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Meet the woman leading the way into space

Interview by Stacey Soluade

Photo: Tom Griffiths

Libby Jackson is one of Britain’s leading human spaceflight experts and is currently the Human Exploration Manager at the UK Space Agency. Libby has previously worked at mission control for the European Space Agency, as well as an instructor, a flight controller and lastly a flight director for the Columbus Control Centre on missions to the International Space Station. Joining the UK Space Agency in 2014 saw Libby manage the educational programme for the Tim Peake’s mission and she is now working towards his next possible flight into space.

What does your job involve?

I'm the Human Exploration Manager at the UK Space Agency which put simply involves Space Exploration to the Moon and Mars, but there's a lot more to it. It includes many aspects of space science where we send spacecraft out to planets, like for instance Jupiter. Recently we were part of a European Space Agency mission, called Rosetta, that included landing another small spacecraft, called Philae, on a comet!

What projects are you currently working on?

Right now is a fascinating time for the whole space industry. My role is to look after everything the UK does in terms of Human Exploration. Projects we're currently working on include the next possible flight for Tim Peake and a small space station called Luna Gateway which will orbit the Moon. The Luna Gateway will be similar to the international space station but on a smaller scale and we expect the UK space sector to play its part in that.

You were involved in Tim Peake's Principia Mission. What was your role for that?

Tim Peake's mission was a big deal, Helen Sharman was the last British astronaut to fly, and that was in 1991. During Tim's mission, it was my job to run the education program here in the UK. It was an exciting time, we wanted to use that moment to inspire as many young people as possible.

My role was to put together a programme which would use Principia and Tim Peake as the catalyst to ignite interest in the space sector. We ended up with 34 different science and technology projects for young people to get involved in. 1 in 3 schools took part and the programme reached over 2 million children. It was a fantastic privilege to be part of that, we still see the legacy of it today.

How have you found working in a largely male-dominated industry?

I went to an all-girls school and looking back, it was an environment where subjects weren't defined in the typical gender stereotype way, which I'm grateful for. I was very fortunate to never think because I'm a girl I can't do something. I studied physics at university and since then I have always been aware of being in a male-dominated environment. Even today I'm often the only woman in a meeting room. There have been very few occasions in my career when I've felt I have been judged or treated differently because of my gender, which I know may not be the case for everyone.

You were involved in the recent media coverage of the Space X mission. Is it important to you to represent the space industry in the media?

Language and imagery have a huge power, and the media play a significant role in shaping what we see and how we think. Sally Ride was the first American female astronaut and understood how important her mission was, even though she and her fellow female astronauts just wanted to be treated equally to the men. Sally knew how important it was for young people to see her so that they could imagine themselves being part of the space industry one day. That’s why today I will try to call out imagery and language which is not inclusive. Everyone deserves to be represented.

The first woman to go to the Moon is planned for 2024, as part of the Artemis Program and comes 51 years after the first man walked on the Moon. Do you think there are enough female-led space travel missions?

There absolutely should be, and will be, more women in space, in general, and in command, in the coming years, as change is happening, but of course there is still more that we can all do to promote diversity at all levels.

Gender shouldn't be a factor when astronauts (or indeed anyone) are chosen for missions or jobs. The groups of people being selected to train as astronauts are now starting to be balanced, and this will in time lead to what should be a diverse and representative pool of people to assign to missions.

The power of imagery in inspiring the next generation is undoubted, but symbolism without real change is of limited value. The Soviet Union were very aware of the power of claiming the ‘firsts’ in space, but since Valentine Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, only three of the more than 60 others to fly in space have been Soviet or Russian.

Everyone can play their part in changing society and societal view. Gender, as well as skin colour, sexuality and all the other labels that are sometimes attached to people and which have absolutely nothing to do with their interests and skills, should not limit anyone in what they can and cannot do.

Who has been your role model?

My dream has always been to work on human space flight and mission control in particular. Gene Kranz was the flight director at the helm of mission control when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon in Apollo 11 and also happened to be in the hot seat when the Apollo 13 accident occurred. He is someone I've always admired for his ability to keep calm and bring teams together to solve problems.

What’s your biggest achievement?

One of the things I’m most proud of myself for doing is running the London Marathon, not once but twice, once in a spacesuit costume! It took until I was in my thirties to start any form of running, not having been very fit or active at school. I started with a 5k target and then signed up and had a year to train. I proved to myself that perhaps anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

At the age of seventeen, you wrote to NASA and secured work experience. What would your advice be to anyone who’s looking to work in the space industry?

I never imagined in a million years that my email to NASA would result in work experience, but it did. The placement opened my eyes to human space flight and allowed me to dream of working in that area. My advice has, and always will be that if you don't ask, you don't get. Remember, if you've been given the opportunity or asked to do something, it's likely the person asking thinks you are capable of doing it, so always believe in yourself.

The space industry in the UK employs around 40,000 people across a variety of positions which not many people realise. You have designers of spacecraft and spacesuits, engineers, manufacturers, lawyers, communications experts and that's just for the human space flights.

The UK Space agency runs the Space Placements in Industry Scheme which offers students opportunities to work on 8-week internships across the sector. There are so many different ways to get involved

Find out more about the Space Placements!

Follow Libby on Twitter !

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