Vinita Marwaha Madill
Photo: Harry Parvin

Vinita Marwaha Madill is a Project Manager at Mission Control Services. From developing spacewalk training, helping astronauts move around in space, to building a robotic arm for astronauts to use onboard the International Space Station, no day is the same.  

One of Vinita’s most interesting projects involved designing a skin suit to mimic the effects of gravity to protect astronauts from muscle and bone loss whilst in space. The suit was the culmination of more than 10 years of development and has been worn by astronauts in space since 2015.

Vinita is a part of This is Engineering Day, a day created by the Royal Academy of Engineering to celebrate the world-shaping engineering that exists all around us but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers who make this possible. As part of This is Engineering Day, the Royal Academy of Engineering has announced plans to create a new virtual museum named The Museum of Engineering Innovation, which can be accessed through QR Codes dotted around the country as well as by visiting Google Arts and Culture. To view the first collection of exhibits, which include Jonnie Peacock’s running blade, visit https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/museum-of-engineering-innovation. #BeTheDifference

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My background is in human spaceflight and robotic space operations. I’m a space engineer and the Founder of a platform called Rocket Women which aims to inspire the next generation of young women to choose a career in STEM. During my career I’ve met some amazing people — especially other positive female role models. I 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. I started Rocket Women to give these incredible women a platform to spread their advice and ensure that their voices were heard. I’m interviewing women around the world in STEM, particularly in space, and posting the interviews on Rocket Women, along with advice to encourage girls to be involved in STEM. 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.

Presently, I’m a Project Manager at Mission Control – a space exploration and robotics company. Getting humans to space, as well as lunar exploration, is enabled by robotics and autonomous systems, and there is a current lack of commercial software products to make that happen, which is the gap we’re hoping to fill at Mission Control, with a focus on mission operations and AI. I’m working on new lunar projects with the Canadian Space Agency, in addition to leading projects with commercial space companies internationally and in space health which is really interesting. I contribute to our public outreach programme called Mission Control Academy which allows any class of students with an internet connection the opportunity to learn about planetary science, rover design and ultimately plan and execute an exploration mission remotely & operate a real rover prototype in an analogue Mars environment. This allows the public and students to be involved in and experience rover and mission operations!

Previously, based at the European Space Agency as a Space Operations Engineer I focused 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 a Space Operations Engineer at ESA I worked 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 the operations team will be working on-console at ESA-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 in space operations is a dream come true. One of my favourite things about working in the space industry, is that the environment both at ESA and at commercial space companies is extremely international. I enjoy being able to work with colleagues from all around the world to design future human spaceflight and robotic exploration projects.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’ve always been interested in space since I was young. As a child I loved reading and read every space book I could get my hands on. I remember sitting in the library with a pile of books next to me and in one of the books, among the stories of shuttle missions and NASA astronauts, I spotted an image of a young woman in spacesuit with a British flag on the arm. The caption next to it says that this is Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut who flew to the Mir space station merely two years earlier.

Here was a woman in front of me born in the UK, who had studied chemistry, replied to a radio advert calling for astronauts, beat 13,000 applicants and had recently gone to space.

In that moment, looking at the image of Helen Sharman in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that that woman could be me. Maybe, I could be an astronaut too. That changed something inside me. I knew my dreams were possible. She was, although I didn’t know it yet, a role model to me.

But I’m also fortunate to have been encouraged at that age and by my parents and teachers throughout my childhood and education, who really cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space.

I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, but what I didn’t know growing up was how. A few years later, at the age of 11, I printed the astronaut candidate guidelines, from NASA’s website, at the library 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. Those guidelines set the direction for my career. The first guideline said that a 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 end only three girls graduated on this course. One went on to be an astrophysicist, one is a science teacher and I work in the space industry. 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. This allowed me to interact with professionals from the space agency and education. Rather than space being a dream and something I read about, suddenly it felt attainable.

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 at the International Space University (ISU) which takes place in a different international location each year. The course gave me an overall view of the international space industry and was where I decided that I wanted to work on human spaceflight operations. In my education and career, ISU really was the inflexion point and created a world of global possibilities for me.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

There are stereotypes and cultural barriers related to engineering 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 minority ethnic 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.

