Dr. Mindy Howard is a Future Astronaut, Astronaut Trainer and TEDx & Keynote Speaker. She has harnessed her academic and professional skills to create the first and only psychological space training program, “Inner Space Training”. She is in discussions with several organizations to train, coach, and accompany commercial astronauts to space. In addition, she is working for Blue Abyss Ltd., the world’s first commercial astronaut training centre as the Director of Inner Space Training.
This past week, on 4th March 2022, Bano Barzingi and Chiara Moenter, sat down with Mindy in the Space Café BeNeLux to discuss astronaut training and its applications in day-to-day life, women in space and STEM, and the role of spiral dynamics.
Oil vs Space industry
After her 21-year career in the oil industry, Mindy decided to make the switch to the space sector. Sustainability, but just diversity and inclusiveness were key drivers for her.
“They said, we’ll also give you training to help you secure your next job, what do you want to be? And I remember looking at the Career Counsellor and saying, Well, actually, I want to be an astronaut. And they were like, come on, what do you really want to do? And I said, No, and I really want to be an astronaut. And I can manage to convince this person to send me away to a flight training school in the states where there was a centrifuge. And that’s, you know, funnily enough, Shell paid for one of my first trainings, where I actually got to experience what it was like to have six G’s on me.”
Unlike the astronaut training from agencies like NASA or ESA, where astronauts are carefully screened and training is much more intense and mission specific, commercial astronauts are very different people.
“The approaches that NASA and ESA have, which is really to, through sheer repetition, train scenarios over and over and over and over, things that the astronauts will do get it, commercial astronauts don’t have the time to do that and probably they’re not that willing to do that either.”
When training commercial astronauts, it is important to consider the chaotic nature of the situation regarding their roles and agendas, which can differ greatly – from researchers to making rock videos, from taking selfies to doing somersaults.
“So, what you need to be teaching people are ways basically that they can kind of control themselves, their own body and their own sort of mental state, as well as not injuring other people.”
Mindy explains that commercial space travel will become much more of a norm, meaning that more and more people will go up unprepared because psychological training is not yet mandatory. Regulations will seemingly follow later.
“This is kind of the stage space training is at right now, where people are saying no training is necessary at the beginning, let’s just see how it all goes. And after the first incidents or accidents, I’m sure they will change things, and it will become mandatory. But right now, you sign a waiver. and off you go.”
Women in Space & STEM
With International Women’s Day on the 8th of March and more and more discussions happening on the topic of what it means to be a woman in this sector, the topic of women in space and STEM was necessary to discuss. Mindy explained that she unfortunately has had a few negative experiences in the sector. She explains that, even from a business point of view, there is a barrier to entry.
“A lot of it is like, who you know, and there’s a real good old boys network, which is very much alive, and I unfortunately have really had to sort of fight hard and for a long time to just try to be listened to.”
She pointed out that this may not be due to differences in gender, but generally trying to start out in the sector. But apart from this she shared some uncomfortable stories of harassment she suffered in the space sector.
There is a Facebook site called Astro Advocates and Allies, formed by men and women, people who have experienced any form of abuse or harassment in the space industry, to try to give support to the victims, as well as give advice as to how to deal with these issues when it’s happening to them in the space organizations.
“And one of the things that they said that I remember, which I think is a really good idea, it’s holding on to the shame, that’s not the way to go, but telling some what is the first step towards kind of healing and in addition to holding people accountable.”
When asked about what steps Mindy would consider in order to make the space sector safer and more inclusive for all, she explained that open communication was key. It is important to talk about feeling unsafe and to document things that happen to you. Another piece of advice she offers is to join a group to learn from others.
“And, you know, they have examples of how you can you know, what a sexual harassment policy looks like, what are the elements, how to make it.”
These kinds of policies are important to help build a system around it, to get HR systems and structures in place that some of the more established older companies have.
We asked Mindy if she could explain how the things happening on Earth and in space relate back to Spiral Dynamics.
“I feel like we might have to kind of go back down in order to go back up the technical stuff to sort of get out there, maybe to have a couple of failed lunar villages with, the colonization mentality, the exploit exploitation mentality of ‘’ I’m going to go to the moon and exploit its resources’’ .. I think this is sort of like a wave, where maybe, when we’re kind of focused on the engineering, then that’s the bolts getting out there, we do it the way we’ve always done it, because that’s been the way to give success in the past. But you got to be careful, I think, to bring that sort of mentality of the past.”
Looking out to the Future
When asked what her future holds, Mindy explains that she will definitely get to space. But her ultimate goal is to use the experiences from going to space in her training to help to make people fit enough both physically and mentally to fly out.
“I want to be the innkeeper at the space hotel.”
To listen to Dr. Mindy Howard’s insights into astronaut training and its applications in day-to-day life, women in space and STEM, and the role of spiral dynamics, you can watch the full program here: