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Don’t lose science: Nadia This and human-powered spaceflight
Depth interview

Don’t lose science: Nadia This and human-powered spaceflight

Nadia This is a Payload Integration Manager for the International Space Station.

11 minutes
17 September 2020

Nadia This can’t afford to be wrong. She’s a Payload Integration Manager for the International Space Station (ISS), and whether she’s working with astronauts or sending experiments into space, she needs to be 100% correct in her work. Which is why it’s so odd when she says, ‘I don’t think I’m very interesting.’ Because on this count, she’s very wrong.

To put it mildly, Nadia This does not seek to advertise herself, or to trumpet her many accomplishments.

Ok.

‘I’m not important. I’m not in charge of anything.’ ‘In Munich, I was working with the space station, I was the flight director, I was the only Belgian ever who did that, but then again, what would I do, go to the press and tell them I had a fun job?’

Yes?

Maybe we should start by looking at one of those boring jobs she’s been doing. ‘The instrument I started working on was studying the Sun, and from the space station the Sun moves across the Earth, and the instrument was supposed to follow the Sun across the sky. What happened was that the instrument detected the Sun, started following it, and suddenly it lost track of the Sun, and you have no idea how come. You have to figure it out because every time you’re not doing the measurements you’re losing occasions to do science; in ISS terms we say we’re “losing science”. What do you do then? That required lots of investigations, but it turned out there were video images from the space station that showed the robot arm of the station had been moved and in its new position it was casting a shadow over our instrument. So the instrument would detect that shadow, say “Ok, I lost the Sun”, and go back to its default position. It sounds very stupid, but these things happen.’

Nadia This is well aware that many people find this kind of space detective work fascinating. When you stop talking about her and start talking about the work, she lights up. ‘I’m not really searching for the attention, but I really like talking about this work, because it’s fun, it’s interesting.’

Despite being surrounded by some of the most advanced technology on the planet, and tasked with safeguarding some of the most advanced technology not on the planet, This’ great interest is people. The professors who guided her at KU Leuven, the scientists she works with at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, near Leiden, and the kids interested in astronomy today who will push the limits of space travel tomorrow.

A deep and abiding interest in people turns out to be just what is needed at a moment of great change in the space sector. Humanity is about to move on from orbital research to interplanetary travel, to graduate from the ISS to the Lunar Gateway, and the rockets and astronauts involved will get all of the coverage.

But it will be managers like Nadia who prepare materials for launch, coordinate risks on a spacecraft, and keep teams on Earth from detrimental competition. To reach our potential as an interplanetary species we will need Nadia This, and others like her, more than we can possibly imagine.

Just don’t tell her that. She’d deny it.

In Space Studies, we had a course on space technology, and for me that was eye-opening.

Master’s of the Stars

Nadia’s career path is the answer to a tricky question in science: What if I don’t want to be a scientist? She faced this question after obtaining a bachelor’s in Physics, a master’s in Astrophysics, and an advanced master in Space Studies at KU Leuven. ‘Over the years I’ve learned that I like a broader approach. During my master’s in Astrophysics, I realised that I liked the topic, but I wasn’t the best scientist for that; I saw people doing a PhD on only four separate stars, and that was too specialised for me.’

‘When I was studying astronomy, doing my master’s thesis, we had an engineer there doing a PhD, and he had worked at NASA for 2 years in satellite design. He was also involved in the setup of this Space Studies programme at KU Leuven. I talked with him, and that’s where I started seeing more space technology related stuff, and that’s where I saw that there was an option there, that that’s the potential future. I started to realise that in Belgium we do space things, and I didn’t know that at the time.’

‘In Space Studies, we had a course on space technology, and for me that was eye-opening. It was like, yeah, space stuff, it’s feasible to do it in Europe, it’s possible.’

People Wrangler

This found a nearby opportunity in Brussels. ‘I ended up at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB). They were doing experiments on the space station there, and you make them, and you do them, and you talk to astronauts from there. And we do that in Belgium. And it sounded pretty convincing, and I took that job. It turned out I love operations, the real-time support of astronauts and experiments.’

Her work at BIRA-IASB introduced This to the value of collaboration in her new industry. ‘You can’t do anything on your own, you always have to check with the central flight control team, they assemble everything together to ensure that one experiment is not in conflict with the other, that you’re not doing anything that is unsafe for the crew.’

A job coordinating experiments for the space station appealed to Nadia This. ‘After working in Brussels, I moved to the Columbus control centre in Munich, the European part of the space station. There I became the flight director, so I had the overall responsibility for whatever we were doing on that day and for the safety of the crew.’

