Vinita Marwaha Madill is a space operations engineer based at the European Space Agency (ESA). She works on future human spaceflight projects, was involved in spacesuit design for ESA and worked as an operations engineer for the International Space Station at the German Aerospace Centre. Vinita featured in the Academy's This is Engineering campaign and runs a website called Rocket Women, which aims to inspire the next generation of engineers.
“I’m a Space Operations Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA) working on future human spaceflight projects, including the European Robotic Arm (ERA). ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I’m a space operations engineer at ESA working on future human spaceflight projects, including the European Robotic Arm (ERA), which will soon be launched to the International Space Station (ISS). It will help astronauts carry out spacewalks and install new parts of the space station.
As an operations engineer, I work on developing the operations for the project, including preparing a smaller version of mission control at ESA’s ESTEC technology centre in the Netherlands and astronaut training. My typical day varies from developing astronaut spacewalk training with colleagues in Russia, to creating and testing missions for astronauts to control the robotic arm at ESA. Once the ERA is launched, I’ll be working on-console at ESTEC and from mission control in Moscow on its operations and supporting the spacewalks conducted by the astronauts onboard the ISS. Having wanted to work in the space industry since I was young, working at the ESA is a dream come true.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I’m fortunate to have realised my passion at a young age. I told my physics teacher in Year 7 that I wanted to work in NASA’s mission control. Twelve years later I fulfilled my dream, working on ISS operations at the German Aerospace Centre, Germany’s answer to NASA’s mission control, and now at ESA.
Knowing that I wanted to work in the space industry, I learned about UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space while studying physics at university. Through this, I met space professionals for the first time, some of whom I went on to work with.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Ultimately, engineering is about problem solving, teamwork and creativity; skills that we need for the future.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
Prior to my current role in the Netherlands, I enjoyed being based at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre, where I focused on spacesuit design and spacewalk training. Later, I operated experimental payloads onboard the ISS at the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, Germany.
Without the presence of gravity, astronauts on the ISS lose 1-2% 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 two and a half hours each day on the ISS.
Astronauts on the ISS can also painfully grow up to seven centimetres in height due to spending six months in a microgravity environment. While at the European Astronaut Centre, I worked with a team on a SkinSuit, designed to essentially mimic the effect 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 to help prevent bone loss. After almost 10 years of research and development, SkinSuit was launched to the ISS in September 2015 and worn onboard the station by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.
How do you think racial parity in engineering can be achieved?
I’ve been fortunate to have met some amazing people during my career, especially other positive female BAME role models. I think you need engineering role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation and to help achieve racial parity in engineering. I started Rocket Women to give these women a voice and a platform to spread their advice.
This quote by Sally Ride, first American woman in space, sums up the importance of visible role models: "I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model. But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that to people. Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can't be what you can't see." It is one of my favourite quotes and is absolutely true.
I’m also lucky to have had adults, both parents and great teachers, around me who cultivated my interest and encouraged me to study space.
Has being a BAME engineer had an impact on your career that is either positive or negative?
The space industry is, by its nature, an international industry and I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to not only be able to work in multiple countries but also with international teams. Being a BAME engineer certainly helped me to start my career with a global mindset and to understand and adapt to the cultural differences that come with living and working on another continent or in a new country.
How has the ethnic diversity of the profession changed since you started working in engineering?
The proportion of UK citizens from ethnic minority communities is around 20%. However, only 8% of all UK engineers are from BAME backgrounds compared to 27% of first degree engineering university graduates who are from BAME backgrounds. This shows that we have work to do to achieve racial parity in engineering. As engineering, and the space industry in particular, is a global industry, ethnic diversity within projects and teams certainly exists and is encouraged.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
The experience that I gained from having a comprehensive view of the space industry while studying at the International Space University and through focused engineering internships and volunteering helped forge the path to where I am now. I think almost everyone that I know working in engineering 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 on the side or in a 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. 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.”