As the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, said, “If you can’t see, you can’t be.”
She was talking about women in science. Science and technology can be very exciting careers, but many girls grow up seeing mostly male scientists and engineers portrayed in the media. Often, just one timely meeting with a woman scientist, or seeing a role model (like Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity”), can provide the spark for a girl to switch her focus to science, technology, engineering and mathematics – a STEM with a real future. We talked to physicist Annamaria Piras, head of the Mission Support and Operations business line at Thales Alenia Space Italy, and program manager for Nodes 2 and 3 and the Cupola on the International Space Station (ISS). Here’s what she had to see about her career in “zero g”!
How would you describe your job?
Can you imagine being lucky enough to work on some of the most important parts of the International Space Station? The Cupola is the part of the Space Station where astronauts can see the Earth from space – it’s like an apartment with the best view ever! In fact, fully half of the pressurized modules on the ISS were built right where I work, in Turin.
I’m now moving over to the Human Space Flight & Transportation Programs unit as program manager for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) on NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The Orion capsule is intended for ambitious crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit, to destinations including the Moon, asteroids and even deep space.
Node 3: Copyright ESA
Why did you choose physics?
I always loved science, and especially physics. My original goal was to do research in theoretical physics topics like supergravity and string theory. Working in the space industry is a chance to apply my theoretical knowledge. In addition to my technical responsibilities, I’m also responsible for overall project management, from definition to execution, which is very motivating.
What do you like best about being a space physicist?
The working environment and teamwork, seeing the concrete results, and the opportunity to work with people from different countries.
Could you describe some of the challenges you’ve met in your career?
I was quite lucky, since within a few years I was able to work on a key Space Shuttle/Space Station product from end to end, the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), as head of flight operations and in close contact with NASA. That led to my management role on the ISS nodes, first as operations and functional integration manager, then as program manager for operations. Another major challenge was dealing with the expansion of our Operations and Functional unit in 2002, when it grew to 60 employees. It was really challenging having to manage al the contractual, financial, schedule and technical aspects at the same time – but in the end we succeeded!
Who has had the greatest influence on your career choices?
It really started in high school, since I had outstanding teachers in math, physics, Latin and Greek. Then when I joined Thales Alenia Space Italy, my managers always believed in me, and that inspired me to do my best.
What advice would you give young women considering a career in science and technology?
Make sure you have clear objectives, and never accept being treated differently just because you’re a woman. Women generally have greater multitasking talents, and in a demanding work environment that’s a real advantage. I also think you can have both a family and a career, but that needs real planning! You always have to be professional, of course, but that applies equally to men and women. My final advice to the upcoming generation is, “Believe in yourself, follow your dreams, and find ways to make them come true!”