Transcript: Space4U podcast, Libby Jackson

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, this is Andrew de Naray with Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the people who make space exploration today, more accessible to all. Today, we’ll be talking with Libby Jackson who has just released the book “Space Explorers, 25 Extraordinary Stories of Space Exploration and Adventure.”


By day, Libby is the Human Exploration Program Manager at the UK Space Agency, so she has some experience with such things. She is one of Britain’s leading experts in human spaceflight, having spent over a decade working at the forefront of the field. Space was her childhood passion, and she has worked in the space industry ever since she earned her degrees in physics at Imperial College and astronautics and space engineering at Cranfield University.


Libby is passionate about sharing stories of human spaceflight and encouraging young people to follow their passions in life. Her first book, A Galaxy of Her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space was published in the UK in 2017 and was later released in the U.S. in 2018 under the title Galaxy Girls. But today we’re going to focus on their new Space Explorers book just released in August. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today, Libby, it’s awesome to have you on the show.


Thank you so much. What an introduction. I’m when people throw that back at me, like, “Oh yeah. Okay.” But thank you. That’s really lovely of you to run it all past me. Um, so we’re definitely gonna talk about the book, but first I’d just like to sort of set the stage with a little background on you and your career.


I often ask guests how they first became interested in space, but I understand that you actually wrote a Travel Guide to Mars when you were just seven years old. Uh, so you definitely seem to qualify as having a lifelong love of space. And as we get closer to an expedition to Mars, hopefully in the next couple decades, how is that manual holding up so far?


Hey, it’s looking pretty good, but I should say, I don’t think I was seven. I was probably more like nine, but it, it, to me, to me that is the benchmark if people ask me, you know, how did you get interested in space? And I don’t remember. It was just always something that I had. I know this, this travel guide to Mars.


I mean, if Elon Musk gets his way. And see, I was talking about how it had been terraformed and there was a nice hotel there. And you could reconfigure your room, just any which way you liked. You had buttons that would woosh in different bits of furniture or something. Um, as I actually, you know, I know, especially when you talk about the hotels that are kind of come in low Earth orbit, I suspect in the next little while, at least a little hotel wing on the space station.


Yeah, maybe. I mean, I’m not good at predicting the future. I there’s my absolute claim to fame. I’m terrible at it, but, well, I thought your little, a flight of fancy on the last part of the book about what Mars might be like, I thought that that sounded pretty accurate from what I’ve heard so far. So I am looking forward to seeing that in my lifetime and I think it will happen.


I really do. It’s a, and to sort of finally say, I think, oh yeah, it really might not just be 20, 30 years in the future. I say these, I mean, I’ve grown up. I was born in ‘81, so I grew up writing these things right in my, my, my travel diets. But to me, the moon landings were ancient history. You know, they, they, they were deep, dark past.


And then I actually look back and go, you know what? It was nine years between the last moon landing and when I was born. And in 40 years we’ve done pretty well. We’ve had the space shuttle. We’ve learned how to live and work in low earth orbit, but always, you know, Mars was always 20 years away. And in 1980, we were going to be there by 2000.


And then in 2000, we’d be there by 2020. And it feels like now we’re sitting here in 2020 going 2040 feels a little bit closer. I think it might be 2050, but I said, don’t let me predict the future. Yeah. I think wait will happen. And so you went to space school at age 15 and then shadowed a flight director at NASA Johnson space center at 17.


Uh, who was that flight director? How did you get that hookup? And what are your memories of the experience. So I should say it wasn’t a flight director, but I remember very clearly what it was. Um, the person I sat next to in the shuttle mission control was a lady called Cathy Larson. She was sitting on the prop console and I wrote to her to say, ah, I, are you the right Cathy?


There was something about a picture of her that triggered something. And I, um, but how did all that happen. Um, I was at school and we, it was in the UK, what we would call the sixth form. Um, when we do a levels, which is age 17 or 18, and I, I sometimes lose track a bit about where that sits. But it’s it’s that bit before you go off to college.


And every year at school, the lowest six form was year 12. And we had to organize a week of work shadowing with something that they felt that they might one day want to go and get involved in. And my friends were organizing weeks in vets or lawyers. Uh, someone will go to the theater, you know, so much going off to sports, physiotherapists, all sorts of different things.


