6 mins read 18 Jul 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Dr Courtney Bright

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. 

Dr Courtney Bright, Space Systems Engineer, CSIRO 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 across the world. 

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. 

Dr Courtney Bright, Space Systems Engineer, CSIRO

What is your role at CSIRO?

I lead the systems engineering for CSIRO’s space projects, which range from technology demonstration payloads to the upcoming National Space Mission for Earth Observation. 

Previously, I was at UNSW Canberra Space leading the flight operations for several CubeSat missions: the Buccaneer Risk Mitigation Mission (BRMM), M1, M2 Pathfinder, and the M2 twin satellites. 

My time in satellite operations has given me a good understanding of how spacecraft and ground segment designs impact operability and the likelihood of mission success, which I bring to my systems engineering role now.

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

Space has always been an interest for me; for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to learn more about the universe, life on Earth, and the possibility of life on other planets. My path to get into the space sector was not a straight one, though. 

When I finished school, I didn’t see space as a feasible career option and ended up enrolling in a civil engineering degree. Two years later, I realised civil engineering wasn’t for me and transferred to mechanical. For a signal analysis class in the third year, we were given a small project to practice signal analysis techniques on a publicly available signal emitted from NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander as it descended to the Martian surface. This made me realise that it was possible to combine engineering with my love of space, and I looked for ways to transition into space engineering after graduating. 

I ended up being accepted for a PhD programme researching thrust vectoring methods for spacecraft propulsion, and the experience and network I gained led to my role in satellite operations. While my early interest in space was driven by exploration, these days I’m more interested in pointing satellites down at Earth to help us better protect the environment and understand climate change.

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?

Networking is really important – the space community is small, so take any opportunity you can to put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people for advice or work opportunities – you won’t hear back from all of them, but many people are happy to hear from you and keen to help if they can. 

Use LinkedIn, even if social media isn't your thing. Most importantly, don’t underestimate yourself – apply for things even if you think it’s a long shot and you might surprise yourself.

Dr Bright was part of the team that worked on the UNSW Canberra Space, M2 satellite mission. Credit: UNSW Canberra.

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

The highlight of my career so far would either be making first contact with M2 Pathfinder after launch or separating the two M2 satellites on-orbit. The lead-up to M2 Pathfinder’s launch was extremely tense – we hadn’t made contact with our previous satellite, M1, and we knew the future of our team was hanging on it working this time around. We’d overhauled our approach to pre-launch testing and did everything we could to ensure success, but there was still the nagging anxiety that we might have missed something, or we might just get really unlucky. 

We didn’t hear anything back from M2 Pathfinder for the first three ground station passes and I was starting to lose hope, and then nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw the first beacon response come back from it on the fourth pass. It was a massive relief, and it felt amazing that our hard work and attention to detail had finally paid off.   

In the near-ish future, I’m really looking forward to seeing the National Space Mission for Earth Observation coming together. It will be Australia’s first civil satellite program and a substantial step-up in complexity from the missions we’ve done previously. Most importantly, it’s a significant contribution to the global Earth observing system, which is critical for climate change monitoring, environmental monitoring, weather forecasting, natural disaster response, and agricultural management.

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?

At least in the Australian space sector, many of the companies are start-ups, or organisations working with a start-up culture. Although there are exceptions, start-ups are not known for their work-life balance, which makes it more difficult to juggle family responsibilities or come back from a long break. 

I’d love to see equal parental leave in Australia, in the space sector and elsewhere, as well as recognition of the research that shows working more hours does not equal more productivity.

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

The people that have had the most impact on my career journey are not famous people but certain friends, teachers, and colleagues who have supported and encouraged me at various critical points over the last 15 or so years. 

I almost didn’t apply for my current role because I didn’t think I’d be competitive until a friend and mentor convinced me that I was in with a shot and should apply anyway. I’m glad I listened to him!