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“There’s SPACE for Everyone” A Conversation with Space Engineer Helen Haile

By Delina Yemane Dawit

I first met Helen Haile on the 5th of January 2023, a couple of hours prior to her public seminar on the subject “CubeSat for Academia in Developing Countries” at the NUEYS Junior Club in what was a fascinating conversation about space engineering, Eritrea’s potential access to space and the possible integration of Space Science into the Eritrean higher education curriculum.

Helen Haile graduated with a BSc in Aeronautic Engineering, an MSc in Astronautic and Space Tech and an MRes/MSc in Space System Engineering. She is currently working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland, and, during this particular visit, she brought up exciting ideas that could help advance the field of Space Science in Eritrea.

“Space along with its related activities is often seen as something of a luxury — especially in developing countries,” said Helen, the passion she feels for her work evident in her speech.

“And there is some truth to this: developing countries like Eritrea already have a great deal on their plates and don’t have enough resources. So from this perspective, space science would be the last item on the list of a developing nation’s priorities. But it is also becoming more and more evident that advancements in space technology are yielding direct and indirect contributions in several other areas of development. In fact, we are now in the midst of a space industry renaissance: investing in space science is now a smart and necessary move because the return is higher than was initially believed. Space tech is giving way to advancements in agriculture, disaster preparedness and mitigation, communication, navigation, health care and defense. For instance, the world is vulnerable to disastrous environmental effects resulting from climate change, and Eritrea is not immune. We can deal with increases in temperatures, potentially scarce rainfalls and imminent droughts by using remote sensing satellite data that would allow us to monitor the soil and crop growth, manage droughts, and conduct rainfall assessments.

Furthermore, the introduction of a new field of research and its application would not only reduce the levels of brain drain that are so common in developing countries, but would actually reverse it by attracting Eritrean professionals at home and in the diaspora to make significant contributions in this area. Opportunities for educational and career advancements would also open up. The possibilities span far and wide!”

Obviously, these potential applications of space science captivated me. It seemed almost utopian. And Helen continued to make some compelling and practical points.

“There’s never been a better time for the developing world to join what was once a field reserved for the wealthiest of nations. We’re now seeing a paradigm shift from large (therefore expensive) satellites to small, more affordable ones known as CubeSats — and this is true even of big space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency. This shift is finally permitting developing countries to launch their very own satellites into space with a fraction of what it would cost to launch the standard ones: we’re talking about a little over USD 100,000 (from beginning to end) as opposed to millions of USD that standard satellites require. In fact, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and nine other African countries are now among the world’s emerging “space nations” thanks to CubeSats. Rwanda, for instance, succeeded in launching its own satellite while simultaneously building its engineers’ and scientists’ technical abilities. The country further collaborated with a Japanese University, through which knowledge transfer and international cooperation was made more accessible”

Her example of other African countries made me wonder exactly what steps Eritrea would need to take to move toward launching satellites.

“There are specific steps we can take. First, it’s important to understand that the training programs should focus on building home-made satellites. This is crucial because we don’t want to be dependent on other nations when it comes to building something so important. We don’t want to be mere consumers; we need to be our own manufacturers. Moreover, another major objective is to strengthen our scientists’ and engineers’ skills.

It may not be immediately feasible to create an entirely new department in the College of Science and the College of Engineering for this purpose. What we can do instead is introduce courses on the fundamentals of aeronautics in the existing programs and with time, hopefully, it will transition into a department of its own.

The training program itself would entail practically building CanSats and CubeSats, which would allow students to understand the concepts and the subsystems of these satellites.”

Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, she began to clarify what CanSats and CubeSats are.

“CanSats are a kind of miniaturized satellites used in engineering schools to teach space technology. These can’t actually be launched into space; they are merely built for educational purposes. Interestingly, they’re named CanSats because the system is made to fit inside the volume of a typical can of soda!

Once the students have mastered building CanSats, they move on to CubeSats. These are also miniaturized satellites, but can be launched into space to perform a number of scientific research functions. Some of the key features of CubeSats are that they are small in size (10cmx10cmx10cm per unit), light in weight (no more than 1.3kg per unit) and are launched into space on the metaphorical “backs” of other rockets until they reach their orbits. So you could say they’re like hitchhikers that “piggy-back” on rockets”

Her motivation to help Eritrea become an emerging space nation intrigued me. So I asked what drives her to go forward with this concept, to which she simply shrugged and replied, “I want to be of value to my country. I have been fortunate enough to gain some expertise and experience in my field, but the only way to make it truly meaningful is by contributing to my country’s development”

As we spoke, I imagined how many young people would benefit to hear, or in this case read, the advice Helen has to share.

“Take risks on the things you love to do. In science, as in life, there is no success without encountering many failures. In fact, you learn mainly through failures. Fields like space science and engineering work through trial and error. So the most important thing is to just keep moving forward, to try and try again without giving up.”

I was also interested to hear her advice to young girls who would like to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

“I think it’s very important for girls to join these programs if that’s what they enjoy. There is no reason they can’t excel in these fields. Many people don’t know this but throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, programming was dominated by women. The Hollywood film “Hidden Figures” (a film about the African- American space scientists Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) is a prime example. Unfortunately, with time, women’s roles started diminishing, and we’re now at a point where there is a glaring shortage of women in STEM fields around the world. Many countries are now trying to correct this by encouraging more girls to join. In Eritrea’s case, I have high hopes that when a space science program is established, we will do it right. I am confident that we will actively work to ensure gender and ethnic diversity. After all, there’s space for everyone.”

With a closing remark that strong, what more was there to say? I thanked Helen for the delightful conversation and proceeded to the Junior Club auditorium to hear her share her ideas with a larger audience. For the remainder of the day, I felt a glimmer of hope: with some commitment, a small satellite marked “Made in Eritrea” might just be able to make it to space. And if we don’t succeed the first time around, I am hopeful that with scientists like Helen, we would keep trying again and again until we are successful.

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