Sian Cleaver: One Giant Step for Women

Posted: 31st August 2022

‘You don’t need to be a man or born in the US to go into space’

Chelmsford-born engineer Sian Cleaver is at Cape Canaveral, working on the test-flight of Artemis, the first crewed Moon landing since 1972

BySarah Knapton, SCIENCE EDITOR, CAPE CANAVERAL27 August 2022 • 6:00pm


Sian Cleaver: ‘I really hope that a lot of women see themselves as being future astronauts, future spacecraft engineers, something in the space industry’

Growing up, most little girls pester their parents for ponies and treehouses. Sian Cleaver just wanted to be an American.

The Chelmsford-born engineer was so convinced that US citizenship was the only way to work in human spaceflight that, from the age of five, she regularly voiced plans to abandon Essex, and emigrate to the US.

It turned out to be unnecessary. Decades later she is at Cape Canaveral in Florida, awaiting the launch of the test-flight of Artemis, the first crewed Moon landing since 1972.

Cleaver, who works for Airbus in Bremen, Germany, is at the heart of the mission as industrial manager for the European Service Module (ESM) – part of the Artemis Orion spacecraft that provides power, propulsion and life-support systems for the astronauts.

It is the first time that Europe has played such a critical role in a mission to the lunar surface and is proof that the US no longer monopolises human space flight.

The Artemis I unmanned lunar rocket sits on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral CREDIT: Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

The mission also marks the first time a woman has set foot on the Moon and Cleaver hopes both factors will inspire a new generation of British youngsters.

“I used to ask for American citizenship for my birthday every year,” she told The Telegraph. “It took me a really long time to realise there were opportunities elsewhere.

“I really hope that a lot of women see themselves as being future astronauts, future spacecraft engineers, something in the space industry. You don’t need to have been born in the US anymore. You don’t need to be a man.

“I think you can see it now. Women are not just tiny hidden figures in the back corner, and I hope this mission is going to make us a little more equal.”

Speaking of the test-flight, which is due to launch on Monday, she added: “I’m pinching myself everyday. I can’t quite believe I am here, I’ve dreamed of this my whole life. It’s the beginning of a new era in space exploration.”

Cleaver wanted to be an astronaut from the age of five. She attended Chelmsford County High School for Girls, before taking a master’s degree in physics and astronomy at Durham University.

The 32-year-old joined Airbus in 2012, first working in Portsmouth and Stevenage, before moving permanently to Bremen to join the Orion ESM team full time in March 2019.

The Artemis mission is named after the Greek goddess of the Moon, and sister of the sun god Apollo, who gave his name to Nasa’s original Moon landing programme.

Only men have ever ventured out of low-Earth orbit, and the decision to send a woman on the first Moon landing could have far-reaching implications, Cleaver believes.

“There’s less data on how women’s bodies behave in space, purely because there are fewer female astronauts, and we need to change that,” she said.

“I think the more women we fly, the more we will catch up in our understanding of physiology and how it’s affected by space for women in particular.

“I mean, even silly things like the toilets have always been designed for men but the crew toilet on the Artemis missions will be unisex. Everything is going to be designed with men and women in mind this time.

“And, quite often, what happens is space eventually ends up influencing design on Earth so women might start benefiting from all these things we’ll be learning about.”

She is also rooting for Tim Peake to be chosen as the European Space Agency astronaut who will walk on the Moon.

“Let’s hope so,” she said. “I have no idea what the plans are in terms of European astronauts on Artemis, only that I’m pretty sure there will be a European astronaut. And let’s hope it’s Tim.”

The first Artemis mission in March will be without a crew, with the Orion spacecraft travelling to the Moon’s orbit before the crew module returns to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific, off the coast of San Diego. The ESM will burn up on re-entry.

The second stage, Artemis II, is scheduled for launch in 2024 and will see astronauts return to the Moon’s orbit, with a full touchdown expected in 2025.

A phantom female crew will fly on board the first Artemis Moon mission, to find out how to help women survive the rigours of deep-space flight.

Two mannequins named Helga and Zohar will sit in the passenger seats of the Orion crew module, so that scientists can monitor the impact of deadly space radiation.

The dummies – usually used in radiation therapy planning – have organs and bones made of special plastics that mimic the bones, soft tissues, and organs of adult females. They also contain thousands of detectors to monitor radiation doses every five minutes.

The only difference between the mannequins is that Zohar will be wearing a radiation vest to protect her upper body and womb, while Helga will not.

“This will be the first time that the level of radiation to which astronauts are exposed during a crewed flight to the Moon is measured with such precision,” said Thomas Berger, scientific lead of the experiment at the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne.

“This will generate a first data set of the radiation load female astronauts will receive by travelling outside the Earth magnetic field in free space.”

Nasa has vowed to place the first woman on the lunar surface in 2025, but the female body is extremely vulnerable to space radiation: high-speed particles that tear through DNA molecules, wreaking havoc internally.

Both male and female astronauts are banned from accumulating radiation doses that increase their lifetime risk of developing cancer by more than three per cent.

But it means female astronauts can only fly around half the number of missions as men, because their relative dose of radiation is higher.

Finding ways to protect astronauts from radiation could not only allow women to spend more time in space, but also protect astronauts on longer deep-space missions, such as establishing a Moon base or travelling to Mars.

The Orion capsule has been designed to protect against radiation, and also has a reinforced shelter between the heat shield and the floor where crews can take cover in the event of a solar flare.

A further mannequin, wearing the Orion Crew Survival System suit, will also occupy the commander’s seat on the Artemis I mission, outfitted with sensors to provide data on what crew members may experience during flight.


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