‘Now I work in ESTEC as a Payload Integration Manager (PIM), so I’m a project coordinator, starting when the experiment is proposed until its executed, and so it’s somehow all related, except what I do now is more long-term. The time from design to execution of an experiment used to be 5-6 years,’ says This, ‘but it could also be 10 years depending on how complicated the thing is. Nowadays, we’re going a bit faster and we also have some commercial payloads that promise to be ready in one year from the contract they sign to launch to the space station.’

The Price of Space Flight

Commercial considerations are indeed changing every aspect of space travel. Private companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX are poised to play an ever larger role in space station operations, from launch, to the development of experiments on board, to recovery. Certainly this will mean changes at ESA and the space station, although as Nadia says, ‘At the moment we still handle everything the same opera- tionally. So you still have to fulfil the same safety requirements, although some commercial experi- ments don’t want to reveal what they are actually doing, because it’s commercial and they want to monetise it later on. So there you need to put in a balance and put in the bare requirements for safety.’

‘It has posed some questions. For example, what has happened on the space station is that the crew calls down and they say like, “Hey, this device here is making a funny noise, is that normal?” With older experiments we would either know or we would know who to contact or ask, but with commercial payloads it’s not always the same. We don’t always have a point of contact, or they are not available on call, then you have no idea if it’s normal that this thing makes noise, or if it means that it’s going to explode. So if the crew tells you, “Hey, this thing makes so much noise that I can’t sleep, what do you do?” If you push it off, you might have ruined a commercial experiment and ESA might get the blame for that. If you don’t, the crew is getting annoyed and for sure ESA gets the blame for that. It’s that kind of question. They might sound trivial, but still you need to solve them and they can become a very big deal.’

Did she just mention experiments exploding in space?

‘That’s just me exaggerating, they’re safe by design, there should be no way they can explode. But imagine a thing is smelling weird, does it mean that maybe still – even though the smoke detectors don’t detect it yet - that something is burning a little bit or some mould has produced and it’s poisoning the atmosphere.’

The Future of Space Travel

The International Space Station is set for retirement in 2030, and nothing is certain about space travel beyond that point, although there are plans to move beyond near-Earth orbit. One program proposed thus far is the Lunar Gateway, which would put a space station in orbit around the Moon to be used as a jumping-off point for missions to the Moon and beyond. This is excited about the possibility. ‘The focus is changing to new projects like the Lunar Gateway and returning to the Moon. They also want to send a rover to Mars and it will drive around and drill samples of Mars soil and put it in little tubes, just leave the tubes behind, and at some point another vehicle comes along and picks up the tubes and brings it back to a launch vehicle to then bring it back to Earth.’

An underestimated aspect of deep space travel is the cooperation and ingenuity necessary to send astronauts as far as Mars on voyages that could last years. The advantages that women would bring to missions as astronauts and as mission control specialists are numerous, but most importantly, they are different than those of men. A healthy balance of genders in the industry should be a net positive for all involved, a familiar sight to Nadia This. ‘In Astronomy at KU Leuven, we were about 50/50, and the astronomy department at the time had some strong female characters. In Space Studies, we were mixed, maybe 60/40 men to women.’

‘What I do notice is that in general women assume less that they know all things. That they know better than the other people. You do see a difference in what you could call the hard-core positions and the softer positions. Like in Munich, we would have systems specialists and planners, and there’s a distinction not only in the gender, but also in the attitude between the teams; like planners, they were a bit softer, and in the systems specialists teams there was more competition and more men and the competition aspect there was much bigger. Working here at ESTEC in my current function, the PIM function, women are the majority, we interface a lot with the ESA engineers, and there are very few women in that role.’

What I do notice is that in general women assume less that they know all things.

Human Propulsion

All of which brings us back to where Nadia feels most at home, talking about people. Namely, about people working together, and how simple it can be to inspire others to realise their innate potential. For her, this inspiration started back at KU Leuven. ‘You have there Professor Christoffel Waelkens, who at the time was the head of the Department of Astronomy, and he’s kind of a legendary figure. The way he teaches, he’s kind of this idealistic figure who still makes you dream about all the mysteries of our field left to uncover.’

Now it’s Nadia’s turn to inspire others to a career in space. ‘When I was working in Munich I got this letter from a woman about her son. The kid had to point out a job he would like to do when he grew up and he said to his teacher that he wanted to be a flight controller, and the teacher said to him to pick something else because that will never happen. I think that’s very bad, because it can happen. I’m just an ordinary person and there’s luck involved, but you can do stuff, and not only in Europe, if you wanted to you could move to the U.S. and you find a way, you just have to realise that the possibility is there. Because if they close the door in your face you don’t even know that it’s possible. That is bad, it’s not fair.’

This is where Nadia This makes her mark, in the supportive interactions among people that make space travel possible. And this type of work is more than just interesting. It’s important.

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Sonar

September 2020