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Cambridge University engineer Dr Jenni Sidey-Gibbons: 'I want to be the first woman to walk on the moon'

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A University of Cambridge engineer has set her sights on becoming the first woman to walk on the moon.

Jenni Sidey-Gibbons. Picture: Canadian Space Agency. (9044436)
Jenni Sidey-Gibbons. Picture: Canadian Space Agency. (9044436)

Dr Jenni Sidey-Gibbons, who is also a Canadian astronaut, will be among colleagues at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) vying to get on board a new space station designed to orbit the moon and allow its crew to complete tasks on the lunar surface.

Canada has formed a new partnership in the NASA-led Lunar Gateway – an international collaboration in human space exploration.

About one-fifth the size of the International Space Station (ISS), it will orbit the moon and provide living space for astronauts, a docking station for visiting spacecraft and laboratories for research.

Dr Sidey-Gibbons was recruited to the CSA as a member of the 2017 NASA astronaut class.

In an exclusive interview with the Cambridge Independent, Dr Sidey-Gibbons said she would love the chance to make history and thanked Cambridge for providing her with the opportunities.

A lecturer in internal combustion engines at the University of Cambridge, she is one of the Department of Engineering’s ambassadors for engineering diversity and helped form Cambridge Robogals in 2014, an international, not-for-profit, student-run organisation that aims to increase female participation in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Dr Sidey-Gibbons said: “I would absolutely want to be the first woman on the moon. It just provides so many opportunities for humankind, science and exploration.

“If anyone would like to send me to the moon, I would be happy to go. The plan is that the particular orbit this station will be in makes it relatively straightforward to get to the lunar surface.

Approaching the lunar outpost. Image: NASA
Approaching the lunar outpost. Image: NASA

“Not only will the station be used for government missions, but also commercial missions. We will be seeing more and more private companies going to the moon.

“It just enables an enormous amount of research and experimental value with its construction.”

There have been six manned missions to the moon. Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. The last manned mission was Apollo 17 in 1972.

NASA’s Lunar Gateway could also act as a stepping stone for future manned missions to Mars.

“The commitment that has been made is to make a station which orbits the moon. Now, the United States has committed to putting people back on the moon – boots on the ground.

“They have set an ambitious timeline for that of 2024. It is difficult to say what my involvement could be with that. But it is encouraging and exciting that Canada will be involved with the Lunar Gateway space station.

“We’ve already had humans on the moon so the idea of going back is to make a more sustainable presence,” said Dr Sidey-Gibbons.

“We have infrastructure which will allow people to spend a long time there. I don’t know about living there, as that implies indefinitely, but this mission will provide the capability of having people on the moon for a long time.

“Not only will we find out a lot about our planet, as the observation platform we get from space of Earth is unparalleled, but we can also look to go further. If we have this outpost, the things we are going to learn from going further afield will be pretty monumental. Being on our moon makes a lot of sense.”

She added: “With the announcement that Canada will be a part of NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, I feel excited and hopeful for our space programme.

“Not only will we have the opportunity to take Canadian concepts to the moon, but we will benefit from the science and technology we develop to help get us there.

“Personally, I feel ecstatic at the opportunities in front of us. Going to the moon in the Apollo era changed what we thought was possible.”

But even though Dr Sidey-Gibbons is now an astronaut with thoughts out of this world, the opportunities given to her while studying engineering at the University of Cambridge have ensured the city has a special place in her heart.

An impression of astronauts in a lunar crater. Picture: NASA
An impression of astronauts in a lunar crater. Picture: NASA

She said: “I am so grateful for the opportunities that Cambridge University provided me with.

“I went there to study in the engineering department and I just couldn’t imagine where that has led me. I just feel so fortunate to have had so many mentors and support from the university. I can’t talk about things without mentioning them.”

Canada’s contribution to the gateway will be a smart robotic system – Canadarm3 – that will repair, maintain and inspect the Gateway. It will move equipment, support spacewalks, assemble and deploy scientific instruments, and handle scientific samples collected on the moon’s surface.

A CSA spokeswoman added: “Canada’s anticipated benefits in participating in the Gateway and Lunar programme will ensure a bright future for Canada’s astronaut programme by securing flight opportunities for our current and future astronauts.

“It will also allow the Canadian science community to perform scientific investigations around and on the surface of the moon, and to test cutting-edge technologies in the harsh environment of deep space and radiation.”

The gateway will be a science laboratory, a testbed for new technologies, a rendezvous location for exploration of the surface of the moon, a mission control centre for operations on the moon and, one day, a stepping stone for voyages to Mars.

A lunar lander. Picture: NASA
A lunar lander. Picture: NASA

When fully assembled, the gateway will include modules for scientific research and living quarters for crews of four astronauts.

They will be able to live and work on the gateway for up to three months at a time, occasionally travelling to the lunar surface to conduct science and test new technologies.

Eventually, these missions could last longer in order to prepare for the deeper-space missions of the future.

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