EVA (spacewalk) training. As an Operations Engineer I work on-console, in an environment similar to a smaller version of NASA’s Mission Control. My typical day involves supporting astronauts onboard the International Space Station to carry out experiments successfully, developing new experiment with scientists, helping to train astronauts on experiments and equipment they might use on the ISS and writing crew astronaut procedures. The most important skills for an ISS Operations Engineer are communication, both on console and with your international colleagues based around the world, and more specifically, the ability to think quickly to provide an accurate response in case of an anomaly on the ISS.

 Did you always aspire to be in your particular field?

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.

What else did you want to be when you were growing up? 

I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young.

Who were your role models?  Are these still the same?  If not, who are your role models now?

 I’ve always being inquisitive about space and I remember being an enthralled six-year-old when I learned that the first British astronaut, chemist Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station. 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. She's still my role model now and I very much hope to meet her someday! I'd also consider NASA astronaut Sunita Williams a role model and I was fortunate to be able to work alongside her at ESA. I’m also lucky to have had adults, both parents and great teachers, around me at a young 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, UK on the weekends to experience space hardware firsthand and thankfully let me spend hours reading about space.

 What training/qualifications did you need to gain?

Wanting to be an astronaut, I printed the astronaut candidate guidelines, from NASA’s website, at the library when I was 12 and stuck them to the inside cover of my school folder, as a daily reminder of how to reach my goal and set my focus on achieving them. Those guidelines set the direction for my career. The first guideline said that a candidate had to have a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, biology, physics or mathematics.

Knowing this, I studied Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology at A Level and then went on to study a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Physics with Astrophysics at King’s College London. Whilst at King’s I heard of a fantastic organization called UK Students for the Education and Development of Space (UKSEDS). I attended the UKSEDS conference in Milton Keynes, at which I met both somebody from the International Space University (ISU) and met space operations engineers for the first time, including somebody I would end up working with 5 years later in Germany. I went to the International Space University for both a fantastic summer programme called the Space Studies Program which is an excellent step to the space industry, and a Masters degree in Space Management. I also completed a Masters degree in Astronautics and Space Engineering at Cranfield University in the UK.

What are you favourite things about your job?

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 work with colleagues from all around the world to design future human spaceflight projects.

I also enjoyed working at the European Astronaut Centre on spacesuit design and spacewalk training. A spacesuit is essentially a small anthropomorphic spacecraft. Creating this requires thousands of hours of work. The Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit Project that I’ve worked on, initially as a Trainee at ESA and later as a consultant, has taken almost 10 years of research and development in order to finally be able to be launched and to be used on the ISS, with a core team currently of around 20 people. Initial design and performance evaluations of the suit were conducted in a series of ground-based studies, including sleep studies. Parabolic flights were also carried out to test the fit of the suit prior to the space debut of the suit on the ISS. The suit was evaluated onboard the station by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen in September 2015 during which assessments were made into its ability to counteract spinal elongation, prevent lower back pain and measure it’s loading effectiveness. Astronauts carrying out 6-month missions on the ISS, including Tim Peake, can grow up to 5 to 7 centimeters in height, with the spinal growth causing tension in the vertebrae and back pain.

Is there anything that you would like to add?

 Only 6% of UK engineering workforce are female, meaning that UK companies are missing out on almost 50% of their engineering talent. This is coupled with the fact that girls make up under 20% of students taking Physics A-level. My passion, and the goal of my website Rocket Women, is to try and reverse this trend by inspiring girls globally to consider a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths).

 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 giv

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. 


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