11 mins read 05 Oct 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: AVM Catherine Roberts, AM, CSC.

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special. Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special.

Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts is the inaugural Defence Space Commander. Credit: Supplied.

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well known across the world. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them.  

Royal Australian Air Force officer Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts, AM, CSC, Commander of Defence Space Command.

What is your role with the Australian Defence Force?

I am the first Australian Defence Space Commander.  

My aim is to set Australia up with the space power that we need to assure our access to space for civilian and military purposes, now and into the future.

Space effects underpin almost every aspect of military power and Australia’s national security infrastructure. Space effects have become so ubiquitous to Defence operations that their criticality to modern warfighting can go unnoticed, but they bolster almost every digital system in use by the ADF today. Space also powers our civilian lives – from finance systems to navigation, emergency services and weather.

We all understand the importance of defending our oceans, our land, and the skies above us, but we also need to be able to defend our access to space. We must protect billions of dollars of Australian civilian and military space assets. Defence Space Command crosses Service boundaries, atmospheric layers and orbits, in our quest to use the fundamental properties of the space environment to defend Australia and our national interests in space.

Becoming Australia’s first Space Commander is a dream come true, from my very early ambitions that hatched when seeing Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, to the growing criticality of space and the importance of our mission ahead.

It took a lot of work to get to this point, from convincing the organisation that a space command was essential, to designing how it would work and undergoing the selection process for the role. The emotion only hit me when I was sitting at the desk with the Chief of Air Force to sign the certificate as the inaugural Space Commander. I was holding the zero-gravity space pen that my husband had bought to mark the occasion, and was tearing up in the moment. This was Space Command and I was responsible for leading it. 

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

I’ve always loved math and science, and space has always been my ultimate dream. When it came to making university selections, I wanted to push myself and study what was hardest. I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the world and that I wanted to contribute. The choice was between medicine and engineering – in those days it was harder to get into engineering, so I became an aerospace engineer.  The Air Force paid for your degree and allowed me to become financially independent at age 16 – something that really appealed to me. Also, I did rather like flying – albeit as a woman I couldn’t join the Air Force as a pilot back in 1983.

I joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a specialist in aerospace engineering and I’ve had more than 20 different roles throughout my career – that keeps you interested! I have dedicated my career to advancing air and space power in a way that protects Australia, and our national interests and keeps Australians safe.

I have brought in new capabilities, ranging from the Classic Hornet and PC-9 to the new Pilot Training System and F-35A, and most recently the Loyal Wingman and M2 Satellite.

I have flight-tested aircraft, parachuted out of them, been involved in design – all aimed at getting the very best capability that we can.

My key learning from every one of these capabilities is that it is not the engineering or the technology that defines its success; it is the people that test it, integrate it, maintain it, fly it, sustain it, and push it to its limits that turn a sophisticated machine into air and space power.

What advice would you give to people looking to start their career in the Australian space Industry, whether they are new graduates or those looking to move their careers over?

STEM is important but most careers have an application in space.

When you think of space, people think of orbital analysis and all the maths that goes with that. But everything from policy to ethics and law, to space architecture and spacesuit design, to healthcare and journalism, has important space applications. I thought it was really fascinating that Virgin Galactic spacewear is designed by a company that specialises in sportswear. Space really has been democratised.

The most important element for a space career is resilience. Space is not easy, it takes real dedication, an ability to learn from failure, and resilience to keep trying. You also need curiosity, an ability to work in teams and to be able to tolerate ambiguity. Space is the great unknown and you need to feel comfortable with forging your own path. Even as we work out our Defence Space Command workforce requirements, we need to think differently about career paths as there are so many ways into space, and such diverse careers.

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

I am fortunate to have had many people that have impacted my career journey so far. As this series is about women in space, I will focus on inspiring space women.

Getting to know Pam Melroy on the Advisory Board for the Australian Space Agency has been very impactful. It’s not often that you get to work with astronauts, but I think moving into the future this will become more familiar to us in Australia.

Speaking of the future, I would like to reflect on the people who will impact careers moving forward. In our Space Power eManual, there is a term “spacemindedness” which encapsulates how space power practitioners apply their intellect, emotions, motivation and leadership to generate space power for our nation’s defence. You need to work at developing spacemindedness through education, reading, personal development and self-awareness. For many of us it becomes an obsession, and you can see it as an instinctive ability to understand how to generate and use space power.

