NASA engineer wants to ignite Irish students’ passion for space

24 Mar 2016

Amber trying out a zero-gravity environment. Photo: James Blair

Spacecraft systems engineer and aspiring astronaut Amber Gell will be in Ireland next month to talk about her passion for space.

When Amber Gell was a child, she would doodle pictures of spacecraft. Little could she have known then that, in years to come, she would be designing spacecraft for NASA and researching how humans can survive the extremes of space.

Gell, who will be in Ireland soon to talk to school students and teachers, is a rocket scientist and spacecraft systems engineer working for Lockheed Martin and NASA on the Orion mission.

Orion is NASA’s exploration-class spacecraft,” she explained. “It is going to be used to take astronauts to the moon, to Mars, to asteroids – I like to think of it as a spacecraft of our generation. For those of us who weren’t alive or don’t remember seeing humans walk on the moon, this is our chance and our spacecraft to see humans go to new, deep-space destinations.”

The extremes of space

Space is an extreme environment for humans, and Gell is particularly interested in how we can perform best there. “Humans are ‘1G’ [gravity] animals,” she explained. “We live on Earth, and we are used to that, and whenever you take us out of that into microgravity or into a place where there is no atmosphere or a place where we need to bring all our water, all our oxygen, with us, those turn into really fun science and engineering challenges.”

Gell looks at analogues of extreme environments on Earth to figure out how to thrive in space. Whether it’s scuba diving with ‘life-support’ tanks of oxygen, living at close quarters in pressurised submarines or surviving the isolation and extremes of Antarctica, earthly situations offer some rich pickings for looking at how humans perform physiologically and psychologically in extremes that are relevant to space travel.

“I try to learn about the science and physiology and engineering involved to help prepare us for spacecraft design, for the habitats, the transfer vehicle and to make sure we can perform wherever we go,” said Gell.

“Even if we can keep a human alive [in space], there are still other things that play into it, like their psychological wellbeing, crew dynamics and cultural dynamics. What if something happens back home to their family? How do people cope with that and how do you even screen to find the right people who will perform when you need them to.”

Inspiration to learn

Growing up in Wisconsin in the mid-western US, Gell described how she was ‘outside the space bubble’.

“I didn’t have parents in the industry and I didn’t grow up by NASA, so I didn’t hear about space much, and I grew up in a time where there weren’t really female astronauts,” she recalled. “[Since then] there have been tremendous improvements.”

‘My goal is to get humans to Mars in my lifetime’

Along her journey, Gell has gathered qualifications in science, aerospace engineering, physiology, human performance, finance and business, and her advice is to study what interests you.

“Fall back on something you love,” she said, encouraging students to get proactive about doing projects and learning beyond the curriculum. “See that teachers and speakers are there as your resource.”

Reaching for space


Gell is still reaching forward, and she is now an aspiring astronaut. “My goal is to get humans to Mars in my lifetime,” she said. “And I really want to go – or if I don’t get to go there, I want to get to go to space.”

She has put her name in the hat, along with more than 18,000 others, in the hope she will be among the handful brought forward for the next NASA astronaut candidate programme.

“It is not a job, it is a lifestyle,” she explained. “Every day I am working on something to reach the goal, whether it is doing outreach and helping inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, or contributing to physiology research that we do on board the International Space Station, designing the next-generation spacecraft that will take us there, studying, researching and working out, staying fit so that if I make it through [the selection process] I am healthy enough to be able to be competitive.”

Reaching out

Gell’s enthusiasm for her chosen career shines through, and she wants people to know that the space sector needs their talents.

A speaker at the upcoming Irish Science Teachers’ Association in Limerick, which will take place from 8-10 April, she said she hopes to engage teachers in new ways to make space fun in the classroom, and she wants to spread the word to other professions too.

“If you are excited about space in any capacity – maybe you are a scientist or an engineer, a reporter, or a financial analyst, we have got space for you, we can make that happen, and I love being able to share it.”

Ultimately, getting to space herself would be the icing on that cake for Gell: “I have [helped design] Orion and now I want a chance to get picked to fly on it – that would be five-year-old’s Amber’s dream come true.”

Amber Gell will give a talk at Dublin City University called ‘It’s not rocket science! Oh wait… yes it is!’  at 11am on 5 April. Click here for more information.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication