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Space Girls

Beyond Science

Claudia Kessler, a German aerospace engineer, was denied the dream of flying to the moon. Today, the 56-year-old heads the private foundation “Die Astronautin” (The Female Astronaut), which makes women fit for one of the most important industries of the future.

Ms. Kessler, when did you first wish you could fly into outer space?
Claudia Kessler: I was four years old when I watched the moon landing on TV. After this event, I knew that that was where I wanted to go, and the desire to see Earth from space at least once is still with me today. I had also developed a passion for machines and technology. My father was a car mechanic, and even as a child, I enjoyed tinkering with cars in the garage.

After many years in industry, you are now investing all your energy in your private foundation “Die Astronautin“. What goals do you pursue?
From within the foundation, we have founded a start-up. Space travel is strongly commercialized, and it generates lots of jobs for which we recruit and train female professionals. It is our most coveted goal to fly the first woman to the Moon. At the same time, we want to open the sector up to the public. There is still a substantial gap between the ivory tower of space exploration and the things one can experience during private journeys into space.

During the 1980s, you were the only woman in the university program for aerospace technology. Are there even enough female professionals who are interested?
Yes – the proportion of women in the relevant university programs is currently 20 percent and increasing. There is definitely an interest, which we see at events and also through the feedback we receive.

How are women becoming more successful in this industry?
In the application process for “Die Astronautin”, we notice that many women call and ask if they are even good enough to be considered by us. This is a classic women’s issue – the lack of confidence, paired with self-doubt. It takes significant perseverance, resilience, courage, stamina and curiosity to pursue such a major goal. In order to develop the necessary skills, we collaborate with experienced female trainers, and we combine elements of space travel with classic leadership training.

So – have you already identified promising candidates?
Yes, with Dr. Insa Thiele-Eich and Dr. Suzanna Randall, we have selected two female astronauts and trained them in such a way that they are ready for a mission of this kind. But we must also convince the German government to send the first woman into space using taxpayers’ money and cover the ensuing government expenses of 50 million euros. I wrote a lot of letters – among them three letters to Angela Merkel, of which two were answered. In the past year, I have personally approached seven ministers. Everyone loves our idea and says that we must absolutely proceed. But it also takes budget approval.

So far, your childhood dream of traveling into space has not been fulfilled. Why has it never happened?
In my case, it turned out that I was perpetually at the wrong age at the wrong time. After 30 years’ experience in the aerospace industry, I say just like the USA, France and Italy, we need a quota – otherwise nothing is ever going to happen. I often ask myself how many more remarks women in Germany will have to continue to contend with.
What kind of remarks are you talking about in particular?
These are the classic excuses that men put forth in order to justify why a woman was not a good fit. For example: “You know, she is not ready.” Or: “She will get pregnant anyway, and then she will leave.” Another remark that I hear often is “We would love to hire a woman, but we just can’t find one.” It is also not well received when we appear confident and make demands: “I can do this”, or “I want a raise.” We are immediately deemed to be aggressive and demanding. These stereotypes are deeply rooted in the human conscience.

Until recently, there were no suits for female astronauts. How will the sector benefit if women partake in the decision-making process?
As all other industries, this one will also benefit from a more diverse approach to problems. More perspectives are revealed, and as a result, more approaches to solutions will be available. The more viewpoints are engaged in a problem, the better the solution.

Which trends will move the industry into the future?
The topic of networks will increase in scope. Communication from space will become faster because data exchange will function better. Gigantic data centers will be built which will be based on new technologies such as blockchain. Research will focus increasingly on understanding how space works, i.e., how planets and comets came into existence, or which resources may be utilized – for example, through asteroid mining.

Looking at all the visions of space – which one fascinates you the most?
This year, three probes will land on Mars. I hope I will be around to see the first woman land on Mars 20, 30 or 40 years from now.

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