9 mins read 11 Jul 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Riley Havela

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special.

Riley Havela is currently studying aerospace engineering and physics at the University of Sydney and working as a junior space systems engineer at Saber Astronautics. Credit: Supplied.

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well known worldwide. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them.  

Riley Havela - Junior Space Systems Engineer at Saber Astronautics

What is your role at Saber Astronautics?

I am in my penultimate year at the University of Sydney studying aeronautical engineering and physics. I am also currently working as a junior space systems engineer at Saber Astronautics. I have a vested interest in propulsion systems engineering having completed an internship at Hypersonix Launch Systems, and now working as part of the University of Sydney Rocketry team. 

Saber Astronautics is a space engineering firm that has a mission to ‘democratise space access’, and my current role has me working on systems engineering projects such as requirement writing and software testing. They’re great for someone like me starting out because they’ve been in the industry for some time, and have a good reputation with some great projects on their resume but they are open and welcoming to someone like me. They happily take time out to guide and geek out about space and I’ve found some great learning opportunities and friendships in my short time at Saber. I really enjoy my role and I have learnt many invaluable skills, not to mention met so many incredible people in the space industry!

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

At university, I did what most students do and joined a bunch of societies that aligned with my interests. I already knew I wanted to work in the space sector, so I made sure to involve myself in opportunities that would help me secure a role in my preferred industry. Over time I saw myself taking up positions such as treasurer of the University of Sydney Physics Society and secretary in Sydney University Women in Aerospace Society. 

I also joined the Australian Youth Aerospace Association (AYAA) as a sponsorship coordinator for the Aerospace Futures conference. This role really helped me branch out and meet people in the community who welcomed me with open arms, becoming my tribe. I was fortunate to gain a mentor who offered me my first internship role at Hypersonix Launch Systems. This internship cemented my place in the Australian space sector where I was able to learn and contribute on some amazing projects. 

What advice would you give to people looking to start their career in the Australian space industry, whether they are new graduates or those looking to move their careers over?

As someone who has just started their career the most relevant advice I can give is to network. The current space industry is smaller in Australia than in other countries, making it easier to get your foot in the door if you are new to the space industry. Networking is the tool to do this and is invaluable as it allows potential employers to put a face to your name as well as learn about you beyond your CV. Networking can be done at industry-related events such as conferences but also at workshops and beyond. 

Getting involved with projects, with professors or even doing your own and asking for advice from industry experts allows you to meet others. If you are still in university, society events are also amazing places to meet people in the industry. Beyond networking, the best thing to do is to find a mentor. I have been lucky to have two mentors in the industry that have guided me further than what I could have done on my own. Finding mentors can be hard but there are initiatives with societies at university and Engineers Australia or a simple email introducing yourself to someone in the industry may be all that you need to find one! 

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

To pinpoint a single person that has had the greatest impact on my career is extremely hard. I initially wanted to be a surgeon but that all changed when I met astronaut Clayton Anderson at NASA. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with him and in that conversation, I was convinced to become an aerospace engineer. 

Since then I’ve met some very cool people who have also had great impacts on my career but the two most significant people would be my bosses Dr Jason Held (CEO Saber Astronautics)  and Andreas Antoniades (Director Saber Astronautics). Both have been a great support network for me and have constantly encouraged and supported me to achieve my goals. They have done so through introducing me to people, guiding me to projects I might be interested in as well as taking time out of their busy lives to teach me about topics and concepts that I have previously struggled with. 

Both have helped me significantly and my confidence, knowledge and network in the industry wouldn’t be where it is without them!

Gwynne Shotwell is the President and chief operating officer of SpaceX. Shotwell joined Space X in 2002 and was promoted to president in 2008. Credit: NASA.

Which women in the history of the Space Industry do you look up to? What was it about their achievements that resonated with you?

One of my biggest role models is Gwynne Shotwell, who is the president and COO of SpaceX. She inspires me to push myself and has shown me that even as a woman in a currently male-dominated industry, there is potential to become a great leader. This has resonated with me to a great degree as I have always been motivated to use my knowledge and experience to guide others. 

Gwynne certainly does that with her role and I only hope to be a leader in the industry that inspires not only current people in the industry but also future generations. She inspires me to push my limits and become the best engineer I could be and use my skills to help others flourish in the space industry.  

What do you think are some of the issues faced by women in the space sector and how do you think they should be resolved?

The biggest issue I have found in the industry is it can be daunting to work in all-male teams. What I found was my confidence to contribute my opinions was lowered and I felt out of place. However, I very quickly learned how to support myself in this environment and spoke up to my co-workers about not feeling confident. 

Surprisingly, I found that everyone on the team was supportive and wanted me to feel more confident and they supported me to do so. Now, I love the teams I work in, but I still openly desire more women to join the industry. It’s fortunate that in university the number of women studying applicable courses is increasing allowing for more diverse teams. Women entering the space industry is still growing which is great! 

There is a need for more women in the industry, but I am confident that women joining the industry will grow more and more each year. I cannot speak for other women but I feel they would agree, this imbalance in industry has led to a lot of moments of imposter syndrome. I think there is a lot of support for women in space, there just needs to be more coordinated and consistent efforts to achieve more gender balance in the space industry and there has definitely been progress in this regard! 

What has been your most interesting discovery or been the most interesting space-related project you have worked on or been part of?

Despite my short time working in the industry, a highlight has definitely been given the opportunity to work on projects at Saber Astronautics whilst still at university. Taking part in these projects has given me invaluable knowledge and experience that I would not learn at university alone. 

I am looking forward to seeing how far I progress in the industry and I have high hopes and dream! I can’t wait to see the impact I have on the industry and how my future work will help the Australian space sector grow and become an even more exciting venture to be a part of. 

What are you most excited about in the coming years for the Australian Space Industry?

As I mentioned, the Australian space industry is smaller than other countries but enthusiasm from Australians is seeing our industry shift to a larger scale. This is exciting because it means Australian space capabilities will grow. I.e., rocket and hypersonic capabilities, mission operations and more! 

In addition, this will see the Australian space industry contributing to our global space technologies and working with companies such as NASA, which is already happening with the rocket launches in the NT! How cool to see rocket launches in our own backyard! With our increasing industry innovation will only get better and I cannot wait to see what amazing technology the Australian space sector produces that will benefit our global space ventures.