Vinita Marwaha Madill on designing spacesuits, why astronauts get bone loss, and women in STEM. Vinita is the founder of Rocket Women, a spacesuit designer, space ops engineer and consultant.
Who, or what, inspired your interest in space?
I’ve been passionate about space from a young age and originally wanted to become an astronaut. I was lucky to have adults, both parents and great teachers, around me who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space. My parents helped me tremendously, taking me to the National Space Centre in Leicester on the weekends and letting me spend hours reading about space. 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 Mission Control. Throughout my education this drive was supported and led me to fulfilling my dream, working on International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). 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, determination and dedication, but it’s absolutely worth it.
What is the process for designing a spacesuit?
A spacesuit is essentially a small anthropomorphic spacecraft. Turning a human into this requires thousands of hours of work. The Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit Project that I’ve worked on has taken almost 10 years of research and development in order to finally be able to be launched and to be used on the ISS this year, with a core team currently of around 20 people. Initial design and performance evaluations of the suit were conducted in a series of ground-based studies, including sleep studies. Parabolic flights were also carried out to test the fit of the suit prior to the space debut of the suit on the ISS. The suit was evaluated onboard the station by Andreas Mogensen this September during which assessments were made into its ability to counteract spinal elongation, prevent lower back pain and measure it’s loading effectiveness.
Why do astronauts get bone loss and how does your design prevent that? What are the other main challenges you have to account for?
The human body has evolved in the presence of Earth’s gravity and without it astronauts on the ISS lose one to two per cent of their bone mass per month, particularly from the crucial weight-bearing spine and lower limb bones. In addition to bone loss, the microgravity conditions and lack of muscle use also cause muscle atrophy. To help to mitigate these debilitating effects of spaceflight, astronauts currently exercise for 2.5 hours each day on the ISS.
These astronauts carrying out 6-month missions on the ISS can additionally grow up to 5 to 7 centimeters in height, with the spinal growth causing tension in the vertebrae and back pain.
The Skinsuit was designed to essentially mimic the effects of gravity by replicating adequate mechanical loading on the skeleton and thus preventing the lengthening of the spine. 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. 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.
What would you like to see achieved in space?
The ISS took almost 1,000 hours to build and five space agencies working together to create the largest manmade structure in orbit. Alongside the scientific accomplishments realized each day onboard, I believe the greatest impact the project has made is in its successful international collaboration. The ISS provides an analogue platform to gain valuable insights into how humans may one day live or work during a mission to Mars, for example. In the future, I hope the lessons we’ve learned through working together on the ISS will be put forward into a long duration exploration mission to the Moon or Mars.
The space industry is also changing, moving away from being solely the realm of national agencies and allowing smaller private companies greater access to space. Initiatives such as those being undertaken to create affordable internet access worldwide through a constellation of microsatellites will have an unprecedented impact on those around the world without access to basic communication. Rural communities will have high-speed internet access where once there was none, providing education and knowledge to those currently without.
Why did you create Rocket Women?
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 women a voice and a platform to spread their advice. My passion now is to inspire other women to become involved in the space industry and more importantly encourage younger girls to be interested in STEM.
From an early age you played with toy cars and space shuttles, rather than dolls. Do you think more girls should be encouraged to do so?
Absolutely! I think that allowing girls to be creative and inquisitive from a young age, rather than being told to play with toys that are seen by many as more appropriate for young girls is key. At a young age I was learning to programme the VCR and encouraged to read voraciously about science. The key is to initially spark an interest in STEM and then to allow that to grow over years, overcoming gender bias, especially in the early years and secondary school. Girls at the age of 11 decide to leave STEM when they’re in an education system where the choice of subjects at school severely limits their options for working in other fields later. There are an increasing number of companies helping parents to encourage girls when younger and avoid toys that are infused with gender sterotypes, including Goldieblox which allows girls to build and become engineers. NASA astronaut Sunita Williams recently gave some great career advice: “The path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight, but don’t limit yourself to what you know. Go out and try new things. Some things when I was young I would have considered failures, but you just need to get to the starting line.”
Are there other ways we can encourage women into STEM? What are the challenges?
Allowing girls access to women in STEM is key. With movies and media portraying mainly male scientists, meeting one female scientist can change the life of a young girl as many do not realize that a career in STEM is an option. Their future options can be influenced by a decision they make at a very young age. Positive female role models are essential to provide women with examples to look up to when they’re making the most critical decisions in their educations or career.
Women also don’t simply fall into male-dominated fields and find themselves working in science and tech. A girl has to choose to take science to a high level, at an age when most young girls want to fit in with peers — not set them apart.
You need 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 STEM industry is still battling to overcome. Things are changing for the better though. The number of women in space for example is now improving, with the most recent NASA astronaut class being 50 per cent female and women now make up 26 per cent of the NASA Astronaut Corps.
Which women in STEM inspire you the most?
Both male and female mentors have guided me throughout my career and shaped my decisions. I’ve looked up to NASA astronaut Sunita Williams for years and meeting her while I was based at the European Space Agency (ESA) was one of the highlights of my career. She was kind enough to take some time to talk with me and helped me greatly with my Masters thesis on Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) or spacewalks.
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, broke the proverbial glass ceiling during her flight in 1963 and I hope her name becomes as widely known as Neil Armstrong or Yuri Gagarin. The late Andrea Boese (former chief diversity officer at the German Aerospace Center (DLR)) was an inspiration to women around the world including myself and continues to be after her untimely recent passing. NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Tracey Caldwell Dyson have supported women in STEM and continue to inspire. Other women who provide fantastic advice are Belinda Parmar (CEO of Lady Geek), Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg and Mindy Kaling.
What are your top sites or organisations and why?
Women In Aerospace (here, or here) — An excellent global organisation dedicated to expanding women’s opportunities for leadership and increasing their visibility in the aerospace community. Chapters can be found worldwide through Women In Aerospace (US), Women In Aerospace Canada and Women In Aerospace Europe. I encourage anybody interested to get involved!
The Guardian’s Women In Leadership — My go-to site to learn about the issues facing women in the workplace today and their views.
Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls — For all ages! A wonderful online community for young girls and the young at heart, which encourages smart girls to volunteer and be more involved in the world they live in to expand their worldview. Their inspiring motto is: Change the World by Being Yourself.
The Telegraph’s Wonder Women— Views on current issues from women in the UK.