This afternoon I had a strong desire to get out and do something (it may or may not have to do with the fact that it’s been a week since the Hannibal convention). I looked up things to do in London and found out that there was a talk entitled “Women in Space,” with this as the description:
“Join French cosmonaut Claudie Haigneré, the UK Space Agency’s Libby Jackson and comedian, writer and radio presenter Helen Keen as they discuss these questions and the critical role woman play in space science, as well as describing their own singular experiences in the field.”
Who would pass that up? Unfortunately, everyone I asked was either busy or wanted to save money. To be fair, most people do regularly plan to go out on Friday nights, so I am the one causing problems with my last minute decisions. Despite my lack of company, and after about an hour of internal debate, I caught the train to London.
I took the tube over to the science museum and made my way up to the Cosmonauts exhibit. This exhibit is focused primarily on the Soviet space program. I was not allowed any photos in the exhibit, but I did write down a few names that were especially interesting. A big portion of the exhibit was dedicated to Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go in space, in 1963. The BBC has a recent article about her that’s a quick read:
The other name I got down was Helen Sharman, the first British person in space. She worked as a chocolate chemist before being accepted to Project Juno and sent into space in 1991:
The talk itself began at 730 and I got in early enough to get a front row seat.
Claudie Haigneré (right), the French cosmonaut, and Libby Jackson (left), a flight director at the UK space agency, were the two main guests. Helen Keen (center), a radio host and space enthusiast, was the moderator. Claudie Haigneré earned a medical degree with certificates in rheumatology, sports and space medicine, a degree in biomechanics and physiology of movement, and a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Then, after all that, she went to space! She visited the Mir space station for 16 days in 1996 and then the ISS in 2001. Libby Jackson got her physics degree and masters in astronomical engineering (or something like that) at Imperial college. She always wanted to work in human space flight, but the UK didn’t have a program for that so she worked as a flight director in Munich. She moved back to the UK in 2014 to jump on with the UK Space Agency in their plans to send Tim Peake to the ISS.
One of the first questions they discussed was what inspired them to pursue space travel (for Claudie) and a career in the field (for Libby). Claudie was born right around the beginning of the space race so she was old enough to vividly remember the moon landing. She continued to be inspired by the space race but went on to pursue her multiple degrees. She was working in a hospital when she saw recruiting advertisements for the Russian-French Cassiopée mission to the Mir space station. Recalling the excitement and inspiration she felt as a kid, she thought, “why not?” and applied. She was accepted and went to Russia to train for the mission in 1996. Along the line, she met her husband, who was also an astronaut, and between her 1996 and 2001 missions she gave birth to their daughter. Libby was first inspired, when she was 17, by a job shadow opportunity she had at NASA. Her school required everyone to choose a job shadow opportunity and she suggested NASA, thinking it would be impossible, but they offered her a spot in Houston, TX. She realized that being from the UK, she could probably never work for NASA… plus she really didn’t like Houston. So, she pursued her science degrees and decided along the way that she wanted to work in human space flight. As I said earlier, she ended up in Munich before finally landing her dream job back in her home country.
The discussion also touched on the aspect of gender in the field. However, neither of the guests have particularly noticed much discrimination within the field of space exploration throughout their careers. One of the things they brought up that I didn’t know was the “human computers” employed during the Apollo missions. Since they didn’t have much in the way of computing machines back then they heavily relied on skilled mathematicians to work out equations for the mission. Many of these mathematicians were women, but it being the 1940s the black women who had been recruited did work in segregated groups. Eventually this changed and more on that is in this article (more links because I’m lazy):
The main conclusion to this discussion was that if you want something you just have to pave your own path.
I didn’t take many notes on their talk, but my favorite sorry was told by Claudie. She was speaking about the difference in technology during her two flights. During her visit to the ISS in 2002 she was able to use a phone and internet. She said she was able to get two separate connections to Earth to speak to her daughter, who, on both occasions, informed her mother that she was just too busy to speak for long. Also, when asked about the training, she shared a Russian saying (which I obviously can’t spell) that loosely translates to “Nothing will be as you learned,” which is pretty self-explanatory, but basically means that no matter how long you prepare, not everything will go according to plan.
The quote of the night was the last thing Claudié said: “Space (travel) is not only techniques and equipment… It’s a culture.”
As ridiculously last minute of a decision as this was, I’m glad I went to the talk tonight. I got to learn about quite a few historical figures in space travel, and I got to listen to some current public figures in space travel discuss their lives and the future of space travel! I may even go to the next talk in this series in November… I’ll just hope that I plan ahead a little better.