Having been born at the end of the 80s in the UK, and having read about the first British astronaut, chemist Helen Sharman who flew to the Mir space station, Vinita Marwaha Madill had convinced herself that she too could be an astronaut. “Here was a woman in front of me, who had studied chemistry, replied to a radio advert calling for UK astronauts, then beaten 13,000 applicants to go 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,” says Vinita, a space operations engineer.
From NASA’s Mission Control, to International Space Station, to German Aerospace Centre to now ESA (European Space Agency), Vinita’s story is no less of determination, and hope for young girl science pioneers. She is also working towards making the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) easily available for young girls.
When and how did you get the idea to start Rocket-Women.com?
During my career, I’ve met some amazing people — especially other positive female role models. As the first American woman in space said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” A few years ago, I started a website called Rocket Women to give women in science a voice and a platform to spread their advice. I’m interviewing women around the world in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), especially in space, and posting the interviews on Rocket Women and social media channels, along with advice to encourage girls, in particular, to be involved in STEM.
I really think you need those role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls
What does a normal work day for a space operations engineer look like?
I’m based at the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands working on future human spaceflight projects, including the European Robotic Arm (ERA). 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. 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. 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 onboard the ISS.
My typical day could vary from developing astronaut/cosmonaut spacewalk (or EVA) training with colleagues in Russia, to creating and testing missions for the astronauts to control the robotic arm at ESA
Do you come across a lot of women in this field of technology?
A recent study from Microsoft found that 7 out of 10 girls are interested at science when young, however, only 2 out of 10 go on to work in STEM fields
With movies and media portraying mainly male scientists, meeting one female scientist can change the life of a young girl as many don’t realize that a career in STEM is an option. Positive female role models are essential to provide women with examples to look up to when they’re making the most critical decisions in their education or career.
But the number of women working in science and technology that I see around me has been increasing. The recent NASA astronaut class to be selected was 50% female, which does show that there is improvement.
The most challenging and fun part of the job?
The fantastic people I work with are passionate about what they do and that definitely makes space an exciting industry to work in. The most challenging part for me was actually knowing how to get into the industry initially along with finding out what an operations engineer’s job actually entails.
Vinita’s advice to young girls: To pursue their dreams, no matter what and don’t let anybody say no to you.
If not a Space Engineer, Vinita would be…focusing on encouraging an interest in science for young girls and boys.