Opportunity within the unknown: Amazing women making their mark in the South Africa space industry

2016 saw the release of the film ‘Hidden Figures’. It is the story of three female African-American mathematicians—Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan—who successfully led the first NASA space mission in the 1960s. Praised for increasing the visibility of these amazing women and their capabilities, and for its inspiring message, the biopic’s most important legacy has been its effect on burgeoning scientists, especially young girls.

Currently, we are in a period where the need for more female participation in STEM fields and STEM education has never been more urgent. There is a great need for a change in archaic attitudes that maths and science is not for girls, which some still believe to be true, and for the work of female engineers, scientists, mathematicians, researchers and women in numerous other STEM fields, to move to the forefront.

BBQ magazine was fortunate to chat two remarkable women in the South African space industry— Dr Minoo Rathnasabapathy and Carla Sharpe—who, in the midst of extremely busy schedules, took the time to shed light on the aerospace industry and the opportunities that lie within.

Dr Minoo Rathnasabapathy

Dr Minoo Rathnasabapathy is a Research Engineer within the Space Enabled research group at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, USA. In this role, she helps coordinate projects in collaboration with international development organisations, national governments and entrepreneurial companies to apply space technology in support of the Sustainable Development Goals. She also leads efforts in writing proposals, communicating the team’s work through writing and speaking, as well as mentoring students.

Previously, Dr Rathnasabapathy served as the Executive Director of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), a global non-governmental organization, which acts in support of the United Nations Programme on Space Applications, based in Vienna, Austria. Dr Rathnasabapathy was responsible for leading the operations, business development, strategy, and policy output for SGAC, a network that represents over 10 000 university students and young professionals in 110+ countries. Dr Rathnasabapathy earned her PhD in Aerospace Engineering from RMIT University, researching the impact dynamics of novel materials used in aerospace structures. Dr Rathnasabapathy serves as a member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Space Technology and the Generation-Next Advisory Board for Via Satellite.

From a young age, Dr Rathnasabapathy knew she wanted to be a part of the space industry, marvelling as a child at how humans had developed technology that was capable of exploration beyond the Earth.

“However, after completing my Bachelor in Aerospace Engineering, I struggled with my next career move. While space fascinated me, I knew I wanted to contribute to society and work towards reducing some of the challenges we face on Earth. I struggled to link space exploration and technology to societal benefit, until I realised that space could play a key role in supporting life on Earth, if we design it to do so. From Earth observation images taken from satellites that help farmers monitor their crops, to satellite communications that enable telemedicine services to help people in rural areas that do not have easy access, to medical specialists meeting virtually with doctors, space technology is crucial for our development on Earth,” explains Dr Rathnasabapathy.

Her first job was at MT Aerospace in Augsburg, Germany, where she worked on structural design improvements of the Ariane 5 launch system. She says that the job afforded her the opportunity to connect concepts learnt in the classroom to the real world. “The thought of components that I was working on, one day going to space was incredible,” she enthuses.

In terms of what being an Aerospace Engineer entails, she says that people often have an image of an Aerospace Engineer sitting behind a desk working on lengthy calculations. “While some very smart people do, there are an array of roles due to the specialised nature of the industry—from developing propulsion systems to testing components, each role is varied,” she adds.

As a woman in aerospace engineering, which still primarily remains a male-dominated industry, she says that the aviation and aerospace sectors are not the only industries facing the challenge of a more inclusive workforce.

“From energy to mining, industries are growing globally and recognising the need for a more diverse workforce and gender-balanced representation in our society. The percentage of women in the aviation and aerospace sectors are steadily increasing, however, initiatives need to be widespread to raise awareness of gender diversity issues. Simple things like Miss Astronaut Barbie who ‘inspires girls to be adventurous and to always reach for the stars’ will make a big difference in what young women believe they can accomplish,” says Dr Rathnasabapathy.

“I have been privileged to have been given the opportunity to pursue my passion for space, adventure and knowledge, without gender-bias or prejudice. However, I know this is the exception and not the rule. Young girls need more female role models in maths, science and engineering, and it’s important that we profile the many successful female role models across these sectors. From a young age, we need to educate girls about the diverse range of careers available in these sectors—from journalists and policymakers to astronauts and technicians. It’s important to increase the visibility of women in these positions who stand as role models for the next generation,” Dr Rathnasabapathy says.

