The Founder of Rocket Women, Vinita Marwaha Madill is a Space Operations Engineer and has been based at the European Space Agency (ESA) (as a contractor via TERMA B.V.) focused on human spaceflight operations for future projects, including the European Robotic Arm to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS). She has worked at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and ESA on International Space Station (ISS) operations and spacesuit design. At ESA's European Astronaut Centre, Vinita helped design the SkinSuit and conducted a study on future spacesuit design for lunar exploration. At the German Aerospace Centre, she guided astronauts through experiments and wrote astronaut procedures in Germany's version of Mission Control.
She studied Mathematics and Physics with Astrophysics at King’s College London and went on to gain master’s degrees in Space Management from the International Space University (ISU) and in Astronautics and Space Engineering from Cranfield University, UK. A fervent advocate for STEM outreach, she founded the platform Rocket Women with the aim to inspire women to study STEM and consider a career in the space industry. Elle magazine named her as one of the '12 Genius Young Women Shaping The Future'.
Vinita spoke with SheThePeople.TV on what drew her to pursue a career in space, her inspirations, her motivations behind founding Rocket Women and the challenges of being a woman of colour in a predominantly male-dominated field.
You were born and brought up in the UK. As early as Grade 7 you were clear that space research is where your interests lay. How was this interest in science and space triggered? What were your initial moments of wonder and discovery about space as a child?
I’ve always being inquisitive about space and I remember learning at the age of six that the first British astronaut, chemist Dr. Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station. At that moment looking at the image of Helen Sharman in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that that woman could be me. Helen Sharman was a role model to me and showed me at a young age that my dreams were possible. I’m also fortunate to have been encouraged at that age by my parents and teachers throughout my education, who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space.
What is it about human spaceflight and exploration that has fascinated you as an individual? Where do you see humanity headed in our space missions and with all the discussion about terraforming Mars, colonizing the moon and the quest for habitable planets?
The future of human spaceflight exploration is extremely exciting! We’re going to see a ramping up of interest in lunar exploration, both in orbit and on the surface of the Moon from international agencies and governments, but also from the private sector and from commercial entities.
NASA and Canada have committed to the Gateway – a new mini space station in lunar orbit. The Gateway is currently being designed by NASA, in conjunction with international partner agencies: the European Space Agency, JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) to enable humanity to return to the vicinity of the Moon in the 2020s, building on the international cooperation that built the International Space Station.
I’m also fortunate to have been encouraged at that age by my parents and teachers throughout my education, who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space.
The spaceship will be humanity’s next step beyond Low Earth Orbit, and out into the Solar System, 1000 times further out in the solar system than the International Space Station. It’s location in the lunar vicinity, outside of the Earth’s deep gravity well, allows it to be used as a staging post for exploration missions to the lunar surface and eventually to other deep-space destinations, including Mars. It’s a platform where we’ll learn to overcome the technological challenges of living and working in deep space. Relatedly, NASA is planning the Artemis programme, with the goal of establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon. NASA, in collaboration with international partners, aims to send the next man and the first woman to the Moon in 2024 through the Artemis programme.
You founded the platform Rocket Women with the mission to encourage women to study STEM. Why do you think girls continue to step back from STEM? You speak about how your parents encouraged your interest in space in previous interviews. What needs to change in the home, at school, in popular culture to shift this around?
There seems to be a disconnect between girls, in particular, wanting to make a difference and knowing the positive impact on the world that a career in STEM can make. There are also cultural barriers that we need to overcome. My background is British Asian (Indian), so although my parents were supportive of my interest in space and science, there was some pressure to study a traditional subject for a girl – become a dentist, doctor, pharmacist or a teacher, as it was a “safe” choice and an acceptable job for a girl in the South Asian culture. I worked as a dental nurse on the weekends whilst studying at sixth form and it helped my parents and I realize that although I enjoyed some aspects of the role and the medical side, being a dentist wasn’t for me. It was a great role to learn how to be responsible for other’s care and medical tasks.
Based at the European Space Agency as a contractor I worked on some of the medical aspects of preparing a launch campaign (where the team will go to the launch site in Kazakhstan to prepare the European Robotic Arm for launch) for the mission I worked on and I’ve also worked in the European Space Agency’s Space Medicine Office, so having some background in this has helped. But ultimately we need to address the lack of representation of BAME women in STEM, ensuring that their stories are visible and able to inspire and support both the future career decisions that young women make and provide their parents and peers with examples of successful careers. Through Rocket Women, we’re aiming to ensure that these stories of diverse women in STEM globally are visible.
