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‘So far, 12 American white guys have been to the moon. We need to diversify’ – Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Presenter of The Sky At Night Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock looks back on a lifetime of fascination with space, and forward to her retirement on Mars

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock was only a few months old, making her own first small steps, when man first landed on the moon in 1969. Over half a century since the last Apollo mission, Nasa finally has plans to return. It’s not just the potential of building bases and exploring further out in our solar system that Aderin-Pocock is excited about but changing the demographic of moon walkers. 

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock
Aderin-Pocock answers kids’ questions in her new book. Photo: supplied

“Twelve people have been to the moon and so far it’s been 12 American white guys. So we need to diversify the moon a bit,” she says. “As a Black female, I keep saying, ‘I’ll go, send me!’ Nasa haven’t called me back yet. But I’m still hopeful.” 

Growing up watching The Clangers inspired Maggie Aderin-Pocock as much as the moon landings to become a space scientist. She presents The Sky At Night, has given talks to over 350,000 people over the years and has noticed the demographic of people she speaks to and meets changing. 

“When I studied at university [at Imperial College in London] there were 200 physics students. Only two of us were Black and I think five of us were women. I was the only one that fitted into both categories. Now I meet many female scientists, I meet many Black scientists. So I think it’s changing. The problem is, it’s changing too slowly.” 

With the worsening cost-of-living crisis and cuts to education, it’s becoming more difficult for those less well-off to go into higher education. Although Aderin-Pocock doesn’t think that should stop people dreaming of the stars. 

“I got a full grant when I went to university, we were living in a council flat. I worry that it’s quite a challenge to say, ‘OK, I’m going to go to university and come out with a stack load of debt around my neck’. I know it’s set up so people don’t have to pay straight away and you have to earn a certain amount. But it still focuses the mind, ‘Should I do this?’ People think that if you’re going to be a scientist, you need to go to university but there are wonderful apprenticeships where you’re learning and earning at the same time. If I was just starting out and considering a degree at the moment, I’d think twice about it, which is a shame. I might have actually gone for an apprenticeship.” 

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Aderin-Pocock believes that the golden age of space travel lies ahead of us: “Hopefully, there’ll be opportunities for many more of us to get out into space soon, we just need to work out how we can do it in an environmentally friendly way. There are ways: biofuels, reusable spacecraft.” 

Times of economic and environmental peril in fact make it more important to get into space, not to work out an escape plan but to protect our planet. 

“You get headlines about the James Webb Space Telescope looking deep into the universe, or astronauts going to the International Space Station but as a space scientist, most of the jobs I’ve worked on have been observing Earth,” Aderin-Pocock explains. “Satellites sitting in low orbit looking at climate change, how to make crops grow better. You can see changes that are hard to monitor from the ground.” 

To inspire the scientists and astronauts of the future, Aderin-Pocock has written a new book, Am I Made of Stardust?, collating many of the questions children ask her. Not all of them have answers. 

“I like to point out to young people that there’s still so much about the universe, we don’t know. But I say the fact that you’re asking the question might mean that one day you’ll become a scientist and help us find the answers.” 

The most common question Maggie Aderin-Pocock is asked is which is her favourite planet.  

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock book cover

“Generally speaking, I usually come up with Mars. That’s my retirement plan.” 

Does she have her application in with Nasa? 

“Until 12 years ago my application was ready to go. Then my daughter was born. That’s why it’s more of a retirement plan, I need to wait until she grows up. Actually, she has promised that she’s going to come with me. I’m a space scientist and she’s really into art. She told me that she could be a space artist and we’ll travel through the universe together, I’ll cover the science, she’ll cover the arts and we’ll beam things back as we discover them.” 

Am I Made of Stardust? by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is out now (Buster Books, £12.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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