And I was sitting around our common room, which is where we just sort of sat in between lessons and stuff. And I said, I want to work for NASA one day. And this at the time was this mad, crazy pipe dream. That was just never going to happen. But me and a friend called Sally then emailed NASA and said, can we do some work shadowing?


And this was 1998. And email was definitely not you know, ubiquitous like it was today. So, so, you know, the fact that anyone had an email let alone a 17 year old and who knows where this landed in NASA, but somebody picked it up and I was really fortunate. They said, yes, I couldn’t believe it. I had to tell my mum what I’d done.


I hadn’t told her I’d emailed them. I had to go home with this email to say, I’ve got an offer of going to Houston for two weeks, can I go? And Lynn Beckemeyer was the lady who showed us around and we saw everything. It really seriously amazing trip around the Johnson Space Center. Uh, we got to see the mock-ups, where they were training and there was a little space station mock up there.


Cause this was ’98, just just as they’re getting ready to flood the space station. We saw the neutral buoyancy lab where they do the spacewalk training. We got out to Ellington air force base. I met Franklin Chen Diaz who was working on crazy ion engines. Uh, I met the scientists who were building hydroponics to work out how people were gonna, you know, grow stuff in space.


I even got into the Apollo moon rocks lab. Which I haven’t ever been able to do that since I’ve been working in the industry 20 odd years now I’ve been back there, no one lets you near the moon rocks. So it was amazing. But the thing that just took my breath away was mission control. And sitting next to Cathy, we were so lucky that there was no shuttle mission going on because it meant they were doing simulations.


And I just thought that was amazing. And that was brilliant. And I came back from that trip. And yeah, this is what I want to do, but I was a 17-year-old Brit and Britain didn’t do human spaceflight. And I tell this story and it is genuinely true. My honest kind of figuring out how that might happen one day was to somehow get a green card, find an American, marry them, say, Hey, babe, we’re off to Houston.


And that was sort of the mad, crazy pipe dream for how I might wind up getting involved in this thing called human space flight. Because it was, you know, it was not something that teenage girl in, in Britain could do. Huh. That’s great. And really interesting that, you know, the person that you shadowed ended up running the place, essentially.


Her name is Cathy Koerner. It was a Cathy Larson. Now Catherine Koerner, the Orion program manager. So, you know, props to Cathy on the prop console. That’s excellent. So then starting in 2007, you worked at Europe’s control center for the international space station as a flight instructor and controller.


Any interesting anecdotes that stand out from your time. Oh, I mean so many. I’ve been so lucky through my life because, because I, I landed that job and I started there. It was April, 2007, the Columbus module, which is Europe’s bit of the space station was due to launch later. It got delayed on the pad, the shuttle had problems.


So it didn’t go until February, 2008 or so, you know, so I was there. I sat in the control room and saw the space station. So I saw the space shuttle roar off the pad. It was discovery, I think, um, to Columbus space station. I sat in mission control when we saw the very last space shuttle land that stands out.


And just working with everybody from all around Europe, all around the world, it was, it was still is a wonderful team of people. And you get to sit there with this ringside seat, the most beautiful images that come back from space all the time that the, you know, beaming down solving problems, which is what I love to do working in space.


I just, it’s the best job in the world still is. That’s right. And you’d later became a director for the European space agency’s, ISS Columbus module, a what did that entail. Yeah. So I was a flight director and people would say to me, well, what do you do? I’m flight director. Get your big wide eyes. And it’s just like, it is in the movie.


It’s what I would say to people. Have you seen Apollo 13? Yep. Great. It’s like that. It’s less glamorous cause we’re not going to the moon, but the way the base station mission control operations is set up, you’ve got the team in Houston, the iconic team in Houston there, and we have our own mini version of that in Munich.


Looking after the Columbus module. So we’re looking after the payloads, the experiments that are run, uh, the stuff that goes on in there and looking after the European astronauts who visit on occasion, uh, we have busy time at the minute. Because Thomas Pesque is up there. Mathias Maurer is coming soon. So they’re really busy over there.


