Dr. Suzie Imber is an Associate Professor of Planetary Science at the University of Leicester, but is better known for being the winner of the hit BBC TV show, ‘Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?” where she competed amongst other would-be astronauts to receive a letter of recommendation from world renowned astronaut, Chris Hadfield which will aid her during the next official astronaut selection. She somehow managed to carve out time in her ridiculously busy schedule to chat with the YourScope team about her experiences, thoughts on the future of space science, and women in STEM fields.
Dr Imber is known not only for her interest in space science, but also for her work in mapping and charting remote and unexplored mountains in the Andes aided by a computer code she wrote herself to identify mountains based off satellite information.
What was it like to climb those previously uncharted mountains in the Andes, and what was the most important thing you took away from the experience?
"So, one of the things about climbing those types of mountains is there’s often a team of three or less. Last time I went, there was a team of five and people just… their bodies gave up and they couldn’t climb anymore. So it ended up with the two of us after three months. It’s brutal, you don’t have a route because no-one’s climbed it before, so you think to yourself, how will I even get to this place? What dangers will I face? There’s no rescue. The last trip I did, we went up a glacial valley that no-one had ever been up before; it looked like rock but was actually ice. That’s difficult — there were crevasses everywhere that you might fall down, and there were lots of unexpected obstacles. But, I see it as exciting, as you never really know what’s going to happen. It is very much on the edge, we ran out of food, we ran out of water, we had these ridiculous “if-you-fall-now-you’re-gonna-die” moments. It really takes you back to the essentials of life; you’re thinking about whether the wind will blow your tent down, and if it does, how you’re going to survive it. You almost turn into this feral human being — you don’t take a toothbrush, you don’t take a hairbrush for five weeks, you turn into this creature that’s focused on whether you have enough food or water, or whether you are going to survive. To me, that is amazing because you come back and realise all the stuff you were worrying about was nonsense, and not even worth the time of day, and that’s really enlightening: it puts everything into perspective. You no longer worry about whether your jumper is clean, you wear it anyway and hope nobody realises if it’s not. It’s a different way of life."
Do you think coding should be taught in schools?
"Yes, I do, I genuinely do. I think it’s vital, actually. We have a massive skill deficit in this area in this country and we will do moving forwards. Even things like Big Data analysis, for example, this is the way forwards. I understand that it's a bit of a buzzword right now, and things will evolve and change, but you need people that can manipulate massive data sets in order to do that kind of work and the only way you can gain those skills is through being able to code. Also, coding is just logic, so there’s very few people I’ve come across that we can’t teach how to code — it’s just applying logic in a sequence of steps. Of course, it sounds scary; there’s words we don’t understand in an order we don’t understand, but that’s all it is. I think we have to do it, and I really want to start an initiative for kids’ coding in schools, especially to get people thinking about coding and learning these higher level skills. So, the answer is yes, a very long yes."
What’s next? What are you planning for the next few years?
"Well, I don’t really plan — things just come up and you really have to take the chances that you are offered, which is how I ended up on Astronauts; it was a chance I couldn’t afford to pass up. I didn’t want to be sat here thinking, “What if I hadn’t signed up to do that program?” And now, other things pop up, especially in terms of commercial spaceflight astronaut training facilities around the world as they’re recognising that the future is actually in sending people up to space. There’s going to be hotels in space, there’s going to be mining on asteroids, we’ll have people on the moon. There’s a lot of development that needs to be done, but there’s not enough astronauts that’ll go out there and do that stuff. I went back to Sweden a month ago and was the first graduate of their astronaut training program, and I’m on their advisory board so we’re developing this as a product for people to be able to train for space travel. If you’re buying a ticket on the Virgin Galactic, you’re going to need some training, is our thought process on it. I’m interested in those kinds of things, although I want to keep up my research and I don’t want to stop my job at the university so my real question is how I’ll manage to do everything. Whatever I can do, I want to keep working. There’s also twenty more mountains over six thousand meters high in the Andes that I want to climb, which are absolutely brutal. They’re all in Peru and that’s our mountaineering goal, to start with. It’s not like I’m running out of ideas for things to do — quite the opposite actually."
How important do you think commercial spaceflight will be in the future?
