Case Study: Sian Cleaver
“Going back [to the Moon] is going to be inspiring for a whole new cohort of people. A large proportion of the world will being seeing this for the first time and I hope that will inspire young people and do wonders for the world of engineering.”
An astronaut in the making
Sian grew up fascinated with the vastness of space: she even remembers a book about astronauts that was at her nursery! When she was five years old she had an opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Centre with her family, and from that day onwards her mind was set on becoming an astronaut. She joined an astronomy club in school, built and launched rockets in the local park: all of her education journey was shaped around her ambition of one day becoming an astronaut.
“Because I always wanted to be an astronaut and was interested in space, that end goal shaped my career. I did certain GCSEs and A-Levels (physics, maths), I chose certain hobbies.”
Sian hasn’t achieved her dream job yet, but for her it’s all about the journey:
“Whether I achieve that or not [being an astronaut] it allowed me to carve a really, really interesting career and I feel really lucky that I’m doing the thing that I am doing purely because of a decision that I made when I was 5 years old.”
Sian is a spacecraft engineer at Airbus working on the Orion Programme: part of a series of missions which will return humans to the moon.
She is currently working on the support module, which is the bit of the spacecraft just behind the capsule where the astronauts live and work. The support module is a critical part of the vessel, as it provides water, oxygen and power… and propels the spacecraft to the moon. It is powered by four solar panels.
Sian has to be organised and logical at work because part of her job is to manage a list with every single step that is required to put the module together. It’s a bit like the instruction booklet that comes with a Lego set, but Sian’s list tracks 20,000 pieces and 12 kilometres of different-colour wires that needs to be put together in a very specific order, all inside a compact cylinder.
“I think it’s beautiful! It takes my breath away how complex it is, but how beautiful it is at the same time!”
Sian is also responsible for ensuring all the equipment going inside the module arrives on site at the right time so that her team can build it in the correct order. If there is something wrong with an individual part it needs get resolved so it doesn’t compromise the rest of the assembly.
Beyond the Moon… Mars!
Going back to the Moon is a stepping stone to the next stage of space exploration: Mars. The Orion Programme plan is to build a space station around the Moon. Once infrastructure is up and running – perhaps even using resources from the Moon – then future Orion missions could go from the Moon onwards to Mars. That’s something Sian hopes to see in her lifetime.
“There is a generation of people who weren’t alive at the time of the Moon landings. Going back is going to be inspiring for a whole new cohort of people. A large proportion of the world will be seeing this for the first time, and I hope that will inspire young people and do wonders for the world of engineering.”
That said, Sian also believes that the time has come for a more diverse group of people to have the chance to experience the Moon and contribute towards the development of space technology:
“Now is the time for women to go to the Moon. It’s time for Europeans to go to the Moon. It’s time for a whole diverse crowd of people to start accessing the Moon and opening up to the whole world!”
The power of languages
Sian learned Russian at secondary school. She thought the language was super cool and linked well with her love of space.
“When I was younger, I was very dismissive of languages. I wanted to be a scientist, I wanted to do physics and really didn’t think I needed languages. But now, I’m like: of course you need languages! The more languages you know in Europe the more opportunities it opens up for your career!”
Working in the space industry often requires a global collaboration between many countries such as Europe, Russia, USA, UAE – all sharing knowledge, working together for a common goal. Sian really enjoys this side of her job, as it makes her open-minded to others from different backgrounds.
“You learn about food, culture and jokes in other languages, it’s really fun. It adds a whole new dimension to the office having people from different nationalities and cultures.”
Outside of work
When she’s not building her way to space, Sian enjoys gliding and scuba diving. She says Scuba diving transports you to another world, and is the closest experience on Earth to being in space!