And it’s. Yeah, it’s just like the movies. It’s great. It just, I loved the days when it all went wrong and you would sit there and go, right. What are we doing? And let’s solve the problem. Let’s keep things going. And, um, you’d see the science being done. You’d see the work being done. It was very, very satisfying.


And fulfilling. Well, yeah, and I mean, uh, you know, where you were, you were talking about the wide eyes and stuff, but I mean, you were relatively young, you know, I mean, at that point, right? I mean, that’s, you know, you were, there’s one of the big, um, I guess secrets and I, anyone young listening to this mission control as a young person’s place, um, the best way into mission control, whether it’s, I think in the states, if it’s in Europe, you know, around the world is right after you graduate.


And all you really need is a technical degree. You can’t teach mission operations at college or university. You need a technical mind. You, you need to enjoy problem solving, but it’s great. You get a year or more of training on the job. You get taught how to do it. And that’s true. Now, it was true back in the, the amazing days of, of Apollo, something like, you know, during the Apollo missions, when the average age of everybody in mission control was something like 26 or 27.


It’s a young person’s world, really. And then you do what I do, which is yeah, you go on and you get up into management and you start doing all those jobs. And they’re fabulous too. And I enjoy them, but my heart will always be and belong in mission control. Oh, very cool. And then you joined the UK space agency in 2014, initially as spokesperson for the first British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS.


And he was only the second British astronaut to go to space after Helen Sharman, who you detail in the book. And that must’ve been exciting there, you know, since it had been 20, some years between Sherman’s time on Mir space station and then Peake’s time on the ISS. It was quite a privilege to do that. I was lucky enough to get the job, to run the education program for Tim’s fight.


So I was really bringing together everybody who was wanting to connect Tim’s flight with young people. And I say, I, you go by, I’d grown up in, in the UK human spaceflight wasn’t a thing. I saw Helen fly and her flight was a privately funded mission. Not by Helen. But by a sort of consortium of British companies who thought, oh, it’s time for the UK to get involved.


They had this plan of, of sponsorship mission, you know, and that there were companies like Interflora, we’re going to sponsor the mission and that would pay for it. It never quite worked out quite like that. And Russia stepped in and footed a large part of the costs. But Helen went a week on Mir, um, on me in 1991, when I said that was when I was, was 10.


And then as I said, it became a teenager. It was very obvious that we weren’t going to do human spaceflight. Now when Tim was selected in 2008 it was a big surprise. The UK wasn’t participating in the international space station. No one expected a British astronaut to be chosen by the European space agency, but they were quite clever.


I think it was a carrot to go and encourage the government to look at it. But when he was selected in 2008, I was working in mission control and the new astronauts, they came down, they met us all there and I made very sure that I went over and I shook Tim’s hand. I said, hi, Tim, I’m Libby. We’re both Brits.


We’re you know, we’re working in this together. And if you’d have asked either of us at that point, when was Tim going into space? It was going to be, you know, maybe never, maybe 10 years time. It was, it was a long shot. And then once I was still in Germany, the UK did some, they ended up basically finally joining the space station program and, and Tim got assigned to a flight.


Uh, I remember that very clearly because I was standing in Munich airport and I was scrolling through Twitter on my way. Back from a holiday was waiting for my bags. So I saw this thing saying Tim’s going to space. And I screamed and my friend looked at me and went, what, Tim, Tim, he’s going to space who’s Tim, why didn’t get it?


But this is all me sort of explaining how big a deal it was that we were going to have another British astronaut. And he was going to space not just for a week, but for a six month mission. And. I actually that point, I thought I’ve got to stay in Germany. I can’t leave human spaceflight. I can’t leave Germany.


I got the job. It got me back to the UK. And say to, to be involved in that mission was such a privilege because it was really quite a moment to really see how young people have their eyes opened, not just to the wonders of space, but to the excitement of what science can do and, and, and technology. And, you know, you can start thinking, oh, maybe I can do maths, or I can do science subject and take it on and how exciting they can be, where they can lead you.


Um, and, and that’s really has been a complete highlight of my career. Right, inspiring. So onto the book, uh, the opening page says, uh, these are not creations of imagination, rather than that. It’s a collection of historic milestones in space exploration from Sputnik all the way up to the X prize competition that basically birthed Virgin galactic.


