Rocket Women shows girls the sky’s no limit

11 Feb 2016

Vinita Marwaha at the at DLR (German Aerospace Centre) in Cologne, Germany, working on ISS Operations at DLR on-console

The sky is no limit for space consultant Vinita Marwaha, who is keen for young women interested in STEM to have role models.

In space, no-one can hear your bones weaken, but some exercise and a specially-designed spacesuit can help – and this is where space engineering consultant Vinita Marwaha comes in.

“Astronauts carrying out six-month missions on the International Space Station [ISS], including Tim Peake, can grow up to 5cm to 7cm in height, with the spinal growth causing tension in the vertebrae and back pain,” explains Marwaha, adding that, in microgravity, humans can lose 1-2pc of their bone mass per month and their muscles can waste.

Exercise can help protect against these changes, but what else can be done? Marwaha has been involved in designing a ‘gravity-loading countermeasure skinsuit’ with the European Space Agency to mimic the effects of gravity on the body and help prevent elongation of the spine.

The suit, which draws on several years of research and development, was evaluated last year onboard the ISS by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.

“With a force close to that felt on Earth, the suit effectively squeezes an astronaut’s body gradually in hundreds of stages from the shoulders to the feet,” explains Marwaha. “The suit could also be used alongside current exercise countermeasures on the ISS to help prevent bone loss. Bone responds to loading and the suit’s pressure on the skeleton could help to stimulate bone growth.”

Underwater spacewalking

Marwaha has also helped astronauts to get to grips with spacewalk (EVA) skills at the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany.

“The astronauts train to carry out EVA,s or spacewalks, underwater,” she explains, because training underwater provides a microgravity-type experience. “Astronauts initially learned how to translate, or move along, the Station using its handrails, move in the spacesuit and operate tools, before eventually moving on to training for full-length spacewalks.”

Currently based in the UK and Canada, Marwaha has worked too on ISS operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), guiding and training astronauts through experiments on the Station as it orbits Earth.

Role models

Marwaha credits role models such as astronauts Helen Sharman and Sally Ride for inspiring her to work in the space sector.

“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,” she recalls.

“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 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.”

Aged 12, Marwaha went to the library and printed the astronaut candidate guidelines (you can see a contemporary version here) from NASA’s website, then stuck them to the inside cover of her school folder. She recalls them as being a daily reminder of how to reach her goal and set her focus on achieving them. “Those guidelines set the direction for my career,” she says.

Steps along the way included a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics with astrophysics at King’s College London and attending the International Space University (ISU).

Rocket Women

Rocket Women - Vinita

Vinita Marwaha installing and developing the astronaut procedures for EML (Electromagnetic Levitator) using the training model at the European Astronaut Centre

Today, as well as working as a consultant focusing on space engineering, Marwaha is heavily involved in STEM Outreach through talks and through her website Rocket Women, for which she interviews women in STEM and space around the world.

“Only 6pc of the UK engineering workforce are female, meaning that UK companies are missing out on almost 50pc of their engineering talent. This is coupled with the fact that girls make up under 20pc of students taking physics A-level,” she says.

“My passion, and the goal of my website Rocket Women, is to try and reverse this trend by inspiring girls globally to consider a career in STEM. 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 women a voice and a platform to spread their advice.”

Focus on impact

As well as role models, another suggestion to boost engagement with space tech is to think about the impact that technology will make on people, such as constellations of satellites making the internet affordable and accessible in more parts of the world.

“Rural communities will have high-speed internet access where once there was none, providing education and knowledge to those currently without,” notes Marwaha. “The impact of the project is from where, I believe, you can inspire an increasing number of girls to study engineering and space.”

Spreading the word

For the last seven months, Marwaha has travelled in Europe and south-east Asia, including Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand, where she has talked to girls about studying STEM.

Visibility is key, she says, citing “You can’t be what you can’t see,” as one of her favourite quotes. “I really appreciate the messages I receive from girls around the world letting me know how Rocket Women has helped them to discover STEM – I’m glad the website is making a difference.”

And some stats are on the up, adds Marwaha. “The recent NASA astronaut class selected in 2013 was 50pc female, the highest female ratio selected, bringing the percentage of female NASA astronauts in the NASA Astronaut Corps to 26pc. This, [just over] 30 years after Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. NASA’s really looking forward, which is fantastic.”

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

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