An increase in the visibility of women in various roles will increase the visibility of the various opportunities that the space science sector holds. “This industry is very wide—from artists who design space mission patches, lawyers who work on the policy and regulations of the peaceful uses of space, and medical professionals who oversee the health of the astronauts—space is not just rocket science and becoming an astronaut. The aerospace and engineering sectors offer a multitude of career opportunities that require people with diverse skill sets, interests and talent,” she adds.

Her advice to younger women wishing to follow similar careers paths is to actively seek opportunities to take on leadership positions, be unafraid of asking questions and be driven by the opportunity to influence people. “While technical skills are important in engineering, it is important to break the misconception that engineering is not a humanistic effort,” she says.

Regarding the most promising developments she has witnessed in the sector over the last few years, she concludes, “The next generation of aerospace professionals views international collaboration as an integral part of the future of the industry. The difference between ‘established’ and ‘emerging’ space actors will diminish substantially. New forms of space-based partnerships and the convergence of several space technologies will play a major role in the future of the sector.”

Carla Sharpe

Carla Sharpe is a founder of the South African Space Association and currently serves on the management committees of both the association and Women in Aerospace Africa. Sharpe is also responsible for business development at Africa’s largest science undertaking, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

While passionate about space, it was only a little later in life when she pursued this area of study, completing her Master’s degree at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. “It was the inception of the South African National Space Agency that inspired me to find my place in space in that I met with Dr Peter Martinez. He mentored me and has guided me on my path, starting from my first space technology course through to today,” she explains.

Currently, Sharpe is in the process of completing her PhD in Space Science Economics at the University of Cape Town.

“For many countries, space exploration seems out of reach because we constantly hear of how many billions of dollars are used by NASA to launch things into space. However, the benefits of space exploration are immense and countries, particularly developing countries, cannot afford to remain outside of this arena.

“My PhD looks at modelling how governments and industry of developing nations can guide space science technology investment. This is so that these countries are able to invest at the appropriate levels and in the appropriate areas so as to maximise the socio-economic benefits and the sustainability of programmes. Essentially, technology development is seen as a driver of economic benefit and space technology provides a wide array of benefits and growth areas. I hope that my studies will offer a tool towards the successful space science and technology investment to positively affect lives in developing nations,” explains Sharpe.

In 2009, she founded the South African Space Association, providing a forum for space professionals to interact and exchange ideas, and act as a source of specialist information for the government and the public on space-related issues. The association incorporates education, research, space awareness, policy and regulation, science and technology issues.

Sharpe explains that the application of space technology is important in South African policies across various sectors, as it can be extremely beneficial in a number of ways that many people are not fully aware of.

“Putting satellites in space provides satellite communication, global positioning systems (GPS) and Earth observation, and the data from this is used in a variety of applications to address services on the ground such as food and water security, urban management, disaster management and epidemiology,” she says.

“Other issues include nature conservation, land-use change, drought and desertification, climate change, treaty compliance and exposing human rights and environmental violations. One can see from this short list of areas how important it is to develop regulatory structures and how space technology and policies will impact other areas. Policy regulation in South Africa is the mandate of the South African Council for Space Affairs (SACSA),” she adds.

The South African National Space Association (SANSA) reports that the South African space industry has been hampered by financial constraints and that the future of the industry lies in international collaboration. Sharpe agrees that while collaboration is imperative for technology and knowledge sharing, South Africa cannot duplicate the expenditure and experience of the space-faring nations. South Africa has areas of expertise and excellence to be further exploited, and there is a need for South Africa to focus on being part of a global value chain in space and not look to replicate the entire value chain.

“We have certain technologies, components of spacecraft that are competitive internationally as well as skilled people that set us apart. One of the problems many developing countries face with recognising they need to join the space sector is that spending is often not at the appropriate level or in the appropriate form to drive growth and sustainability. I believe a greater role of the government at a foundational level in terms of funding, incentive and support will aid growth locally,” says Sharpe.

In terms of what industry issues remain to be addressed by the government, she highlights that space debris is a great challenge, from a regulatory perspective as well as how do we physically remove it; furthering skills in space science and Research and Development funding available for the development of technologies and entrepreneurs in South Africa (can we add: is the answer).

“I feel that South Africa has developed a progressive Government Act that protects publicly funded intellectual property. However, the road from incentivising and driving the development of this intellectual property to the point it goes to market is insufficiently supported, particularly so in space science and technology,” Sharpe explains.