In the UK, only 12% of the engineering workforce is female and according to recent research from the Royal Academy of Engineering, only 9% of engineering professionals are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Yet, right now, the UK has an annual shortfall of up to 59,000 engineers, and research shows that many young people – young people who want their careers to make a difference and have a positive impact on the world – haven’t even thought about it as a job. This has to change. It is why This is Engineering Day was launched, to raise awareness of engineering as a career and why I am telling my story to inspire the next generation of engineers.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My proudest career 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. 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.

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’m also looking forward to contributing to lunar exploration over the next decade – the future of human spaceflight and robotic space 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. The Gateway, a new mini space station in lunar orbit is currently being designed by NASA, in conjunction with international partner agencies including the European Space Agency (ESA), JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) 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.

The spaceship will be humanity’s next step beyond Low Earth Orbit, and out into the Solar System. One thousand times further out in the solar system than the International Space Station, it’s a platform where we’ll learn to overcome the technological challenges of living and working in deep space. Relatedly, NASA is developing the Artemis programme, with the goal of establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon. NASA, in collaboration with international partners, aim to send the next man and the first woman to the surface of the Moon in 2024 through the Artemis programme.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I would have never had been able to complete my studies internationally and to

reach my goals in the space industry without the fortuity of scholarships. Having support from organisations and scholarships throughout my education inspired me to develop a scholarship program through Rocket Women, a platform that I founded to inspire the next generation of young women to choose a career in STEM. The Rocket Women apparel collection was born from a desire to make a difference. Moreover, we need 100% of the talent available to solve the hard problems that we face in the world today. Proceeds from Rocket Women clothing will go towards a scholarship to build opportunities for women studying science & engineering. Representation matters and scholarships play a pivotal role in encouraging diverse talented individuals to pursue opportunities in STEM that may not have had that chance otherwise.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

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.

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 side hustle or volunteering role.

It’s important to enjoy the subjects that you study and the work that you’re doing. So I’d recommend graduates to really pay attention to what their passion is for. Because as NASA Astronaut Zena Cardman brilliantly said:

“If you wake up curious and excited every morning, you’re going to be really happy no matter what the end result is, whatever career you wind up in. Just pursue whatever interests you. I sit here in this blue flight suit, and I have to say it’s possible. So you just have to go for it.”

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Girls decide to leave STEM by the age of 11, when they are in an education system where the choice of subjects severely limits their options for working in other fields later on. We need to change the typical stereotype of a space engineer or someone who works in tech & STEM is usually male and nerdy. There also seems to be a disconnect between young women in particular, wanting to make a difference and knowing the positive impact on the world that a career in STEM can make.

Many men and women that 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, in fact as an increasing number of jobs incorporate at least a moderate level of technical skills, it’s going to be necessary for young women to feel comfortable in a technical environment in order to succeed and thrive in any chosen career. There also seems to be a disconnect between girls in particular wanting to make a difference and knowing the impact that a career in STEM can make.

More diverse representation is also 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 like them 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.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Many women working in technology have a real interest and passion for these fields. Retaining women throughout their career and avoiding the ‘leaky pipeline’ syndrome is also a challenge that the technology industry is still working to overcome. Things are changing for the better though. The space industry is becoming more accessible and diverse. The ratio of women chosen in 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 Year 12 or 13 at school, to being selected as an astronaut!

Ultimately technology and specifically engineering are about problem-solving, communication, teamwork, and creativity; skills that we need for the future. We need to communicate that the STEM field is based on innovation and creativity – we need diverse viewpoints to innovate and provide creative solutions that encompass our entire population.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Ultimately, we need to change the stereotype of a scientist, engineer or someone working in tech. I’m really excited to be involved in the This is Engineering campaign with the Royal Academy of Engineering, which celebrates the engineers shaping our lives and the world around us to challenge the narrow public stereotypes of engineering – aiming to encourage more young people from all backgrounds to consider engineering as a profession. Engineering really is everywhere and at the heart of everything from your mobile phone, to satellites, special effects on your favourite sci-fi show, to clean water – but there’s a narrow and outdated stereotype of what engineers do, look like and the role that they play in society. This in turn, can prevent young people from considering these rewarding and varied careers.

MIT Professor Dava Newman 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.”

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Books

Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Inferior – Angela Saini

Podcasts

Pivot – Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway

Women Tech Charge – Anne Marie Imafidon

How To Own The Room – Viv Groskop

Working from Home with Stylist

Work Like A Woman – Mary Portas