Award Recipient Charts New Path in Human Spaceflight

May 19, 2017

Space exploration is not something Chicago student Mawuto Akploh finds in textbooks, or classroom discussion in her school.

“We do physics, biology, earth and space sciences,” she told VOA. “But we never actually take the time to talk about the people who actually do those things.”

Akploh, originally from Togo, attends a area high school career academy, and just became certified as an automobile mechanic.

Aerospace engineering wasn't an option.

“It's not that people don't want to do it... it's that people don't know about it.”

That lack of knowledge has, in part, fueled a shortage of students in the U.S. seeking advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math - also known as STEM. Fields the aerospace industry depends on.

“There is a shortage across engineering which I think is generally bad for humanity.” Beth Moses hopes her career serves as an example, inspiring others to fill that shortage.

After successfully serving at NASA as the assembly manager for the International Space Station, Moses is now the chief astronaut trainer at Virgin Galactic, founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, seeking to be the first company consistently taking paying passengers into orbit.

“We are doing something, and I am doing something that has never been done before,” she explained to VOA. “There's no road map, there's no instruction manual, no guidance on how to do this.”

Which is why, as Moses writes one of the new instruction manuals in the emerging field of commercial human spaceflight, the need for more engineers is critical to help her company - and others - meet the demands of a growing industry that Moses says doesn't “come in pink or blue.”

“In my entire time, in school and in aerospace engineering both at NASA and here at Virgin Galactic, I've never once had any hassle or gender issue, and there have been plenty of women around and also plenty of diversity of all kinds... age, race, points of view.”

It was a message Moses reinforced to those gathered at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, where she was awarded the 2017 “Women in Space Science Award” from the Adler Planetarium's Women's Board.

It also was a part of her pitch to hundreds of Chicago area high school students, including Mawuto Akploh, who gathered to see her speak at the place that sparked Moses' own interest in space... the Adler Planetarium.

In front of a large view screen in the Adler's theater, the audience was awed by her video presentation showing test flight footage from Virgin Galactic, and what the experience of heading into space as a commercial passenger with her company might look like, when it takes off.

Moses views the opportunity for widely available space flight as a unifying endeavor for humanity, but knows well that the final frontier of space is a difficult environment to master.

In 2006, Richard Branson told VOA he was hopeful Virgin Galactic would be orbiting the earth soon.

“Twenty-four months from now, my parents, my children and myself shall be popping into space,” he said with a grin.

But a series of setbacks, including a crash in 2014 that led to the death of one of the test spacecraft's co-pilots, has pushed that timeline back.

Eleven years later, Branson still waits to be his company's first passenger.

He told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in April he hopes to see Virgin Galactic's first sub-orbital flight by the end of 2017.

“We are in the air and we are working our way through a test program,” Moses told VOA. “When it is complete and the vehicle is safe, we'll start commercial flights with Richard and his family.”

Those are flights that more than 700 passengers have already paid more than $200,000 to experience, reinforcing to students contemplating a career in aerospace engineering that not only is it in demand, it could also be lucrative... something Mawuto Akploh is keeping in mind as she plans for college, where a course of study in physics is her top pick.