I Always Knew I Wanted To Be An Astronaut’: The Doctor Who Turned To Space Science
As a child, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but this aspiration was not taken seriously in my hometown in Brazil. Raised by my mother and grandmother to support myself, I decided to pursue a career in medicine instead of space exploration. However, during a visit to the US, my uncle, a professor at John Hopkins University, encouraged me to chase my passion for space and pursue a master’s degree in aerospace medicine at Wright State University in Ohio.
Finally surrounded by individuals who shared my dream of space exploration, I felt at home and energized to take on the challenge of becoming an astronaut. After earning a PhD in space physiology at King’s College London and working for Germany’s space agency, I returned to Brazil to pursue my goal of being Brazil’s first astronaut. Despite being well-qualified for the role, the selection process was limited to the military, due to political reasons.
Undeterred, I established a space life sciences research center in Brazil and eventually started my own company, Innovaspace, which promotes space exploration and has a social impact through outreach programs, such as Kids2Mars and the Valentina project. The Valentina project aims to inspire young girls to become scientists, engineers, and even astronauts, breaking down gender barriers in the field.
Today, space science is increasingly popular among postgraduates as it bridges various disciplines and opens up new opportunities for students. Despite being a niche area, space systems engineering master’s degrees, such as Southampton’s MSc, and space exploration system MSc at the University of Leicester provide unique learning experiences for students to work with academic and industry experts. Students who do not wish to complete a research project or placement can study the same taught modules and receive a postgraduate diploma.
At Southampton, students and staff collaborate with industry experts from the likes of Airbus, the European Space Agency, and Rolls-Royce. To Dr. Walker, this collaborative approach is an essential component of any reputable space science course. He advises prospective candidates considering a space systems engineering masters to assess the breadth and depth of the course modules and evaluate the level of interaction they will have with industry experts.
Southampton University’s esteemed MSc in space systems engineering is approved by the UK Space Agency and leverages content from the professional courses delivered by its academics to the European Space Agency and spacecraft industry.
Vanessa Emeka-Okafor, a 25-year-old enrolled in the program, finds space systems engineering to be among the most rewarding fields of engineering, particularly given the increasing demand for commercialisation of spacecraft and advanced innovations, such as reusable rocket stages and 3D-printed engines. She commends the university’s cutting-edge equipment, including a wind tunnel and advanced vacuum chamber that they used recently to test the efficiency of their Hall-effect thruster. The hands-on practical experience is priceless.
Several other universities offer a combination of undergraduate and master’s degrees, starting with space-related courses from the undergraduate level. For example, Kingston offers a four-year MEng in astronautics, aerospace engineering, and space technology, while Bath provides a four- or five-year physics with astrophysics dual-degree with a placement year, potentially at Cern.