5 minutes with… Vinita Marwaha Madill, Space Operations Engineer at the European Space Agency
Photo: Rocket Women
What is your job – can you describe a typical day in your work life?
I’m a Space Operations Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA) 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. My typical day could vary from developing astronaut/cosmonaut (Russian astronaut) spacewalk (or EVA) training with colleagues in Russia, to creating and testing missions for the astronauts to control the robotic arm at ESA. 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.
Having wanted to work in the space industry since I was young, working at the European Space Agency is a dream come true. The environment at ESA is extremely international and I enjoy being able to work with colleagues from all around the world to design future human spaceflight projects.
How did you get into space science?
I’m fortunate to have realised my passion at a young age and told my physics teacher in Year 7 that I wanted to work in NASA’s Mission Control. Throughout my education this drive was supported and 12 years later led me to fulfilling my dream, working on International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Germany’s answer to NASA’s Mission Control and now at ESA.
Knowing I wanted to work in the space industry, I learned about an organisation called UKSEDS (UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) whilst at university studying Physics, through which I met space professionals for the first time, some of whom I actually went on to work with. I also completed a 9-week course called the Space Studies Program at the International Space University (ISU), 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.
Prior to my current role in the Netherlands, I enjoyed being based at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre focused on spacesuit design and spacewalk training and later operating experiment payloads onboard the ISS at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne, Germany.
What interests did you have as a child?
As a child I was an avid reader and read every space book I could get my hands on. I’ve always being inquisitive about space and I remember being an enthralled six-year-old when I learned that the first British astronaut, chemist Helen Sharman, flew to the Mir space station. In that moment looking at the image of Helen Sharman in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that that woman could be me. Being a girl born at the end of the 80s in the UK I realised right then that maybe, just maybe, I could be an astronaut too. That changed something inside me. Here was a woman in front of me born in Sheffield, who had studied chemistry, replied to a radio advert calling for UK astronauts, beat 13,000 applicants and had recently gone 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. I’m also lucky to have had adults, both parents and great teachers, around me at that age who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space. My parents helped me greatly, taking me to the National Space Centre in Leicester, UK on the weekends to experience space hardware firsthand and thankfully let me spend hours reading about space.
If you weren’t a Space Operations Engineer what would you be?
I’ve wanted to work in human spaceflight space operations for as long as I can remember and love it! If I weren’t a Space Operations Engineer I would focus on encouraging an interest in science for young girls and boys. During my career I’ve met some amazing people — especially other positive female role models. I really think you need those role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls to become astronauts, or be whatever they want to be.
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, along with advice to encourage girls in particular to be involved in STEM.
How did you celebrate Tim Peake’s launch into space?
When Tim Peake launched into space I was actually consulting and in Cambodia for a few days. Streaming the launch, I then proceeded to tell everyone that I could about Tim’s mission. I was so excited for Tim Peake’s flight and also the fact that Helen Sharman was finally being talked about almost 25 years on from her mission. For me as a child, knowing that there had been a British astronaut, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger. Even if the career councillor at school wanted me to become a dentist, I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human spaceflight. And eventually I did, even working with the next British ESA astronaut Tim Peake at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany along with supporting astronauts on the ISS. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me. There had been a British astronaut and maybe there could be again. Here was a British woman involved in human spaceflight and that had flown to space. I knew it was possible. Tim Peake and his Principia mission will hopefully go on to inspire the next generation to reach for the stars and follow their dreams in space, knowing that it is indeed possible too.
What advice would you give your eight-year-old self about building a career in space science?
My advice to those considering their career path is 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.
Vinita makes a cameo appearance in Chapter One of the Principia Mission Space Diary. Log in or sign up to the Principia Mission Space Diary website to download your own copy of the Space Diary along with teaching notes and resources.
The Principia Mission Space Diary is one of nine education projects funded by the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency, to support the education aims of Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station. Find out more about the Principia education projects here.
Visit Vinita’s website Rocket Women and follow her on Twitter to keep up-to-date with her news!