Being a woman in STEM, what were the biases and sexism you encountered and how did you counter these? Do you feel there is a greater acceptance of women in this field, or does the bias continue?
The space industry is becoming more accessible and diverse. A challenge that remains is that we still need to change the typical stereotype of a space engineer or someone works in tech as usually being male and nerdy. Many men and women who work in STEM don’t consider themselves a stereotypical ‘nerd’. Girls also need to know that it’s fine to be nerdy, or simply smart. This is especially important as girls decide to leave STEM by the age of 11 when they’re in an education system where the choice of subjects limits their options for working in other fields later on. In fact, as an increasing number of jobs incorporate at least a moderate level of technical skills, it’s going to be necessary for girls to feel comfortable in a technical environment in order to succeed and thrive in any chosen career.
MIT Professor Dava Newman has some great advice for anyone looking to enter the space industry. She rightly said that you don’t have to be the “best in maths and science” or the top of your class, “you just have to want to help humankind. That should be the passion.”
The space industry is becoming more accessible and diverse. A challenge that remains is that we still need to change the typical stereotype of a space engineer or someone works in tech as usually being male and nerdy.
You were inspired by the image of Helen Sharman in her spacesuit, to get into space technology and exploration as a career. How important is it do you think for young girls to have exposure to and to see women in space as role models in both news as well as popular culture?
It’s extremely important for young girls to see women in space as role models in popular culture. You need those role models to be tangible and visible - inspiring the next generation of young girls to become astronauts or be whatever they want to be. As Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s one of my favourite quotes and is absolutely true. I started Rocket Women to give these women a platform to spread their advice for young women considering a STEM career.
More diverse representation is needed of ‘smart people’ in movies and the media – we need more women and more minorities represented as scientists and engineers in popular culture, reflecting the world around us. The rhetoric also needs to be changed to ensure that popular culture communicates to the next generation that women are just as capable and intelligent in STEM. Through visualizing increased women of colour as role models in STEM and taking an intersectional approach, it will help to make young girls feel more confident and included when deciding on a career in STEM.
It’s hard for young girls to imagine doing something in the future when they don’t see someone doing that job today. It’s important to help girls, in particular, realize the impact that they can have with a degree in STEM and make a positive difference in the world. Female role models are essential to provide young women with examples to look up to when they’re making the most critical decisions in their education or career.
Representation certainly matters and scholarships play a pivotal role in encouraging diverse talented individuals to pursue opportunities in STEM that may have not have had that chance otherwise. Through Rocket Women, proceeds from our apparel will go towards a scholarship for women who choose to study engineering and science.
Of all your assignments and projects, which were the ones which were the most satisfying or the most challenging, and why? What is a dream project you would love to work on and why?
My proudest achievement so far has been contributing to the development of the European Space Agency's SkinSuit at the European Astronaut Centre. In space, astronauts lose 2-3% bone mass on International Space Station (ISS) in six months and grow 4 - 6cm taller – which impacts their spinal health and can be quite painful for them. The SkinSuit provides loading onto the astronaut’s body that essentially recreates the effect of gravity upon their skeleton.
The Skinsuit has been worn on the ISS by Danish European Space Agency Astronaut Andreas Mogensen and most recently evaluated by French ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet during his six-month mission. The suit aims to improve spinal health in a microgravity environment and prevent painful spinal growth. It’s been amazing to have worked on the initial prototypes of the spacesuit and having seen it being used on the space station by astronauts is the ultimate reward.
I would love the chance to contribute to a new spacesuit for lunar exploration.
Tell us about the process of developing the skinsuit. What are the challenges of designing for space stays that the layperson might not be aware of that you needed to factor in during the creation of the skinsuit?
The design of a spacesuit may seem simple since they are covered with a fabric thermal micrometeoroid garment but it is, in fact, one of the most complex technological developments to carry out. A spacesuit is the world’s smallest spacecraft. You have to design the systems that you need for a spacecraft and then shrink them around a person. You need life support systems, you need oxygen to breathe, you have to scrub out the carbon dioxide and you need thermal control for the atmosphere among others.
