Space engineer Vinita Marwaha Madill (@Rocket_Woman1) believes more people need to experience the ‘overview effect’ – the life-changing feeling of seeing Earth from space, to realize our interconnectedness and the planet’s fragility. And as we push the boundaries of human space exploration, we’ll need the best possible talent on board – that’s why Vinita started Rocket Women, an initiative inspiring diverse young talent to pursue a career in space.
I talk to Vinita as part of Tomorrow Unlocked’s audio series Fast Forward about what future space exploration will look like.
Ken: Tell us about the Rocket Women initiative.
Vinita: Rocket Women is a global initiative founded in 2012 that aims to empower diverse young women to choose a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM.)
In the UK only 12 percent of engineers are women and less than 8 percent are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. The goal of Rocket Women is to reverse this trend by giving inspirational women worldwide a platform to share advice and have their voices heard.
We want Rocket Women to show diverse young women and girls globally they can be astronauts, scientists, engineers or whatever they aim to be. We need diversity in space and technology so the professions reflect more of society. Now more than ever, we need all available talent to solve the hard problems facing the world.
Ken: Relatively few women seemed to have been involved in the Apollo space program, and their contributions were not fully acknowledged at the time. But now there is a larger number and diversity of backgrounds. What’s changed?
Vinita: Much has changed since Sally Ride became the first US woman in space in 1983. Many women contribute to the space career program today. In 2016 NASA had its first 50 percent female astronaut class.
But there are still social and cultural barriers girls experience from a young age that society needs to overcome. One is equal access to education. We have more work to do there, but it’s more equal than it was a few years ago.
Ken: In Rocket Women’s mission statement, you talk about trying to prevent unconscious bias. What kind of unconscious bias is influencing space exploration?
Vinita: Language represents biases that have been there from the early days of the space program. NASA has made some changes to their publications and language, like changing ‘manned’ to ‘crewed.’
We’re still using space suits designed in the 1970s on the International Space Station (ISS.) We saw repercussions in 2019 with suit design delaying the first all-female spacewalk. NASA has been working on a new suit design that can provide for everyone, from the smallest female to the largest male.
Ken: If you think of the old space race – cold war era – versus the new space race, what attitudes and pathways have changed?
Vinita: The role of global space agencies is shifting. Working with business has been a great step, such as getting astronauts to and from the space station through Elon Musk’s space transportation company SpaceX. We’re looking at how the commercial sector will be part of space exploration in future.
We’re making space accessible to many more people. I look forward to the day everyone can see Earth from space. It encourages people to see Earth without divisions – astronauts call it the overview effect. It reinforces our interconnectedness and shows how fragile Earth is.
Ken: Space still feels like the rich people’s game: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson. It seems you need a few billion in the bank before you can start making space plans.
Vinita: It mustn’t be just wealthy people who get the chance to see Earth from space.
When aviation first started, only people with funds could access it. With space exploration, we need backers and investors to support it now so more people can access space exploration down the line.
For the first all-civilian space mission, Inspiration4, an investor can buy a flight and pay for a member of the public to be aboard too. As a starting point for space tourism, it’s not a bad place.
Ken: Why are we going back to the Moon?
Vinita: We’re seeing a ramping up of interest in lunar orbiting and landing from space agencies, governments and the private sector. Business is looking at providing infrastructure to go back to the Moon, like human landing systems.
The interest in returning to the Moon is driven by science, engineering, technological development and preparing for future exploration. NASA is developing the Gateway – a new mini space station in lunar orbit – with other space agencies, building on the international cooperation that built the ISS.
The Moon is also a science destination and port for future space transportation if we want to, for example, go to Mars. The lunar surface has valuable resources – Helium-3, for example. It’s only three days from Earth, and its low gravity and resources make it ideal for preparing to go further into space.
Ken: There’s a challenge in how to live in an environment our bodies aren’t designed for. The further we go out into space, the more it becomes clear what it means to be human.
Vinita: The further we go out, the more we learn and develop more technology that could help on Earth. Many technologies we use today came from the space program.
We need to develop ways to communicate with astronauts in deep space and telehealth systems for medical emergencies. That technology could help people on Earth who live in remote communities.
If we want to go to Mars, we’ll need a way to provide nutrition for a couple of years. How do we develop nutrition for astronauts that will let them live on the Moon? That may help us find sustainable solutions for feeding a growing population on Earth.
Ken: What do we want from Mars? Why are we going there?
Vinita: We need to go to Mars because humans are innate explorers. The benefits we get from space exploration are altruistic compared to many industries. With the ISS, many countries are working together in space. We want to use that cooperation to go back to the Moon and eventually to Mars. It must be a global effort.
Ken: What factors have brought going to the Moon back into our orbit?
Vinita: NASA, the European and Canadian space agencies have committed funding. Private companies internationally developing robotic technology to go back to the Moon has ignited people’s imaginations. We have political support for the program in the US.
Space exploration needs ongoing, sustained effort. We build up our technology over decades. It’s succeeding now because everyone is working together.
Ken: We have space initiatives in China, India and Israel. What about Russia – one of the original space racers?
Vinita: I was lucky to work with Russian colleagues at the European Space Agency (ESA.) We worked on the European Robotic Arm for the Russian segment of the ISS. It will be launched alongside a new Russian scientific module.
The robotic arm and the new scientific module will mean increased scientific research capacity on the ISS and help them develop new technology, as well as developing the ISS and supporting cosmonaut spacewalks.
Ken: What does the new robotic arm do that previous technology couldn’t?
Vinita: The European Robotic Arm is around 11 meters (36 feet.) It will be launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. It can be operated from both inside and outside the space station. It has an operational console that we’ve trained cosmonauts and instructors to use, which was part of my role.
The robotic arm will build the new modules on the Russian segment of the space station, and it also has more autonomy.
Ken: What’s one thing about the new space race you most want to emphasise?
Vinita: The importance of making sure role models are tangible and visible. I can’t wait for the day the first woman steps foot on the Moon. It will inspire young men and women everywhere.
Vinita Marwaha Madill features in the Tomorrow Unlocked audio series Fast Forward, Episode 6. Listen to Fast Forward and explore more interviews with featured experts.