The women behind Rocket Lab

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Once considered a world belonging only to astronauts and rocket scientists – and dominated by men – New Zealand’s space industry is booming, with women at the forefront. Later this month, Rocket Lab will launch to the Moon for NASA, supporting a program to land the first woman and first person of color, writes Sophie Trigger.

Looking up at the night sky during a dinner break, Sarah Blyde started thinking about the universe.

She was 26 and working as an engineer in the oil industry in Western Australia in 2019.

“Just look up at the night sky to all the planets and stars [wondering] what’s going on out there in the universe is pretty cool.

“One day, I had the revelation that if they needed engineers in the oil industry, they also needed them in the space industry.

First, she researched the local observatory and started volunteering there.

“I had my eye on what was happening overseas – all these awesome, awesome rocket launches going into space – but then I heard about Rocket Lab back home doing awesome things. .

“It opened my eyes to see that we can do this, Kiwis can work in the space sector. And I started to chart a bit of a path to get there.”

She is now a project engineer for Rocket Lab – managing changes to the Electron launcher from its initial concept until it flies into space.

Blyde’s job is to coordinate changes to the design of Electron, a three-stage orbital rocket that launched 146 satellites into space. Photo / Trevor Mahlmann

Electron is a three-stage orbital rocket that has launched 146 satellites – it is the second most frequently launched US rocket.

Based at the Auckland production complex in Mt Wellington, Blyde’s job is to coordinate changes to Electron’s design.

“It’s an interesting role because there’s so much variety in the projects we’re involved in,” she said.

“In the morning we could discuss with the parachute system recovery engineers, then in the afternoon we could discuss payload fairing modifications for an upcoming mission with the production team.”

Rocket Lab was founded in New Zealand by Peter Beck in 2006. In addition to launching lightweight electron orbital rockets, the company designs satellites and manufactures spacecraft software – with Rocket Lab technology on more than 1,700 space missions worldwide.

New Zealand’s Mahia launch site at Hawke’s Bay is the world’s first and only private active orbital launch site.

From there, Electron has been launched 26 times, and this month Rocket Lab will be launched to the Moon for NASA.

The mission is pioneering, supporting Nasa’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and person of color on the moon.

Growing up in New Zealand, working in the space industry was not something Blyde considered a career option.

“Today is totally different, the space sector has grown a lot in recent years, especially the commercial space sector.

“Here in New Zealand, too, there is a world of opportunity for students and scholars.

“I think space can inspire so many people in so many different ways – it’s not just about launching rockets.”

The space industry is expected to triple in 20 years

The New Zealand space industry is growing rapidly.

A Deloitte report after the 2018/19 year valued the New Zealand space industry at $1.75 billion in revenue. The industry’s economic contribution to the country was $1.69 billion over the same period.

Globally, the space industry is expected to triple by 2030.

Once considered a world belonging only to astronauts and rocket scientists – and dominated by men – New Zealand’s space industry now directly employs over 5,000 people and supports another 12,000 full-time positions, such as those involved in the supply chain.

But despite the growing opportunities, women are thought to hold only 10-20% of jobs in the space sector.

Blyde is passionate about bringing more women into the industry.

She is a founding member of the new Women in Space Aotearoa New Zealand (WISANZ), which aims to support women and gender minorities already working in the sector and encourage others to join.

From October, Wisa attracted interest from 200 members across New Zealand.

Now incorporated with its first AGM last month, the group has 70 paying members, who can access newsletters, panel expertise and mentorship to help them enter or navigate the industry.

Although open to all, it focuses on promoting opportunities for women and gender minorities.

Blyde says there’s been a lot of interest from high school students, so they’re considering starting a separate membership just for them.

Rocket Lab spokeswoman Morgan Bailey says women are underrepresented globally in the space industry. Photo / Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab spokeswoman Morgan Bailey said women are underrepresented globally in the space industry, and that’s something they want to change.

“We are working to change this with the aim of increasing our percentage of women in our team by at least 3% in 2022.

“We also set a target of 50% women in our annual intern recruitment, and we came close last year to 44% female interns.”

