Charlie Bolden’s Challenge


NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden was in London last week to receive an honorary fellowship from the Royal Aeronautical Society. Attending the lecture that accompanied the award I knew to expect inspirational words – eloquently spoken – with glimpses of the personal reasons that NASA’s mission is so important to him. There would be updates on NASA’s diverse missions, hope for the future, and an emphasis on the global importance of international cooperation to enable our journey to Mars.

What I did not expect, (and could not even have even dreamed), was that the head of the world’s most famous and successful space agency, would pick me out from the crowd, personally introduce me to the audience as “SpaceKate” and publicly set me a challenge to get more young people involved and engaged with space.

Yet that’s exactly what happened.

“I’ll be checking up” he said as I battled the urge to squeak with excitement and hoped I wasn’t glowing red with humble embarrassment. Internally I welled up with pride.

When the Head of NASA issues you a personal challenge, what do you say?

There’s only one thing you can say of course – “Challenge accepted”.

SpaceKate strikes again!

Rise to the Challenge

Anyone who knows me knows that I like a challenge, so rather than just bask in the glory that Charlie Bolden knows my name, I immediately got thinking about what I could possibly do to rise to the challenge, and repay the great kindness he’s shown me over the years.

I offered to help the Royal Aeronautical Society Space Committee in any way I can, encouraged younger members of the audience that I met at the reception to join UKSEDS and the Space Generation Advisory Council, and am pushing to organise SpaceUp:UK (#2) for later this year. I will continue to talk to any and everyone about space, to blog, appear on Sky News (for as long as they invite me!) and pass on stickers, pins and any other space goodies to people I sense will treasure them. But all those are the sort of things that I would be doing anyway, and a challenge like this deserves something a bit extra.

It’s not just about youth, it’s about diversity…

Looking round the audiences of space-related events at the British Interplanetary Society and even the Royal Aeronautical Society, I can see why Charlie issued to the challenge he did. If we’re going to talk about the future we need to ensure that the people who will help make it happen – and will live it – are included and engaged. But there’s more to it than that for me – it’s not just youth that the industry needs, but diversity too. So how do we become more inclusive?

Not enough female engineers? Perhaps we should tackle the way we describe engineering, ensure that we properly link what is taught in schools with what is taught at university, and most importantly, show how it impacts the real world (not just exam answers!).

Not enough young people at space events? Let’s think about where we advertise them, and consider whether they are truly accessible?

How can we ensure diversity? How can we reach people around the country, from different backgrounds, different cultures? How can we ensure that young voices in the UK are heard both by the community here and on the global stage? How do we connect them with politicians, agencies, budget holders?

Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust - CC-BY

Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust – CC-BY

In my mind, education is the key – and while research has shown that good teachers can be the most important things that lead people into science, the converse can also be true. Non-formal learning is another important way of introducing children to science in creative and engaging ways. But what about those families less able to get out to museums or events? How do we reach non-traditional audiences and bring them along on this exciting journey into the future? These are all big questions, and so I need your help…

Build the future you want to see

For decades people have imagined a future where people have personal rocket packs or zip around the place in their jet cars, but that future has never quite happened. If we want to inspire the next generation of space professionals, we have to inspire them early on, and “make it real”. We need to empower them to build the future that they want to see, and show them that science and engineering are key to that future – not just abstract concepts.

The future I want to see is one where your background, class, nationality, gender, etc makes no difference to your chance of being a leading scientist, engineer, astronaut or whatever you want to be.

So how can I achieve that? Well I can’t, not without help – your help – and that’s why I’m asking you to join me to take on Administrator Bolden’s challenge, and help inspire  the next generation of space fans. I’ve got a plan…

Give a child a jetpack

Okay, not literally, but give them a boost – open their eyes to what’s possible – perhaps they’ll be the one that makes personalised jetpacks real for all of us!

Don’t underestimate the power of small things to make a difference. For me it was a NASA pin badge, kindly gifted to me by NASA’s Dr Chris McKay. There is always something that you can do – all of you.

Meeting a real person, who worked for real NASA changed my life. It transformed space from something cool that you see in films to something worked on by real people. It sounds daft, but growing up in East London, even doctors and lawyers felt like a different species, let alone people working for space agencies.


The best way to describe the feeling is to say that NASA, space, astronauts etc – they were like Father Christmas; you know they exist, but you’re never going to meet them. I’ve been lucky enough to meet all sorts of amazing people, so I try to share that with as many others as I can, to make it real for them. I like to think of it as my way of paying forward the kindness shown to me – but what can else we do?

If we use our experiences, our skills, our professions, our influence – our passion – we can open up the space profession to young people who might not even realise it’s an option. The more people who realise that the space industry is real, and something to aim for, the better.

How you can help

Image courtesy of Michael McLean. CC-BY-ND

Image credit: Michael McLean. CC-BY-ND

Are you a scientist, a teacher, an engineer, technologist, or careers advisor? Perhaps you’re a storyteller, space enthusiast, or an explorer? I need you all, and many more, to spread the message that the space industry is open to all, that science and engineering are essential for the future, and that people can help make their dreams reality and take humanity forward.

I’m building a list of resources to help you on your missions – information for teachers, organisations you can join or encourage others to join, competitions, events, and general cool space news that you can share with other people. Encourage others to share them and inspire more young people to get involved, and get your peers to accept this challenge and make a pledge too. If I can get two people to take on the challenge, and they each get two more and so on, we really can make a difference.

With your help we can reach new people, non-traditional audiences, and help develop the next generation of space professionals.

Together we can change the future.

Make your pledge now

Not everything has to be grand gestures remember – so think about what you can do to open doors and ignite a spark of passion, and then do it. Tell people about your work, nurture enthusiasm, share space goodies, give talks in schools, tell you teacher friends about things their schools can get involved with. There are a whole host of different ways you can help.

My pledge is to make SpaceUp:UK happen (again) and to offer to talk my old school and share my experiences to help students see it’s not just the world, but the entire solar system that’s their (proverbial) oyster. I’m making that pledge publicly so that you can hold me to it.

Share your pledge in the comments below – and let’s make things happen. Help me build up a useful list of resources.

If you’re from a traditionally under-represented background and have ideas about how to make things more inclusive please do get in touch and share your ideas.

Let’s see if we can start something together, to get more people interested, engaged, and eventually involved in the space industry and bring them on the journey to Mars.

Space didn’t feel like an option for me when I was young, but meeting someone from NASA made it real for me. Now I’m friends with Charlie Bolden(!!!) so if that’s possible, just think what the next generation of scientists and engineers could achieve.

Are you ready?

Then join me: Take on Charlie’s Challenge and pledge to introduce the wonderful world of exploration, science, and engineering to future members of the space family.

Make your pledge to do something – do it now – and keep us all updated. After all, the Head of NASA will be checking up, so let’s show him what passionate people we have here in the UK (and around the world) and that we can make a difference.

Ad astra my friends! Let’s go!

Follow me on Twitter as @SpaceKate to keep updated with the latest space news (and my mad adventures!)

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