I was really impressed by how much was covered in a 192-page volume, you know, with illustrations. So what inspired you to write this book? These are the stories that I have devoured and loved through my life. Really some of them I read when I was young and I would, you know, teenager loving space, just, just reading about all the old historic times of Apollo, some of them I’ve lived through.


And here’s a book I wish I had when I was 10 or 11 or 12, something that tells these fantastic stories. Gets behind just the pictures and the highlights of what you see. And I hope I get across just how exciting and brilliant a place it is. And then you can capture the imaginations of some young people.


So, yeah, really, it’s a, it’s a book I wish I had had when I was about 10. That’s great. And written, I think technically for readers ages eight through 12, so it’s kind of a tween age sort of audience. Um, but I’m going to go ahead and attest to the fact that adults can also enjoy this. I thoroughly enjoyed it myself and it really does condense a lot of history into a tidy package.


And I think it’s an awesome way to, like you said, engage young people with regard to space and STEM. I wrote it, thinking about my nieces and nephews who are sort of now eight, nine, and you know, they go from five to 10 and then the sort of concept is their bedtime stories. So you can, you can read one at a time and I certainly read them out loud to my, you know, seven, eight year old and so on.


And then I think, yeah, you can, you can imagine that my nine ten-year-old niece now can just sit there with, you know, torch under the cover and read a couple of them. So on before. Um, and I re I really wanted to lay it out in a way that you can read a story at a time, but if you read from one to the other, it just, it takes you through that arc, as you say, from the earliest days of Sputnik and those first satellites in space, right.


The way through Geminis Apollo in there, we’ve got Mir space station, you know? Yeah. The space station. Yeah. And then my little peak into what might come next. Um, you know, and I love how you made the book more relatable, you know, by using lay terms so that young people can understand the kind of more complex maneuvers and aspects of spaceflight.


Those things might have otherwise come across as maybe dry or intimidating, you know, and, um, but likewise. I was especially impressed with how the stories are fleshed out with the emotions that these explorers were feeling as they progress on their missions and the sites they were seeing. So it wasn’t just, you know, these are the facts and that goes back to Yuri Gagarin.


So, uh, did, did you cull those impressions from like astronaut memoirs or did you get any of those accounts firsthand from the people involved? Um, most of the stories, not all of them. Yeah. Most of them are from, from history and people are gone and I just enjoyed devouring my library of books and the more I know the listeners can’t see it, but you can see me behind, I’ve got this whole wall of all the different memoirs and things.


So it was really that. And I mean, I, one of my favorite bits in researching it, was, I got to listen to all the mission control transcripts. And read them and listen to them. And so you will go back to Yuri’s flight and you dig around and there’s recordings of him. And, yes you can listen to that and, and, and get the feel of what’s going on.


Um, but some of them, the later ones, I don’t, I don’t think I, I rarely sat down and I didn’t interview anyone for them. You know how Helen’s stories and the Helen Sharman, there’s a bit about Tim’s mission told from the viewpoint of two little computers and a those words, you know, I, those were things I lived through.


So they’ve come from just knowing what was happening. Um, so it’s a mix of all sorts of different things, but the thing I really wanted to stick to. Was that it was true because we see so much. Now you go to the movies based on a true story and you could get me started on them. What I think of gravity as a film where the CGI and the attention to detail is beautiful.


It’s exquisite, and then it almost can lure you into the sense of thinking. Well, that’s what really happens in space. Because it looks so realistic and then I get across to the physics and it just all got thrown out the window, but this is, this is the, this is what I wanted to do is it’s not made up. It was really, really important to me that every word of dialogue in this has come from from a mission transcript somewhere, but I didn’t make anything up even.


Yeah. Thoughts and feelings have come. Um, it was all from reading the memoirs because every astronaut sort of, you know, writes their memoirs and I will absolutely credit many, many better writers than me, including all the astronauts for giving me the source material to, to put this all into a format that I hope children, um, in particular will enjoy.


Yeah, we’ll, uh, let’s face it. The stories are good enough and sensational enough on their own. Right. You know? Yeah. They don’t need to be dressed up. I mean, I write in the book, some of the stories we know, and then some of ah you forget that. And Alexei Leonov the first spacewalk, you to get into all of that.


