A huge thank you to Vinita Marwaha Madill, Project Manager, Mission Control Space Services, Ottawa, Canada and Founder of Rocket Women, for sharing the steps she’s taken on her career journey… read on for some great advice and inspiration:
Over to Vinita…
Since being inspired at a young age by Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut, I printed the NASA astronaut candidate guidelines and glued them to the inside cover of my secondary school folder – they were a daily reminder of how to reach my goal and I set my focus on achieving them. The first guideline said that an astronaut candidate had to have a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, biology, physics or mathematics.
Knowing this, I studied Maths & Physics with Astrophysics at King’s College London in the UK. Whilst at King’s, I learned about a fantastic organisation 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’ve taken small steps over the last decade and through secondary school beforehand to be able to work in the space industry. One of the largest was going to the International Space University (ISU) which was a life-changing experience – I had daily lectures by astronauts and space industry experts. They have a brilliant 9 week course called the Space Studies Program (SSP) at the International Space University, 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.
Through completing a Masters degree in Space Management at ISU, I was fortunate to find a Trainee and eventually consulting position at the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany – working on the early prototypes of the Skinsuit project. The SkinSuit is worn inside the spacecraft and provides loading incrementally from your shoulders to your feet (1G), through the downward fibres of the suit. This loading onto the astronaut’s body essentially recreates the effect of gravity upon their skeleton. The Skinsuit has now been worn on the space station by Danish ESA Astronaut Andreas Mogensen and evaluated by French ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet during his six-month mission. 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.
From suit design, I moved to space station operations at the German Aerospace Centre or DLR. My typical day involved supporting astronauts onboard the International Space Station to carry out experiments successfully, developing new experiment payloads with scientists, helping to train astronauts on payload experiments and equipment they might use on the ISS, and writing crew (astronaut) procedures.
I later moved to the Netherlands to work at ESA’s technology centre (ESTEC), as a contractor focused on operations for future human spaceflight projects, including the European Robotic Arm (ERA). ERA is a new robotic arm that is due to be launched to the International Space Station this July which will help astronauts and cosmonauts carry out spacewalks (or EVAs) and install new parts of the space station. I helped to develop a smaller version of Mission Control at ESA’s technology centre ESTEC in the Netherlands and worked on cosmonaut and crew instructor training specifically related to spacewalks which was incredible.
And now I’m based at Mission Control in Ottawa, Canada – a space exploration and robotics company with a focus on mission operations, onboard autonomy and AI.
What is your current role and what does your work involve?
At Mission Control, we’re developing innovative solutions using space technology to solve the world’s problems and explore space through developing software solutions designed for space activities, from lunar exploration to astronaut support systems. Currently, I’m leading a really exciting project called Mission Control Intelligence (MCI) which is in partnership with a space company in India called Axiom Research Labs to demonstrate AI-powered levels of autonomy on a micro-rover (or smaller rover) ahead of commercial missions to the Moon.
Fundamentally, MCI is a suite of cutting-edge technologies that will allow space mission operators to make important decisions in science and navigation operations faster and with more confidence. We’re developing AI algorithms to classify the terrain of the lunar surface, essentially making lunar rovers smarter scientists, and reducing the workload of scientists on the ground. The science autonomy system identifies geological features on the Moon from camera images taken by a lunar rover or it could even potentially be used during an astronaut’s spacewalk and as they explore the lunar surface to detect and select features of scientific interest to sample. These technologies can be used for future lunar exploration missions this decade. In addition to my project management responsibilities, I’m also the Education and Public Outreach lead for Mission Control’s contribution to the Emirates Lunar Mission launching in 2022.
I’m also the Founder of an organisation called Rocket Women, which aims to provide inspirational women globally with a platform to spread their advice and ensure that their voices are heard. By featuring stories of successful women in STEM, we want Rocket Women to give young women and girls globally the realisation that they can be astronauts, scientists and engineers or whatever they aim to be. Our goal is to empower young women to choose a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) and achieve their dreams, so that we can improve the current percentage of female science and engineering talent.
What skills/experiences do you feel helped you get to your current position?
A business Masters degree at the International Space University (ISU) in Space Management at their main campus in Strasbourg gave me complementary skills to a technical background and helped me to understand why decisions are made in the space industry, along with project management, business development, product management and strategic planning – skills that help me to this day in my current role. I’ve been fortunate to go on and hold roles both at the European Space Agency and in the commercial space industry, with an understanding of both.
Ultimately technology and specifically engineering are about problem-solving, communication, teamwork, and creativity; skills that we need for the future. The STEM field as a whole is based on innovation and creativity and we need diverse viewpoints to innovate and provide creative solutions that encompass our entire population.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in your area of work?
To work in the space industry or even to be an astronaut, you have to study something that you love and are passionate about. You really have to enjoy what you study and the work that you’re doing. Some good advice is to pay attention to what your passion is at school or university and the subjects that you really enjoy.
The experience that I gained through gaining a comprehensive view of the space industry through studying at the International Space University in France and through focused internships or volunteering helped to forge the path to where I am now. I think almost everyone that I know working in the space industry and otherwise has felt like their future career was unknown at times, but pursuing your passion and persevering is important, whether you’re able to do that in your main job or even as a volunteering role. It’s important to enjoy the subjects that you study and the work that you’re doing – you have to wake up and be excited about your work.
My advice would be 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. Keep your focus and belief in yourself, it’s possible.
(Image credit: This is Engineering)