Rocket Lab offers several educational paths, including a Space Ambassadors program, which connects volunteers with schools to give young people a taste of the industry.

Over 350 schools have officially signed up for the scheme, potentially reaching over 225,000 young people across New Zealand.

An annual scholarship also provides $20,000 over four years to one student, pairing the recipient with a Rocket Lab mentor.

Rocket Lab also created New Zealand’s first aerospace apprenticeship, employing 11 full-time paid apprentices.

New Zealand’s thriving industry

As a 7-year-old child obsessed with Star Trek, Julia Rothman, 45, was captivated by space at an early age.

“I think a lot of people are very drawn to space – there’s a certain glamor or romance about it – and there was an earlier area of ​​my life where I thought, ‘this is what I want to do’. I just couldn’t work out how to do it.”

She says her optimism is buoyed by her early days in American industry, where space is seen as a real career path.

Julia Rothman, Director of Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1. Photo/Gerry Keating

She moved there in 2000, working for the US Air Force where she helped design and launch space systems for the US government.

As chief systems engineer, she secured funding for the development of a weather model and a satellite receiver site, doubling the advance warning time for Category 5 hurricanes after Hurricane Katrina. She was also the first to receive Civilian of the Year awards from the Space and Missile Systems Center and the Missile Defense Agency for negotiating between US and Australian space interests.

“Looking back now, I think I was incredibly lucky to have the endorsement and career development that the US Airforce gave me.

“In many ways, I might have been discouraged in my twenties if I wasn’t working in that setting.”

Rothman moved back to New Zealand in 2018 and now has her dream job.

Rothman oversees the Mahia site, leads the team and manages domestic launches for customers wishing to launch a satellite into low Earth orbit.

“We take the rocket out when it arrives, roll it out to the launch pad, make sure all the procedures are done properly.”

Rothman says there are now so many ways to get into the space business.

The most classic direct route abroad is through a major in aeronautical engineering, which does not exist in New Zealand.

But that’s not necessarily a problem, as technical personnel in the space industry – which accounts for 60% of the industry – can come from backgrounds such as engineering or IT.

A technical diploma may also be sufficient to start.

On top of that, Rothman says, there are plenty of opportunities for the 40% who come from non-technical backgrounds.

“The non-technical really runs the gamut – you’ll have law graduates, tradespeople, or other commercial or contract backgrounds coming into the industry because they’re just interested in space.”

What she would like is for high school and university students to be aware of these opportunities – and not feel like they have to leave New Zealand to find space, as she did it.

Julia Rothman, director of Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, says there are so many ways to get into the space industry. Photo / Gerry Keating

She also suggests more modules introduced at elementary and middle school levels, to make sure the space industry seems more than a pipe dream of budding astronauts.

“I would really like to promote a system that allows high school and university students to be aware of the different opportunities and to know that they do not have to go abroad to find them,” she said. declared.

“I want people to know that there is a thriving industry in New Zealand that is growing and diversifying, both in terms of opportunities and people.”

People from all walks of life can find themselves in the space industry, she says.

“A friend of mine grew up wanting to be a model, and now videos every U.S. space force launch – so she’s at every launch.

Spatial data is everywhere

Rothman says New Zealanders probably don’t even know how tied their lives are to the balloon space industry.

“It’s very tangible, it’s very domestic.

“They touch space data all the time – tens, hundreds of times a day at this point. GPS is now the foundation of the global financial market.

“Every time we access data, there’s a growing component of it that’s in some way related to space, and that component will likely grow exponentially in the decades to come.”

Every interaction that requires a timestamp – like your ATM receipt – is backed up with GPS and spatial data.

“Continuous timing is extremely important for the financial industry, because it has to determine how many hundredths of a second, what a dollar is worth, and it has to do it all the time.

“Whenever there’s a timer now for when something needs to happen on a global scale, GPS is involved. And it’s going to keep increasing.

“There are dozens of paths and stopping points before it’s packed that way, but for GPS you get a triangulation of a location that feeds you directly.”

– by Sophie Trigger, NZ Herald

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