6 mins read 04 Apr 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Sumen Rai

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. 

Sumen Rai - Director, Defence Innovation Partnership has enjoyed a varied career that has led her into the Space Industry. Supplied.

Sumen Rai - Director, Defence Innovation Partnership

What is your role at the Defence Innovation Partnership?

I am the Director of the Defence Innovation Partnership, an organisation that builds and funds research and development partnerships across defence and space sectors. My role is to work closely with researchers, industry and government to understand their capabilities and requirements, and then essentially help them find others who can work with them to achieve their goals.

Australia’s space R&D is growing in leaps and bounds, with new themes appearing such as applying our existing agricultural knowledge and expertise to grow plants in space to enable human space exploration – something we wouldn’t have considered a realistic opportunity a few years ago.  

I am very lucky to be able to collaborate with accomplished and inspirational people who are really passionate about their areas of expertise – what could be better than that?

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

I have been obsessed with space ever since I saw Star Wars as a 10-year-old. At that stage, I wanted to tell stories and make films about space more than working in the space sector.

While I spent most of my teens and early 20s working towards being a filmmaker and then a primary school teacher, I rediscovered my love of space science after landing a job with the former Investigator Science and Technology Centre (ISTC) – essentially the South Australian version of Questacon (The National Science and Technology Centre, based in Canberra). I loved creating new science programs for students and my absolute favourite was when my planetarium sessions just WORKED, sitting in the dark, telling stories about the stars in a hushed voice, and knowing the audience was so engaged with what I was saying. I’ve also shown people constellations out in the real world, with a similar response. There’s no denying the awe that people feel when they start to comprehend the significance of our night sky.

When I moved on from the ISTC to the South Australian state government, I was lucky enough to work for leaders who were forward-thinking and realised the space sector was something we should focus on. From there, I was able to build my relationships with the people who were at the forefront of space sector development, and they were as generous with their time and knowledge then as they are now. Some of my highlights include running the first NASA International Space Apps Challenge hackathon in Adelaide in 2012 and collaborating with the Space Industry Association of Australia to successfully attract the 2017 International Astronautical Congress to Adelaide.

Sumen has been obsessed with space since she saw Star Wars as a 10 year old. Here she is with R2D2. Supplied.

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?

The space sector in Australia is growing and we’re already seeing a big increase in jobs across the sector, particularly in technical roles. For those people who are interested in applying their computer science, data analytics, mechanical engineering or other technical training to the space sector, I suggest keeping an eye out for these job postings and also reaching out at events and other networking opportunities to meet people in the sector who might have roles available in the future.   

It’s not a huge sector right now so it’s relatively easy to make yourself known.

In addition to technical roles, I believe we have an opportunity right now to thoughtfully create this new sector for Australia by building in diversity, inclusion, and equity from the start. We need people who can bring new and creative questions and answers to the sector and its assumptions. We need people who can apply their critical thinking skills to policy, legislation and international relations. 

This is something close to my heart – we should openly recognise the legacy of politics, colonialism, racism and sexism in the international space sector, and work really hard to mitigate the impacts of those factors on our current and planned activities.  

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

I am most excited by the potential of the space sector to contribute meaningfully to addressing the most complex challenges of our time, such as climate change and managing the effects of human uses of space such as space debris.

 We are seeing greater commitment and investment from governments and industry to develop earth observation, communications, and position, navigation and timing capabilities that enable our everyday lives, and to develop technologies that help us monitor and clean up space debris. When you couple that with leading-edge R&D happening right now in our universities in areas like machine learning, advanced optics, quantum sensing, and edge computing, it’s clear that the Australian space sector is well-positioned to be a trusted collaborator and a leader in global endeavours.

It is also exciting to see us embark on our own national space missions, including space exploration through the Australian Space Agency’s Moon to Mars program. Human exploration, in particular, will challenge us with questions about what it means to be human, and political, social, ethical questions which I think will be fascinating to discuss with the space sector and the broader Australian community.

Sumen appreciated feeling represented when Astronaut Kalpana Chawla flew on board STS-87 in 1997. Sadly Astronaut Kalpana Chawla was also on board the disastrous STS-107 (Columbia) mission that was destroyed during reentry in 2003. She was the first astronaut of Indian origin to go into space. Credit: NASA.

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

I recall the shock of familiarity when I saw Kalpana Chawla’s name on the list of astronauts for STS-87 and then sadly STS-107, which was the Columbia disaster. It wasn’t that I knew her (I didn’t) but seeing an Indian name in that context was a pleasant surprise.   

I think I recognised after that reaction that it was a relief to see names like mine in an exalted position, with no one questioning her credentials, particularly in the 1990s when representations of Indians in the US and Australia were generally limited to caricatures like Apu from the Simpsons.

I must also point out that we are so lucky to have incredible women working in the Australian space sector, and this group is growing steadily.

In particular, Associate Professor Alice Gorman (AKA Dr Space Junk, Space Archaeologist, Space Industry Advocate, Writer and Lecturer at Flinders University), Professor Melissa de Zwart (Professor Digital Technology, Security and Governance at Flinders University), Dr Graziella Caprarelli (Editor in Chief at the Earth and Space Science Journal and Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern Queensland) and Dr Stacey Henderson (Lecturer at Adelaide Law School, The University of Adelaide) have been the leading lights of Australian space from the early days and have been formidable in their friendship, guidance and mentoring for me and so many others.