I knew that the sort of, yes, he’d gone out and done the spacewalk and the. Nearly couldn’t get back into the spacecraft because the spacesuit had expanded and he let some air out to deflate it so he could get back in and you remember all of that. And then you keep reading his book and the story, and then you remember that it all went hideously wrong and they wound up landing in the middle of a, you know, Siberian forest with bears, you know, waiting for them.


And they were looking at their gun and it took three days for them to be rescued. And I want a mission. And the second bit of that just seems to get completely forgotten about because all everyone talks about was the amazingness of the spacewalk. Right, it was a great story. And, um, besides just the milestones and space history that you covered there also like segues in between chapters, that encapsulate topics like the astronaut selection process, the evolution of space food with the fun side note about, you know, Young and Grissom’s infamous corn beef sandwich smuggling, and, uh, and more so what gave you the idea to do those.


I think I worked well with my editor and we talked about, you know, different things. And I think these are some of the questions that kids have. You know, what do you eat in space? How do you go to the toilet space? What’s it like to live in space, all those questions. And it was just trying to draw around some of those in fun and interesting ways as well.


So that there’s just different bits, um, that you can say dip into, have a bedtime story and it answers some of those questions that people have, but it didn’t really quite always fit nicely into a sort of an adventure story, but there’s so many beautiful stories still in those things about, you know, you talk about the food.


How that food gets developed. And Rita Rapp was a, was a superstar and making all that happen. And we still use her techniques methods, you know, today, often on the space station. So it was just little things like that, but I wanted to try and get in there too. Thought those were great. I also noticed each chapter has sort of like a moral to the story, but it’s not forced, you know, like the racism that Katherine Johnson experienced working at NASA in the fifties and sixties, the sexism that Sally Ride and, uh, Svetlana Savitskaya had to grapple with as the first female astronauts.


And, uh, just the many instances of astronauts and their support teams staying cool under pressure. When lives hung in the balance was the moral of the story approach, intentional or intrinsic. I that it’s intrinsic. You pointed that out to me. I didn’t really even think about that. And I think it may be it’s, it’s an artifact of trying to keep these each as a bedtime story and you have to bring it to a close somewhere and kind of, draw a conclusion and so on.


And I think it comes back also, perhaps to me, just always wanting to try and say to young people. Go do it. The astronauts like superstars, we’re recording this just after Emma Raducanu blitzed through the US open. And I think is on every billboard over in the states now, but in different career paths, there are always these headline people and, and, and it’s so easy to sit there as a, as a kid and go, oh, well, I can’t do that.


And really my message is well you can, you know, the only person who. Stop you being you is you and you don’t need to listen to anyone else who says you can or can’t do that. They don’t know what you can and can’t do. And Yeah, I’m sure that just is somehow comes out because I just want to try and encourage everyone to do what they enjoy, because then they’ll do it well, and then you have a happier life.


And all I ever want is for people to be happy. I love the, the stay cool thing was just something that like, even at my age, I’m like helps to be reminded don’t panic. Yeah. I need some reminding of that myself, this week, a little busy with everything going on, but it’s funny. And this comes back, I think to my time in mission control.


And why mission control is a graduate’s place, but you learn these things early on. And I still now find myself going, what if this? And what if that, and am I prepared and, and so on. And these are the thoughts that were around. Everybody in mission control had all the time and, and the astronauts. And I certainly get the most uncomfortable when I’m in a situation where I haven’t kind of figured out all of the different ifs and butts and got an answer for it.


So it stays with you. It’s true. So, uh, how did you connect with, uh, Léonard Dupond? Uh, his illustrations throughout the book are really excellent. Aren’t they stunning? I mean, he brings it to life and it, to me is what makes the book. I mean, they’re just beautiful and stunning. I can take no credit for that. It was all done thanks to the publishers.


Um, but then we had a great time working together, crafting these things. Just as I wanted the stories to be accurate, I really paid attention. We had a lot of discussions, probably Léonard would say too many, but to try and make sure that the illustrations were accurate as well. There’s artistic license, you know, he’s a fabulous artist.