Designing a spacesuit is a complicated process, requiring knowledge of textiles, engineering, biology, material science, and atmospheric science. Right now astronauts going to the International Space Station have a specialised spacesuit geared for spacewalks in LEO. But different suits will be needed if we want to go to the Moon and they’ll have to be tailored to the lunar environment.
Through Rocket Women, proceeds from our apparel will go towards a scholarship for women who choose to study engineering and science.
Each Skinsuit itself is individually fitted to every astronaut and a tailor takes over 150 measurements of the astronaut’s body along with their mass and height to customize the suit.
There was a recent controversy over spacesuits not being available in sizes for women for NASA’s All Woman Space Walk. Why do you think the default sizing continues to be men despite women increasing in numbers in the space program? How can this be redressed?
Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to carry out a spacewalk on 25 July 1984, almost 35 years ago. Of the more than 500 people who have been to space, fewer than 11% have been female, and spacewalk teams have either been all-male or male-female. But the space industry is changing. The 2013 NASA astronaut class was 50% female - the highest female ratio selected, bringing the percentage of female NASA astronauts in the NASA Astronaut Corps to around 30%. This thirty years after Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. NASA and the global space industry are really looking forward, which is fantastic. The recent 2017 astronaut class has five girls out of a total of 12 astronauts, with two astronauts selected at 29 years old. If you think about it, that’s close to 10 years between completing Grade 12/13 at school, to being selected as an astronaut!
Spacesuit engineers design spacesuits for people with a variety of dimensions. These different combinations of anthropomorphic measurements (dimensions of a human body) are incorporated into a spacesuit and mobility among many other factors is tested. The current NASA spacesuits on board the International Space Station were designed in the 1970s and are made up of modular parts providing multiple sizing options. According to a 2017 NASA inspector general report, about 11 of these 18 original spacesuits are still flight operational and they have been partially redesigned and refurbished for use and extended storage onboard the International Space Station. These are serviced every six years on ground or after 25 spacewalks, whichever comes first.
In this particular case related to the planned all-female spacewalk, the astronaut scheduled to take part in the upcoming spacewalk found that a medium hard upper torso of the spacesuit would fit her better after her initial spacewalk. Astronauts often train in a multitude of sizes and their sizing and preference may change on-orbit as their bodies adapt to a microgravity environment – including spinal elongation and fluid shifts.
However, with an increased proportion of women in the NASA Astronaut Corps, it’s likely that an all-female spacewalk will take place in the future. New spacesuits are also being designed for NASA’s future lunar exploration plans together with global space agencies. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently remarked that “..it’s very possible the first two, the next two people on the Moon will both be women and that’ll happen in the next five years.”
When it comes to STEM, do you think an interest or some learning of Arts and Humanities can also be impactful in terms of wider social understanding of the implications of innovation and invention?
The space industry is inherently global in nature. One of my favourite things about working in the space industry is that the environment is extremely international. I enjoy being able to work with colleagues from all around the world to design future human spaceflight projects. We need this diversity and creativity to solve the really hard problems that we have in the world today.
A lack of diversity in STEM also affects the systems that we create and the solutions that we provide.
Ultimately, engineering is about problem-solving, communication, teamwork, and creativity; skills that we need for the future. The STEM field is based on innovation and creativity – we need diverse viewpoints to innovate and provide creative solutions that encompass our entire population.
A lack of diversity in STEM also affects the systems that we create and the solutions that we provide. The technology that we're developing and building today and in the next decades will be used by a variety of people of all races and genders. The creators and developers of these systems and tech, including AI and facial recognition algorithms and training datasets, for example, need to represent this range of backgrounds, cultures and experiences to prevent unconscious biases from being incorporated into the design and its application.
And finally, have you ever wanted to go into space yourself? What would you tell young girls out there who might harbour a desire to get into space engineering or to become astronauts?
Given the chance, I would go into space!
I think a lot of young women want to make a difference in the world and one of the best ways to do this is through a career in science and engineering. You can have an amazing impact on the world through a career in the space industry and through engineering. It’s also okay if you don’t want to study science, but still want to work in the space industry. There are lots of different pathways to work in the space industry - through communications, marketing, human resources, graphic design, space policy, and law to name a few.
It’s important to enjoy the subjects that you study and the work that you’re doing. So I’d recommend young girls to really pay attention to what their passion is for.