“We’re relying on NASA, and ESA (European Space Agency), and DASA (a Germany-based space agency), for example, to send up missions and they’ve done a brilliant job, but times are changing and [commercial spaceflight] is not in the realm the impossible right now. It’s driving us forward. You guys saw the Falcon SpaceX launch, right? And you saw the boosters come down and land? And I thought to myself, this is incredible! This is really engaging and it’s the way to get more commercial industry and allow companies to start investing in space technology that they have been able to use — to provide a platform to keep putting people in space."
“There’s a lot of the ethics that I’m interested in. People have been buying tickets to it (Virgin Galactic and other commercial spaceflight) in their late seventies, but we don’t know when it’s going to launch. Is it ethical for them to be selling the tickets to someone who’s eighty to be going into space? Is it a wise thing to do given that we don’t know how they will handle it? How are we going to regulate space travel? Who owns space? These are all really important questions and it’s why lawmakers get together with scientists to try to bring some regulation to the whole problem — the idea of commercial spaceflight will need to be addressed”
Chris Hadfield was on the judging panel of ‘Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?’, as he is an experienced astronaut, serving on two space shuttle missions and as the commander of the International Space Station.
What was the best thing about working with legendary astronaut, Chris Hadfield?
"Chris Hadfield is a really interesting guy, and I’ve been really lucky to have met quite a few astronauts now and they’re all really amazing people in a really interesting way. Tim Peake, for example, is really understated — the kind of guy you could walk past in the street and not notice. All really nice, really down to earth. The thing I noticed about these guys are that they’re exactly the people you’d want to go up to space with. Maybe they didn’t start out like that, maybe they did, but their training has allowed them to become this character that’s exactly the kind of person you’d want on your team. I’ve learned a lot from them; their outlook on life and their attitude towards challenges. Plus, Chris always brings his guitar around everywhere (Editor’s note: he even took his guitar to the International Space Station — here’s a video of him singing a Space Oddity from the ISS (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo)). There was one day where we did some survival training and sat around a campfire at night and he played his guitar and we saw the International Space Station go over us, and I thought to myself, “Am I in heaven right now?”"
What has your experience been as a woman in a STEM field?
"Well, I will say I’m lucky now in some senses because I haven’t experienced any discrimination against me. And I don’t really see gender, particularly. I’ll walk into a room and it’s all men and I’m just used to it and I don’t notice; I literally don’t notice. I think that’s good, so I haven’t been discriminated against; I don’t feel like a minority. I clearly, physically, am, but I don’t think it matters. I understand that there’s a need to equalise the workforce, and that women certainly bring a certain set of skills and that it’s important to capitalise on that. However, when I’m going out and giving talks I don’t tend to have a conversation specifically about women in science with young people because all that’s going to do is make them aware of the problem that’s then going to be in the back of their mind. So instead I’ll take a more subtle approach, and I might be wrong about this, but my approach is to just be one, and talk to people instead. And people that see me, and if they’re looking for a role model — that’s such a horrible word, and I don’t really think I am one — if they’re looking for someone that’s doing a job that they want to do, if you can see yourself as that person — maybe it’s because they’re the same gender as you, then that’s enough, isn’t it? Young girls see it, and they think, “Ah, she’s just like me”. I think that’s enough, without having a conversation about women in science. Also, I don’t really have a story to tell where I’ve been massively discriminated against or disadvantaged, or someone’s kicked me out for being a woman. I don’t have that story so I also don’t have that agenda."
"When people ask me “What’s it like to be a woman in science”, well, I haven’t been a man in science so I don’t really have a point of comparison."
Are you going to end up in space anytime soon?
“The thing is that, you know, I often compare this show to the Bake Off, as you do get down to one person at the end. However, whoever wins the Bake Off wins three books and four restaurants and its as if their dream has come true at that point, but with Astronauts, it’s not quite like that. I don’t have a ticket into space; I have a letter of recommendation from Chris Hadfield and he’s involved in astronaut selection for NASA. I’m not eligible for NASA, as I’m not American so it would have to be European Space Agency. So, I have a letter of recommendation from him, so next time they have a pool for astronauts I’ll be eligible but how much that’ll help me, I have no idea. There’ll be eight thousand applicants, and they’ll all be smart, and they’ll all be accomplished, so we’ll see.
“I want to get people interested in science, and I want to get people asking questions about the future of the human race and its exploration”
YourScope would like to extend our thanks to the teachers that made this interview happen, as well as Dr Imber for giving us the time to interview her!