Dr Helen WalkerThe National Space Academy team took a blow recently on hearing the news that Dr Helen Walker, a Project Scientist for the Academy and great friend, died peacefully at the end of September after a short illness.

Her funeral was held this week, and she will be greatly missed by her colleagues and friends.

Dr Walker provided many of our team with inspiration and support, both by discussing the research, technical and scientific work that she pursued with such dedication, and by sharing her own personal stories with candour and gently mischievous humour. 

She became an astronomer and scientist at a time when the gender disparity we still talk about today in the physical sciences was even more extreme, and led by example in the very British manner of ‘just getting on with things’.


Helen Walker at 2012 symposiumOne of the memories that will remain forever with the Academy Lead Educators that attended our first symposium at the Harwell campus is the sight of MIRI, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument built by RAL Space for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, hosted at RAL Space for a testing regime. Dr Walker spent a huge amount of time in recent years working on the testing for MIRI both at Harwell, and then at NASA Goddard after it was transported over to be incorporated into the rest of the spacecraft. For our teachers to spend time with a scientist working on such an iconic project was a real privilege, and they will be thinking of her when the telescope launches, likely in 2019, and when they are then able to discuss the first science from that mission with their students.

A strong belief in sharing knowledge and engaging the public and young people with science and astronomy is what connected Dr Walker with many of our team, and led her to lend her time and advice to the National Space Academy project. She first joined us as a Project Scientist in 2012 when the Academy went from a regional pilot to a project with national scope, and has continued to support the development of resources and delivery of programmes in her 5 years with us. Her approach of openness and gentle frankness as well as a genuine passion for her work and the importance of engagement has helped to shape the Academy into the programme it is today. She will be missed by the whole team.


A personal perspective from our General Manager, Dr Kierann Shah

I had the pleasure of working with Helen at Harwell and met with her regularly to find out about her work in satellite operations, working with clusters of satellites, as well as her work on other projects such as MIRI. We would have informal conversations that touched on everything from how when doing outreach some children were newly interested in constellations as they could relate the names of stars to characters in Harry Potter, to the experience of being an ‘outlier’ when it comes to gender stereotypes, as well as interests outside of work, the challenges of travelling for work or working shifts, and the joy and misery that comes from working with data!

Helen worked directly with a few different members of our team and I was always amazed that she could make the time amongst her other commitments. She was a personal inspiration to me as someone driven by a love of their work – such that even when work was challenging or even seemingly impossible she would carry on with great determination. She spoke quietly and diplomatically on most things, but over a slice of cake in the R100 coffee shop I would glean a little bit of fieriness and a great deal of humour. On asking her once, when new in my first role for Academy, if I would see her at an upcoming conference to celebrate the anniversary of Ariel-1 she informed me that I would not, and that events like that full of men in grey suits shaking hands and talking shop were something she always avoided. She would rather be doing the science.

I know that she was very active outside of work in her hobbies as well: she once advised me that she could only deliver a talk at one of our events in the morning, as she was needed to ring the bells for a wedding at her church in the afternoon. I learnt that she had in her spare time helped to refurbish a steam train, and spent holidays visiting castles. When describing her “trip of a lifetime” adventure to South America in one of the last times I spoke to her, she told me that her tour guide had asked if she could help explain some of the constellations to the group. She replied, with trademark honesty “I really would like to, but I’m afraid it’s not my hemisphere”.

One thing she didn’t really tell me about was the different ways she has led on engagement for different groups in the past, especially her involvement with the Royal Astronomical Society and Society for Popular Astronomy. She was chair of the task group for the International Year of Astronomy 2009’s “She is an Astronomer” project, and has always been a regular supporter of RAL Space public engagement and wider RAL programmes. I do know that when she studied Astronomy at St Andrews University she ended up being the only woman on the course, and although she must have met plenty of people with sexist ideas of what women could and couldn’t do in her field she gave me the impression that this was something she never let bother her. Certainly nothing of that sort seems to have ever put her off pursuing her goal to work in astronomy and space, in fact it makes me smile to imagine anyone trying and the response they would likely have received!

It truly was inspirational to spend time with someone whose passion and knowledge so clearly shone through. I have certainly learnt a few things from Helen that I know I will carry with me in future: even if I do have to spend some of my time shaking hands with men in grey suits, it is in the hope that through our work we can break down the barriers to any young people with a passion like hers following their dreams to pursue science and maybe like her working on projects to improve the way we live or change our understanding of the universe around us.