ENCOURAGING girls to step into STEM careers is key to curbing gender imbalance in the male-dominated space industry.

That is the message from UK Space Agency worker Susan Buckle, who is tasked with inspiring a new generation of future astronauts and space workers.

The education and skills manager, who worked closely with astronaut Tim Peake during his International Space Station mission, coordinates projects with children to stir interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Ms Buckle, based at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, said: “The main aim is to inspire as many children to get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) at primary age and carry on with science at GCSE and A-Level, and ultimately careers in STEM and the space industry.

“A lot of people think you’ve got to go to NASA to be an astronaut and don’t know about the UK Space Agency.

“As much as little ones all want to become astronauts, we also want them to think about other careers in STEM. There is such a variety of careers.”

The 32-year-old spoke to the Oxford Mail to mark the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which took place on Sunday to promote gender equality in science.

Ms Buckle, who lives in Grove, said the balance of women to men was fairly equal at the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency, where she worked previously.

But she added: “Generally in the space industry, there isn’t such a good balance, and we are very aware of that.

“Research shows that by the age of eight, children have decided if science is for them, which is really scary.

“That’s why at primary age, seeing role models doing those jobs is really important.”

Ms Buckle had not set out on a career in STEM, instead gaining a degree in psychology and becoming a psychology teacher.

But she said she always had an interest in aviation, having gained her pilot’s licence aged just 17, and combined the two passions by completing a master’s degree in human factors and safety in aeronautics.

She then joined the European Space Agency to teach astronauts and flight teams about communication, teamwork and debriefing.

In her UK Space Agency role, projects have included coordinating Major Peake’s school visits.

Ms Buckle, who is seven-months pregnant with a baby girl, said she has now become a ‘space geek’ and ‘absolutely fascinated by space’.

She added: “I think it was only when I started working I noticed the lack of females in the industry and trying to improve that.

“Before that I didn’t see it as an issue. I wasn’t aware it would be.

“I never thought being female held me back in any way."

For more information visit wisecampaign.org.uk.