In early March 2019, news of a “First All-Female Spacewalk”, scheduled at month’s end, went viral pretty quickly on social media. (The spacewalk remained on schedule, but ended up not being an all-female team.)
But it’s an enthusiastic tweet by Kristen Facciol, a Flight Controller, who brought the news even more attention with the following tweet:
“I just found out that I’ll be on console providing support for the FIRST ALL FEMALE SPACEWALK with @AstroAnnimal and @Astro_Christina and I cannot contain my excitement!!!! #WomenInSTEM #WomenInEngineering #WomenInSpace.”
The would-be event was exciting because it included not only astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch, but also from the ground, at NASA in Houston, guiding the mission were: flight director Mary Lawrence, and flight controllers, Jackie Kagey and Kristen Facciol — all women!
Reading about it was inspiring, and then learning that Kristen Facciol was actually Canadian working for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), but stationed at NASA (for the March/April spacewalks and for training prior to it), I found it so fascinating and so close to home (the CSA is located in Montreal, Canada, where I live.)
I reached out to Kristen (and the CSA) for the following interview. The objective is to showcase women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and particularly, in roles and careers not usually associated with women, yet need to be learned about, as these women are incredible role models!
About Kristen, she’s an Aerospace Engineer, an expert of the Canadarm2 and Dextre (two robots that help astronauts maneuver various tasks in space), she’s a Robotic Flight Controller — basically a Rocket Scientist! — she trains astronauts prior to them going on-board the International Space Station (ISS), and worked at NASA (during spacewalks) and at the CSA!
I hope my interview with Kristen inspires you and/or your daughters (and sons!), or anyone needing inspiration to follow their dreams and career aspiration, no matter the field or subject.
Kristen, your pinned tweet on Twitter says the following:
“If while I was growing up someone told me that one day I would get to represent the Canadian and NASA flags in a single photo, I would have never believed them. Today I proudly get to do just that.”
Question: Clearly from your tweet, you advanced higher than even dreamed. You sound like a very ambitious person. Do you consider yourself ambitious?
Kristen: Absolutely! I have always welcomed challenges and adversity with an open mind and as much confidence as I could muster up. Since I was quite young, I definitely focused on goal setting and “reaching for the stars” (not to sound too cliché…), and was never the type to settle for anything.
Q: You really did reach far, and also quite fast in your career; but as a woman, have you experienced bias, discrimination or unfairness when a student in engineering and/or professionally?
K: Being a woman in engineering, especially in the aerospace field, definitely makes me a minority. Unfortunately, throughout my studies and even into my professional career, I have experienced all of these things. As much as there is a movement towards inclusivity, gender bias is ingrained in our society and is sometimes expressed in subtleties that people are totally unaware they are guilty of. Whether it was explicit exclusion from meetings, having my credentials questioned, or something as small as not making eye contact with me during a meeting or discussion, it’s still very much an issue.
Early in her engineering studies, Kristen was contemplating between Biomedical and Aerospace Engineering – two very different fields. With her interest in Space Robotics, she ultimately chose Aerospace Engineering.
Q: But as a student, what were your expectations with an Aerospace Engineering degree?
K: Honestly, I didn’t really have any expectations until my final year of studies. This is part of the reason why I try to use social media to make my career path and current role more accessible. I was told by several people that finding work would be hard and I would not necessarily end up doing something I enjoyed. Luckily this didn’t end up being the case, but it sometimes made it tough to stay motivated in such a challenging program since I wasn’t always sure what would greet me at the end. It seemed like graduate studies would be the path I would end up taking, but fortunately I found work right out of school and haven’t looked back since.
Q: Did you imagine that relatively early in your career, you’d have such an important role in terms of your responsibilities: training astronauts and as a flight controller?
K: Definitely not. I still sometimes question how I ended up here and constantly deal with Imposter Syndrome. I still remember teaching my first class of astronauts and realizing they were nervous as well, and wondering how I ended up in a position where that was my reality. Every time I have a class to teach, a simulation to be a part of, or a shift on console, I make sure that I over prepare because I want to prove that I deserve to be in this role.
On the CSA website, it says that two groups of people must undergo intensive training at the Robotics Training Centre:
2) Flight Controller
Kristen was already an expert in Canadarm2, the robotic arm, yet still needed to complete two years’ training for the “CSA/NASA Robotics Flight Controller Certification” – (becoming the 14th Canadian to ever earn such a certification). That certification got her the role of Flight Controller.
Q: You’ve trained astronauts, you’ve written procedures for on-orbit maneuvering of Canadarm2, and you’ve assisted astronauts from the ground with their spacewalks. Incredible!
So what can you tell us about what you’ll be doing in the coming years?
K: I am often asking myself this same question… In the near future, I will be working towards my next certification within the Robotics Flight Control group, and then hopefully one more certification after that! I also do hope to get involved with the Gateway program in some capacity, since the experience I have gained up until now could definitely be an asset. There are constantly new missions to work on and be a part of, and more astronauts and flight controllers to train, so that will keep me busy.
Q: And in the next decade?
K: Had I been asked this question a decade ago, I definitely wouldn’t have answered Robotics Flight Controller! To be quite honest, I’m not sure. I would love to be part of a team defining Canada’s role in space for the future, or working towards space sustainability in some way as we continue to explore further.
Q: The Space Industry is booming indeed!
What do you most look forward to, being in the field, and for the future of space exploration and rocket science?
K: I am definitely looking forward to seeing us reach beyond the Moon, and hopefully reaching Mars. It has also been incredibly exciting to see how quickly projects move in the private sector and looking forward to what is coming next. There are so many opportunities coming our way that it’s not always easy to choose one area of focus, so I’ll see where the universe pulls my interests next.
Q: Being in the Space Industry for some time now, and how it’s thriving and growing interest amongst the masses, you must know better than anyone the importance of getting more women involved, would you agree?
K: I definitely agree. It’s been easy to see the differences that people from different backgrounds bring to a team, and how important this diversity is in the success of a project or program. All people think, act, and work differently, and teams that are largely comprised of similar people are less likely to grow.
“Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.” – Sally Ride
Q: Sally Ride is right. “You can’t be what you can’t see.” In the media, we’ve all seen women astronauts but there are many “behind the scenes” with very important roles and responsibilities, such as yourself, as Flight Controller, and the Flight Directors, and many more engineers and other technical positions that are filled by women. Can you confirm this?
K: I have worked with SEVERAL brilliant and talented women throughout my career. I can definitely confirm that there is a large number of us working “behind the scenes” in all the roles you mentioned above and many others. There are women in almost every technical role I can think of that are contributing to all areas of flight control, engineering, and human research. One area where I definitely see a lack of women is in management, though.
Surveys done recently showed that at about age 15, girls lose interest in STEM; whether due to the lack of role models, or gender stereotypes, social expectations... At age 15 or later, it becomes difficult to have a mind-shift on the issue, and reverse the trend.
Q: Through your personal experiences in STEM and in a so-called “traditionally male dominated” discipline and industry, what advice do you have for girls with an interest in a particular STEM field?
K: Stay interested! It’s easy to get discouraged by what you see in the media or by what people are telling you that you can or can’t do. Despite what people told me about the challenges I would face, I knew what drove my passion and curiosity and I never lost sight of that. You will be your toughest critic and your greatest inspiration, so it’s important to fuel the person that will drive you to go the furthest!
Find something that makes you happy and gives you a feeling of purpose, but also challenges you. This will always drive you to improve and help ensure that you won't let anything get in the way of your own success.