Case study: space missions
Stepping stones to space Libby Jackson, human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency, talks to Tushna Commissariat about taking chances, making bold choices, and finding her way into the space sector
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When she was eight years old, physicistturned-engineer Libby Jackson penned and illustrated a “travel guide to Mars”. Part of a s choo l as s i g nment s e t ove r t he summer ho l iday s , s h e wa s mean t t o r e s e a r c h a p l a c e t ha t she someday hoped to visit. Jackson decided upon a rather more liberal interpretation of the assignment, as she dreamed of a terraformed Martian surface, teeming with “an amazing selection of hotels you could stay at [and] also plenty of marzipan and Mars bars to go around”. Space has been a lifel o n g p a s s i o n f o r J a c k s o n an d t o day s h e i s t h e human exploration programme manager for the UK Space Agency.
“M y i n t e r e s t ha s a l way s b e e n i n s p a c e , b u t when I was younger, I didn’t know that the UK had a space industry or that you could p o s s i b l y b e an e n g i n e e r o r a s c i e n t i s t wo r k i n g in that field,” says Jackson. Indeed, it was only when she spent a week of her summer holidays at Space School UK at the age of 16, that she learnt about the many different roles, beyond that of an astronaut, that the space sector affords. Jackson went on a visit to what was then Matra Marconi Space company in Bristol, which later became Astrium, and subsequently Airbus. “I clearly remember my fascination that day, seeing real space hardware and satellites that were being built here in the UK. That was when I had t h e f i r s t i n k l i n g t ha t p e r hap s o n e day t h i s might be something I could do. But at the time, my focus really was on my impending GC SE s and t h e n A - l e v e l s and o n t o un i v e r s i t y. So while the seeds were sown, I still couldn’t really see how I ’d get there just yet.”
Space stories L ibby Jack son speaking at t he 2019 Bluedot Fes t i val in t he UK .
In fact, this is something that Jackson is keen to tell students today, who may have a “big crazy dream” but might not know how to fulfil it. “When you are at university, and you look at people you admire or who are doing jobs that you want – know that none of these people would have known how they would get there either, when they were 15. You may be able to look back and see the path, but for now it’s just a series of stepping stones. Just look for the lily pad or the next stone that seems interesting to you, and if you’re enjoying i t , then that ’s the r ight way.”
For Jackson, the next life-changing step came a year later aged 17, when she had to organize a week of work shadowing. On a whim, Jackson and a friend used the latter’s e-mail account (few people had e-mail access at the time) to contact NASA, and by some stroke of luck, she and the friend were invited to spend two weeks at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, US. “We saw the neutral buoyancy lab where they trained astronauts. We even got into the building where they house all the Apollo lunar rocks, and to this day, I’ve not seen those since.”
But what Jackson r emembers most f r om t hat trip is the time she spent at mission control. “I sat next to Kathy Larson, who was working on a propulsion systems console – she was s hu t t l e f l i g h t c o n t r o l l e r , and t h e y we r e r unn i n g simulations for shuttle launches and aborts. And I just put the headset on, and I thought, ‘ This is i t…this is where I want to be.’ ”
After getting her A-levels in physics, ma t h s , f u r t h e r ma t h s and mus i c , J a c k s o n d i d a BSc in physics at Imperial College, London. She t hen enr o l l ed f or a Master ’s in aer onautics and space engineering at Cranfield University in 2002. Between the two degrees, Jackson did a summer placement at EADS Astrium (now Airbus), working with a team on synthetic-aperture radar imaging – indeed, her thesis research was also done with the group. At the end of her degree, the same group offered her a job. “While the work was interesting for a summer, it just didn’t excite me enough, so I turned them down, with nothing else on the horizon,” says Jackson.
As it happened, this was the right decision – Jackson put together a CV, which stated that she was looking to work specifically in
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