Leading Aircraftwoman Fiona Ellis is someone who embodies spacemindedness. She is incredibly technically competent and also thinks differently. In space, we need diverse thinkers with different views, backgrounds, and approaches to find new ways to solve complex puzzles - of which there are plenty in space! Fiona inspires me as she taps into her own uniqueness to contribute to space power and Defence Space Command’s mission.

Sergeant Amy Hestermann-Crane has demonstrated an amazing commitment to space knowledge and takes the time to further develop her knowledge and apply it to her workplace and the future STEM workforce.

These are just some of the incredibly talented people in Space Command who will create our stellar space future.

Beatrice Shilling was famous for racing motorbikes around the Brooklands racking circuit in the 1930’s as well as developing the Miss Shilling's orifice which enable aircraft to perform combat maneuvers without the engines cutting out. Credit: University of London.

Which women in history do you look up to? What was it about their achievements that resonated with you?

The story of Beatrice Shilling, a World War II engineer really resonates with me.  

The Supermarine Spitfire played a critical role in many WWII battles, particularly the Battle of Britain. The Spitfire was equally loved by its pilots and feared by its enemies for its responsiveness, manoeuvrability and superior high-altitude performance.

But the Spitfire had a fatal flaw - a dangerous engine carburettor issue. When a Spitfire flew upside-down, its engine would flood, forcing the propellors to stop, sending the plane into a negative G-dive.

To avoid cut-out, pilots typically were restricted to ‘half-rolls’ that kept the fuel at the bottom of the tank.

It became a priority for engineers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and Rolls Royce to solve this issue.

Enter Beatrice Shilling, a young engineer working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. She invented a simple flow-restricting washer called the R.A.E Restrictor which restored RAF’s competitive advantage in combat. Beatrice was one of many people that pushed the Spitfire beyond its limits and provided its margin of victory.

What an amazing role model, and 81 years later it is still our people that find and exploit the air and space power asymmetries to prevail in an environment of constant competition.

What do you think are some of the issues women face in the space sector and how should they be resolved?

As a woman in such a responsible job, there are still some significant challenges in leadership.

Firstly, you are still really obvious, I still go to many meetings as the only female in a group of very confident men. Internally, politically and internationally! This means you are noticed, every move is exaggerated, and comments noted because you are different.   That’s fine if you can be perfect all the time, but none of us are.  But there is an unwritten expectation that you will be better than mediocre, you can’t hide.

The other issue is bias – intentional and unintentional.  

In Caroline Criado Perez’s book – Invisible Women Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, she exposes a myriad of biases in technology. The book outlines that a leading voice recognition software is 70% more likely to accurately recognise male speech than female speech. As we move to more voice-activated commands or retina-controlled technologies, we need to make sure they work equally for all our personnel. 

We have seen this recently with space suits which had previously only been designed for men. Since then, NASA has designed a space suit that is reported to fit every human body - from the first percentile of women to the 99th percentile of men.

We will only steer clear of these gender biases when we have more women behind the wheel or at the helm. This means a higher number of female leaders, developers, researchers and employees in general.

This series that celebrates women in space is exactly what we need to create role models and shine the light on incredible careers in space. We need to celebrate all kinds of diversity as it is well established that the complexities of space are best addressed by multidisciplinary and diverse teams.

What are you most excited about in the coming years for the Australian Space Industry?

I am really excited about getting our own Australian space capability and working with the Australian industry. We are enhancing our sovereign capabilities so we can be self-reliant in the detection of threats and collection of information for the defence of our nation. This is crucial to gaining timely, accurate information for the safety and capability of our forces. This evolution of our operational capability will ensure we can efficiently and effectively respond when required. 

This is really important to me, we're very embryonic but we have so much talent here in Australia. At the moment, we're defining our future capability architecture with a constellation on the ground and a constellation in space.

What has been the highlight of your career so far or what are you looking forward to most in the future?

My highlight is becoming the inaugural Commander of Defence Space Command. I have gotten here as I have always believed that extraordinary teams can do extraordinary things. Extraordinary teams are not created by elite people, they are created by self-aware people that bring their own talents to the mix and help realise other people’s talents. Extraordinary happens when you empower your people to lift each other up.

It’s so great to see Defence Space Command as a joint command, people of all uniforms and backgrounds coming together. When studying physics at school I was always fascinated with potential energy. To me, Space Command feels like that – a group of phenomenal people, inspired by a mission to prepare space power to secure Australia’s interests in peace and war. Together we will reach for the stars to protect Australia – our freedom, our values and our way of life.