Our Relationship With Earth Is Toxic — These Women Are Working To Change That

To say our connection to Earth is a great relationship gone very wrong is an oversimplified statement, obviously, but it's not a far stretch: Record high temperatures, increasing acidity of ocean waters, and shrinking ice sheets are just a few of the negative changes scientists attribute to human activities over the past century.
The short film We Need Space, released to coincide with Earth Day, depicts this disintegrating relationship. Its stars are not professional actors or climate scientists; they're women working on the frontlines of our exploration into space, building the engines and rocket parts that will soon depart Earth for other atmospheres.
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If this casting choice seems confusing, you need only look at NASA's vision for the future to make sense of it: "We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind." According to NASA, learning about what's out there can help us improve our relationship with this place we call home.
This Earth Day, Refinery29 is recognising the film for shedding light on the realities of climate change, and celebrating the female engineers who are working to explore other planets, so we can know more about our own. Ahead, three of the women in the film speak about their experiences in the space programme, from the misconceptions others have to what makes them unlikely employees.
We Need Space is an original short film exclusive to Refinery29.
designed by abbie winters
Julia Levy, 25, Propulsion Development Engineer, Virgin Orbit
As told to Refinery29
“When I graduated, I started working at Northrop Grumman, but it was super slow-paced and old spacey. Six months later I transitioned to Virgin and I’ve been here for almost three years now. A lot of people imagine movies where mission control is all these men in white short-sleeve button ups with shaved heads and that’s space. Maybe it was that way at one point, but it’s not anymore.
“I started as an entry level engineer working on the first stage engine, the big one that blasts you off from the ground or, in our case, from the 747. I’ve transitioned to a position on the second stage engine team where I’m responsible for one of the main engine components. I’m also one of three people on our team who goes out to Mojave for a period of time and tests things.
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“For any test campaign, you have the people who are in charge of making sure your tanks are full and there aren’t any leaks in plumbing and then you have an engineer who is responsible for the thing you’re testing. In our case we’re testing the engine. I’m an advocate for the engine throughout the process so it’s my responsibility to make sure the engine is healthy and we’re collecting all the data we want to collect. Then, I review all the data to make sure everything looks good and we don’t suspect anything is broken.
“Even though I’m an aerospace engineer, maths is my weakest subject; I lean heavily on my writing and communication skills to coordinate with my team and keep my projects moving forward. I do better with managing products than managing people so I can definitely see myself working as a programme manager. But I’d love to be an astronaut, someday. I think there is a romantic aspect to space travel. Most of the iconic pictures that we see from space are of the earth. We’re obsessed with getting off the earth but looking back at it, too. We’re ready to move on and explore but at the same time we’re never going to lose our ties to earth.”
designed by abbie winters
Eshwari Murty, 25, Microdevices Engineer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
As told to Refinery29
“I have completely blue hair and tattoos and piercings, so when people first meet me or look at me I feel like it’s really easy for them to assume that I’m not a NASA engineer. If someone just saw me walking on the street that is not what they’d peg me for at all.
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“I’ve been on a bunch of different projects since joining JPL. I started off in the microdevices lab, where I worked on creating sensors for harsh environments. If you’re doing any sort of planetary science you need to make technology that’s going to work in an environment where it’s 500 degrees or really high pressure or the atmosphere is super acidic, so stuff we use on earth wouldn’t necessarily work on Venus, for example.
“Now I’m working on the Mars 2020 rover. I like the idea of creating something that is going to be put to use immediately. The Mars rover has a bunch of different instruments on it so the whole team is split up working on all of these different instruments. I’m focused on two of them: Moxie, an instrument that is going to convert the Mars atmosphere into oxygen; it’s kind of like a proof of concept thing — if we were to live here, we do have a mechanism to create oxygen? The other one is called the EDL camera. It’s a series of cameras that are going to capture the whole landing process of the rover.
“I really like my job but I also have a lot of interests outside of that, too. People overlook those and when I tell them what my other hobbies are they’re surprised I do stuff that’s so unrelated to my career. I do improv comedy, and I’m a dancer and rock climber. I’m starting to be a freelance photographer, too. [When you’re working in the space programme] people think you’re extremely smart and brilliant and must know everything. I get that a lot and it makes me really uncomfortable because it’s absolutely not true.”
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designed by abbie winters
Nimisha Mittal, 32, Spaceflight Operations Test Engineer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
As told to Refinery29
“A lot of my friends just associate my work with being an astronaut. It’s very different — at JPL, we primarily work with robotic spacecraft. I’m not an astronaut, and I don’t intend to go into space.
“I started out working on the Mars exploration rovers which was amazing because that was the mission that inspired me to want to work at NASA. When I was in high school they were just sending those rovers up to Mars and I was watching the coverage of the mission on TV all the time. Just the fact that they were still going by the time I got to JPL was incredible to me.
“I began as part of the tactical operations team. Even though these robots are incredibly smart, they need to be told almost on a daily basis what to do. I was part of a team of engineers that met every day to decide what we wanted the rover to do on a particular day. I was also working on the Cassini mission to Saturn, helping plan the sequencing for that spacecraft.
“Right now I’m working on the InSight mission to Mars. It’s being launched in three weeks and is supposed to study seismic activity on the surface of Mars. It’s a small one compared to some of the other ones I’ve worked on because it’s a lander, meaning it will sit in one place and listen for Marsquakes. But for me, the best part of the InSight mission is getting the opportunity to work with some of our European partners, and share in the excitement of working towards a common dream.
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“It’s definitely an exciting job, but just like any day-to-day job, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. On a daily basis, it just feels like a regular job — a really good one, but it’s not exciting all the time. It’s not what people like to hear, but it’s just the reality of any job, I think."
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