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European Space Agency Celebrates Women in Science with Astro Pi Challenge

Coding will become even more important in space exploration as humans explore faraway places, says a Canadian astronaut candidate in a new video.

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (today, Feb. 11), Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons spoke to the European Space Agency about her female role models and the importance of women in coding history. 

ESA released the video to promote its Astro Pi Challenge, an ESA Education program done in collaboration with the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The program offers students the chance to do space-based scientific investigations using Raspberry Pi computers on the International Space Station (ISS).

"Coding has been integral to space exploration. It's been incredibly important, and that dates back to early lunar missions when we were in the Apollo program and Margaret Hamilton coded the lander program for Apollo 11," said Sidey-Gibbons. 

Apollo 11 was the first human mission to land on the moon, and safely brought two astronauts to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Six other successful human moon landings followed between 1969 and 1972.

"I mean, that history is incredible," Sidey-Gibbons continued, "and we've used it before then and since then to complete so many tasks which we have automated." As the video showed the ISS Canadarm2 robotic arm manipulating a payload in space, Sidey-Gibbons said that coding remains "at the center" of tasks, even though astronauts or Mission Control may assist space robots. 

"As we move forward and go and explore places that are further away, we're going to need to rely on coding new programs [and] artificial intelligence, more and more. I think that's incredibly exciting," she continued.

Sidey-Gibbons said her main inspiration for becoming an astronaut was a female role model: former Canadian spaceflyer Roberta Bondar, a neurologist who flew on space shuttle mission STS-42 in 1992. While Sidey-Gibbons was only three years old at the time, she said she remembers how impressed her mom was – and Sidey-Gibbons even kept a scrapbook with newspaper clippings of Bondar's adventures.

Sidey-Gibbons, 30, was one of two Canadians selected in July 2017 to pursue a two-year training program with NASA, for astronaut candidates to become full astronauts eligible for spaceflight. Coincidentally, supervision of class training schedules is done by fellow Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen. Yet another Canadian, David Saint-Jacques, is in the middle of a six-month space mission to the ISS that began in December. Canada has its own space agency, as well as a co-operation agreement with ESA.

You can also read about more female role models in science at this NASA web page meant to inspire students to pursue careers in science, engineering, technology or math (STEM).

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.