An important aspect of the association’s work is promoting public awareness of the importance of space science and technology, STEM education, the development of young space professionals and to provide study and vocational training opportunities in a wide range of disciplines supporting the space arena in South Africa.

“The South African Space Association brings together highly motivated individuals towards professional development and space awareness. Inspiration can be easily channelled to inspire others. There are organisations doing great work in this area such as the Office for Astronomy Development, but there is not enough awareness overall. In South Africa, we are faced with many challenges and education is often only one of many more difficult challenges for young people. I think over time, educating women and STEM education has to be woven into our cultural identity. Education has to become easier to access overall. Employment stigmas need to fade away, in terms of young women being pushed into stereotypical professions or young people being pushed towards non-STEM streams due to perceived better employment benefits,” says Sharpe.

“As a teenager, I equated space jobs to NASA, geniuses and astronauts. It never occurred to me that I, a girl from Africa, and not a genius, could have any part to play in the space sector. Recently, I gave a talk to young people in high school about careers in space, along with some amazing women who have overcome a lot to succeed in the space industry. I believe interacting with women like this, being inspired by their stories and achievements, is a simple way of attracting young women to study STEM subjects,” she adds.

In aerospace, South Africa has a number of space companies, such as the South African Space Agency and space science projects such as the SKA, that not only employ engineers but offer internships and young professional development programmes. The South African SKA project has awarded over 1 000 bursaries in STEM areas and has employed over 30 young professionals.

Sharpe does not believe that there is a strong enough female voice in science, engineering and space industries, as well as there not being enough employment opportunities in aerospace in South Africa, and Africa, for men and women alike.

“From personal workplace experience, not as an employment specialist, female engineers are in demand in South Africa. We need more. The opportunities for employment in aerospace though, can only grow as the industry grows. These engineers, however, can expand their experience in large projects within the space sciences such as the SKA project, which are large employers of engineers,” she says.

Sharpe is a founding member of WIS-Africa, the African division of Women in Aerospace, whose primary focus challenges its members to role model and mentor—an important process for young aspiring women. WIA-Africa also supports the participation of men in activities supporting women’s growth in aerospace. WIA-Africa’s goal is to expand the current training programmes offered at a tertiary level as well as to implement a graduate internship programme and school-level awareness programmes for young women.

Asked who she admires, she names Katherine Johnson, the female mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for NASA missions, as one of her role models. “Katherine Johnson made huge strides—her calculations were essential to early missions and the shuttle programme, and she even worked on Mars missions. Closer to home, I am a huge fan of my good friend Adriana Marais, a seemingly normal young woman who has a PhD in quantum biology, is a Mars One candidate and runs innovation for one of the largest software companies globally. She grabs life and nothing is insurmountable,” she shares.

Over the next 10 years, Sharpe would like to see the local space industry grow and flourish, build on our current achievements such as those in CubeSats and utilising our geographical advantage.

“I believe that African countries need to collaborate to participate in the global marketplace but Africa, itself, is a marketplace. The applications from space data are essential to so many areas of our lives and I feel Africa needs to look to establishing its own space-based infrastructure and autonomy. National space programmes cannot be cut and pasted onto other nations. African countries should not look to merely duplicate capabilities but develop niche areas in order to offer complementary technologies and skills in larger value chains,” Sharpe explains.

Currently, Sharpe works for the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), the national facility that houses the South African SKA project. The project proudly completed the 64-dish MeerKAT telescope in the Northern Cape earlier this year. The MeerKAT telescope created an astounding image of the centre of our galaxy.

“In my personal capacity, I am the founding Director of the Foundation for Space Development. A group of us who are passionate about space and Africa put all our big ideas and aspirations into the foundation. The project I hope to see happen in the not-too-distant future is Africa2Moon—we plan to put an African-made radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. What is unique about this concept is the technology, the collaborative model and relatively low cost (in space terms). The telescope is essentially made up of radio receivers in the 1 to 5MHz, which are deployed as inflatable balls that, together, act as a telescope. This frequency range can’t be studied on Earth due to our ionosphere, so we hope to do first-time science too,” she says.

She also hints at a future programme they are hoping to launch next year that will have the vision to develop the first female African astronaut. It would be a collaborative programme across Africa and with international counterparts.

“What matters the most to me about what I do is that I contribute. Being part of projects that inspire people and use space science and technology to make a positive impact on lives in Africa is what makes the hard work worth it,” says Sharpe.

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