Libby Jackson takes YOUR questions!

Libby Jackson

Hi, I’m Libby Jackson and I am the Human Exploration Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency. I look after the UK’s interests in everything to do with human space exploration. I used to work as a Flight Director and a Flight Controller, as well as an instructor. I have also trained Tim Peake and whilst Tim was on the ISS, I managed 34 education projects running activities for young people. Through that, we reached over 2 million children and that’s growing all the time through its legacy. It was quite a programme!

What’s the most important thing that has helped you achieve your goals in the space industry?
Outstanding_wolf, Richmond Hill Academy

Just keeping sight of what I enjoy doing! When I moved to Germany to the Colombus Control Centre, people asked me if I was mad, but I was looking for opportunities that I wanted to do. My message to young people is remember who you are - only you have the ability to achieve it and only you have a say in it. It’s best to strike the balance between listening to good advice and stay true to who you are.

Can you tell us about your journey into the industry?
willing_saxophone, Phoenix Primary School

I have been fascinated by human spaceflight since I was young. The Apollo missions and early human spaceflight captured my imagination. I watched lots of books, films and documentaries, but I never got into science-fiction! I didn’t realise when I was at school that space could be a career. But I eventually went to ‘Space School’ which is now at Leicester University, and slowly through school and through university, I realised there was a space industry and I could get a job in it.

When I was 17 I fired off an email to NASA asking about work-shadowing. To my amazement they replied, and I spent 2 weeks at the Johnson Space Centre, finding out about human spaceflight. I came home from that with a dream of one day working with astronauts Mission Control, butI never thought it could actually happen - it was just a mad crazy dream!

For my A Levels I studied well as physics, maths and further maths, and I also took music, because I wanted to do something different. This was another one of those decisions that went against the norm. I stuck to what I knew was right for me rather than the usual, expected, choice of all the sciences. I studied physics at university but I realised I was a big picture problem solver – I don’t mind telling anyone that I did a physics degree, but it taught me that I didn’t want to do it in the long-term!

Whilst at university, I was walking down the corridor and saw a brochure with an astronaut on the front. From this brochure, I discovered you could do a Masters degree in Astronautics. Physics was a four year course for most people. However, I thought “no, I could do a three year course and do this Masters degree”.

All the way I along I had to have the courage to do the things I believed in - where that came from I have no idea! For me, it’s all about being unafraid to tell people “this is what I’m interested in” and not being afraid to tell people your ambitions (and these can change over time).

Human spaceflight has always been my particular interest and I never lost sight of that. When I graduated, my CV said: “I want to work in mission control.” I didn’t think anyone would take that seriously, or there would be any opportunity. Later, I applied to the graduate course at Airbus, and they were looking for people to work at mission control. They invited me for interview, from which I got the job. During my time at Airbus, I found out that the European Space Agency were going to launch and, crucially, operate, their own part of the International Space Station Station. I became determined to find a job working in Mission Control there, - and by simply looking out for job opportunities and applying for them, I got a job in Germany. The mad crazy dream from when I was 17 came true!

All the way I along I had to have the courage to do the things I believed in....for me, it’s all about being unafraid to tell people “this is what I’m interested in” and not being afraid to tell people your ambitions

Libby Jackson

What are the stress levels that you work in and how do you handle life and death situations?
Eloquent_recipe, Crampton Primary School

That’s a great question! My job involves much less life and death but when I worked in mission control but it can still bring stressful days. At the minute, we’re gearing up for a big meeting where ministers from UK and other member countries of the European Space Agency come to agree with the ESA how much money they will commit to the space programme. We must make sure we have the business case: all the arguments and evidence for why they should.

At my days at mission control, we really were dealing with life and death. We had the lives of six astronauts in our hands everyday, but we were well trained and we had practised for these situations. When something went wrong, we just stayed calm, assessed the situation, and looked at things logically. We always considered why something was happening – and this helps me now in life. I try to get to the root of a problem and understand why someone is behaving in a particular way. If you can find the root of a problem – whether that’s on a spacecraft or when cooperating with people and governments from the other countries - you can solve the problems and find solutions to the challenges at work.

Libby Jackson 2

Libby Jackson working hard at the Columbus Control Center!

If something dangerous happened on the ISS, what would the space experts on the ground do?
Tidy Turtle, Richmond Hill Academy

In mission control you always have someone in charge – called the Flight Director. There’s a Flight Director at Houston, and one in Europe - which was me at one point. Underneath them you have people who are experts in their sub-systems. As a Flight Director I never knew all the fine details of these sub-systems, but things worked because the people at the bottom know their work inside out, and the Flight Directors knew to trust them with the answers. My job was always to ask the questions that helped people use their expertise. There’s a mantra at mission control: The first priority is looking after the crew, and then the vehicle, and then finally the mission. And you don’t lose sight of your priorities.

One Christmas, when I was an Increment Lead Flight Director, we had an interface heat exchanger that had a problem. There was a risk that we might have weakened it, and if it broke, it would let ammonia into the space station, which was a really toxic substance that could have killed the crew. We had to stay calm, and we had a lot of meetings with engineering experts to check everything was OK. It took a lot of head-scratching by lots of people to make sure we were certain that everything was safe by thinking about lots of “what if” scenarios.

Do we have a duty to explore space?
fearless_situation, New Horizons Children’s Academy

As a human race we are natural explorers. We have always wondered what is over the hill, or around the corner or under the sea. Wondering about space is no different – it is a continuation of that human curiosity. However, we cannot justify spending taxpayers money just because we are curious. That is not a good argument for spending from the public purse. So anytime we do something with government money, we have to explain the benefits, and when we are thinking about space exploration there are 3 reasons we do it:

Technology: The challenge of putting something in space nearly always brings new ideas that benefit everybody. You have to make things as light as possible, using as little power as possible, and these things might need to work in extreme temperatures or in a vacuum. When that experiment or instrument has been shrunk to get on spacecraft, people usually realise it is very useful on Earth too.

Science: There is scientific understanding from experiments on the ISS which develop our understanding of the universe. We can also understand how things work without gravity, which means we can learn more about their processes.

Inspiration: Space has a brilliant wonderful ability to inspire people and get people excited about science. We live in a technological world where we are all using our smartphones every day, or paying by card for something – both of which have been developed through space discoveries. We need to get people excited by science and get them working in this industry to keep the world running and moving forward.

We cannot justify spending taxpayers money just because we are curious. That is not a good argument for spending from the public purse. So anytime we do something with government money, we have to explain the benefits

Libby Jackson

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