You’ve got to bring that out, but there were, you know, little things like we made sure to get it right. There’s a beautiful spread, imagining a sort of overhead shot of, of Neil and Buzz on the moon in apollo 11. And when I saw the first take of it. The shadows all looked wrong, you know, they, they weren’t quite right.


They were the wrong size relative to the relative size of the lunar module and the astronauts and so on and I went, ah, this is not right. We need to just adjust this. And it was just little things like that. Like getting the space station right. And getting the right sort of spacesuits and so on and say the totally artistic license in there.


But the core of it still is accuracy. And. Yeah, it’s just these things are so brilliant. We don’t need to make it up. It was cool. I think there was almost had like a little bit of a, you know, vintage, retro sci-fi vibe to them, but also kind of futuristic as well. So that, that they were really great. He really just, uh, it, it, yeah, it makes the book.


I’m just, thank you Léonard. Wouldn’t be space explorers without his pictures. One final question Libby, do you yourself have the aspiration to travel to space? And if so, where would you wish to go. Oh, you give me a ticket I’ll of course I’ll go it’s um, oh, I mean, who wouldn’t because I know many people wouldn’t, but for me the sights, the experience, the beauty, the things that you could do that you can do, it’s what, a thing.


But in some ways I kind of, it’s strange. I kind of feel like I’ve been there already, which I haven’t at all, but just from working in mission control in the industry, I know that space station inside out, I feel like I’ve been there because I’ve seen so much of it. And, you know, there are so many fantastic images, videos, tours, you know, that come back now that you can, you can go there sort of virtually, I suppose now.


And then I say that and I would want to be well-trained. You know, you go to a theme park. You go get on that roller coaster that’s got some hideous drop and all designed to do it. Oh no, no, no. And then I kind of am brave and then I love it. And then I’m on it every single time. And I’m sure going into space would be the same thing, which is why I like to be prepared and light training.


And I say this to kids today and I mean it, if they want to go to space, they can, this space tourism thing is kicking off and there are many questions and arguments and things to look at and not least the environmental aspects and where money is going and, so on. And we could have long discussions about that, but I think it’s happening, you know, progress is how the world goes.


And kids today can start saving up and they could buy a ticket and go to space. And when I was seven, 10 writing that Mars travel guide, I saw Concord fly over my house every evening because it came back from New York and it was, it was landing into London, Heathrow airport, half past five or something.


So every, every day, I’d see it. And I had this sort of thing that man, I’d love to fly on Concorde one day. And it was something that you could choose to save up for. You know, it was a first class return ticket, crazy thing. And I mean, even back then, it must’ve been 10, 20, 30,000 pounds/dollars, you know? But it was something you could go.


If I really want to do this, you could save up the money and do a once in a lifetime thing. And I think that’s true for children today on going to space and what a thing to be able to say that and mean that, and think about where it’s going and know that the young people who are reading this book will see people walk on Mars as well.


That I am certain of. I’ll just, you know, oh, what a, what a thing. And for humanity to do that and to challenge it and the things we’ll learn by doing it, that’s really exciting to me. So you’re good with the overview effect, but you don’t necessarily want to go any beyond that. I, I, you not going to get me on a one way trip to Mars just yet.


And that smoothed that out before. The thing about what I can in this business. It’s very basic camping, long-term space travel. And, um, Mars is a huge challenge. There’s there’s a lot, we’ve got to figure out before we can do it. Yeah, I think I like my creature comforts a bit too much probably. Agreed.


Well, uh, Libby, thanks again for taking the time to speak with us today. I love your book and I’m definitely going to read this again with my ten-year-old son at bedtime. I know and like you said he’s probably old enough to read it himself, but I’m not sure if I, I don’t want to share it though, you know? Um, so, uh, I know he’s going to love it too.


Again, the title is “Space Explorers, 25 Extraordinary Stories of Space Exploration and Adventure” from Aladdin publishing. And I know it’s at least available on Amazon and probably elsewhere, and to learn more about Libby and her work, just visit That concludes this episode of Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast.


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Space4U Podcast: Libby Jackson – UK Space Agency Human Exploration Programme Manager & “Space Explorers: 25 Extraordinary Stories of Space Exploration and Adventure” Author