Space exploration, in many ways, resembles a pyramid. Astronauts, flashy rocket launches, stunning images from other worlds – all of it constitutes the tip. That tip is glamorous, well publicized and easily noticeable, but it is small, and it rests on layers upon layers of stones: scientists, engineers, workers.
For something slightly different, let’s dive into the world of people without whom the pyramid would not stand.
Simona Liukaityte-Suszczynska is an optical systems engineer who spent two years in the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), the French space agency. For half a year, she worked on the Perseverance rover. An outspoken critic of male-centered tendencies of the world of aerospace engineering, she agreed to share her outlook on the state the industry is currently in.
You have to get it
“At the time I was working in the CNES. My task was to build an optical setup that allows to test one of the cameras on the rover. This camera is in the instrument called SuperCam, and the goal of the instrument is to analyze chemical composition of the Martian soil, to find out if there are any signs of life that existed on Mars, or chemical compounds that might be dangerous for humans,” Simona explains. She was hired on the back of six years of laboratory work with satellites and a PhD. Perseverance was her first job after receiving a diploma.
“It sounds like the job is so complicated, so big. But it felt somehow natural, like I was prepared for this kind of task. During my PhD studies I was testing filters that are used in satellite cameras, so I knew what to expect” Simona says.
For an ordinary engineer, a jump from every day work to the work on satellites can pose insurmountable challenges. As Simona explains, everything is simply “much more serious”.
“Conditions in the laboratory – cleanliness, temperature, humidity, everything is strictly controlled. The way objects are handled, tested. There are a lot more details you have to take into account, there is no room for a mistake, no room for a delay. This brings in a particular mindset, you have to understand it, to get it. For me, it was the most difficult thing, but it’s something people in the space industry are doing every day.”
Non-pushable deadlines bring in the wave-like routine: as the work is done, you can relax, come together, prepare. But then another deadline comes near, the work mounts, and you have to dive in head-first.
“This kind of pressure is actually quite precious. It really improves you, it allows you to build skills that you wouldn’t obtain otherwise. You need consistency, you have to organize, you have to prepare for when things get chaotic.”
Two master’s degrees and a PhD may prepare for some challenges, but not for all of them.
“On my first job interview I was asked if I will be able to do the job, because it is usually being done by men. Then I was asked about my family situation. When I inquired with my male colleagues if they received this kind of question, they didn’t know what I was talking about. I was lucky, I got the job, but I also had experience and diplomas. I’m pretty sure there are women who might not be able to get a job because of questions like these. This really shows how powerful this kind of thinking is,” Simona admits.
Challenges did not end there.
“I experience these kinds of problems very often. And I often hear about them from other people, my colleagues. Sexist comments, jokes. You are in a meeting, and someone says that you are not right because you use “woman logic”. Well, at the moment I am in a very good team, with people who do not do that, and I’m really lucky. But there always are people in the company, in different departments, who keep thinking like that,” Simona sighs.
While at the workplace such experience can be endured, at an earlier stage in life it can lead to serious damage. The thinking that a woman is not suitable for particular jobs is especially dangerous in childhood, as it discourages studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, and choosing a profession in the field. The discouragement can be blunt or subtitle, it can be anything, from a lack of encouragement to non-existence of 3D toys for girls.
“You have to reach a certain level of self-confidence to overcome that, to enter this world, to start studying physics or something similar. And even then, if you choose a career, you still can get punished by having kids. It’s always like that – at first you are not confident enough, not experienced enough. Then you have kids, and after that you are too old to learn something new,” Simona says.
The only way out of that is to start at an early age, to remove obstacles women have to face from the start. Then, and only then can the benefits of a fully egalitarian workspace be enjoyed.
“Because STEM fields – engineering, physics, IT, robotics, that is the future of our world. This is where we are going, first of all. Four times more workplaces are created in this field than in any other. And there are always vacancies, there is a need for skilled engineers. If we don’t have enough people who work there, we lose. Having more women would not only mean more diversity, more ideas, but also more work power. This is really important to understand,” Simona says.
“My biggest advice for young people, young women coming into aerospace engineering would be to be brave, to go through things. The beginning always looks difficult, but if you do difficult, different things, you go forward. Every big step happens when you go out of your comfort zone, do challenging things.”
Rewards of this process speak for themselves. When AeroTime spoke with Simona, the Perseverance had just landed on Mars, and SuperCam had just been awakened, sending the results of the first successful test.
“At first, when you work every day, when you go through details, you don’t really think how big it is. But you look at it later, and you realize the scope of it, the ambition of the project you worked on. That’s when you become really happy.”