By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


President of the British Science Association (BSA) for 2021-22, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock gave her presidential address in the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford, as part of the British Science Festival on 9 September.

Speaking to a busy (but socially distanced) theatre, Maggie made moving opening remarks about her childhood, the obstacles she has overcome, her career in space science and her vision for the future of humanity.

Maggie expressed her delight at being made President of the BSA and her firm belief in our vision; she said: “Science at the heart of culture and society is an aspiration we should all try to achieve”, pointing out that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a strong example of how important scientific innovation is to society.

Early beginnings

The audience was then taken back in time to the early 1970s, when the moon landings were still fresh in everyone’s minds and the Star Trek was a popular part of the weekly TV schedule. These things, Maggie said, were early influences on her and nurtured her passion to become a space scientist.

The 1969 moon landing, a year after Maggie’s birth in 1968, sparked a period in which, she said, “everyone was abuzz about space”, creating the fertile ground for her interest in the celestial bodies.

But it was Star Trek that arguably made the biggest impact on her, especially the character of Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. Seeing a Black actress playing a scientist on TV was a “celebration” for Maggie, and doubtless many other children of that generation; Uhura was one of first Black characters portrayed in a non-menial role on American TV. Nichelle Nichols’ character, Maggie said, was an early role model and someone she “still aspires to be more like every day”.

Despite these early influences and aspirations, Maggie had a difficult time getting into science, due partly to undiagnosed dyslexia. “Going through the school system, many a time I was told I was aiming too high, and that going into space science was too big an idea.”

This proved to be far from true, as Maggie then detailed some of projects she has worked on in her illustrious career, and her predictions for the future.

A future in space

She explained that she sees space travel in three phases; firstly, the ‘confrontation' of the USA-USSR space race, then the era of ‘collaboration’ which followed it, which saw nations joining together on projects such as the International Space Station, and thirdly, the current zeitgeist of ‘commercialisation’, in which space travel for ordinary people is becoming closer to a reality, and more and more countries are becoming involved in space travel.

However, at the moment space tourism is exemplified by people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson using their billions to explore space. Maggie’s strongly held belief is that space should not just be “a playground for the rich and famous”. The commercialisation of space should be for all.

She also touched on climate change, and how it might be a motivator for future space travel: “It does feel as if, when we start looking further and further out into space, like a colony on Mars, we’ve had a wild party here on Earth, we’ve sort of trashed the place and we’re looking around saying ‘oops, okay, we’ve wrecked this room, lets go to the next’.

“So what lessons do we have to learn here? We’ve talking about the possibility of terraforming Mars, making Mars more Earth-like so colonies can live there in the future, I think that might be humanity’s destiny.”

She rounded up her opening remarks with a rallying call: “By thinking big, thinking crazy, and working together, dreams come true. So lets take on those big problems, because by working together we can achieve the seemingly impossible.”

A write up of the second half of Maggie’s Presidential Address, an ‘in conversation with’ broadcast journalist Nitya Rajan, will be published in due course.