by Sofia Osborne
When Abby Lacson was in Grade 10, she knew she wanted to be an engineer. But it wasn’t until she went camping in the Rockies and saw the night sky, free from light pollution, that it finally clicked: she wanted to become an astronaut. Now, at 24, Lacson is a junior space operations engineer with MDA Space, the Canadian space technology company behind the Canadarm, a series of robotic arms used on the space shuttle.
Once she finishes training for her new role, Lacson will be working with the operations team at the Canadian Space Agency to provide engineering support for the back room of Mission Control in Houston. When the Canadarm2 is in use on the International Space Station, Abby and her team will monitor their movements and make sure the Arm is operating within its working range, address wear and tear issues, and check clearances to avoid collisions.
“We’re like the back room of the back room of Mission Control,” Lacson says. “It’s super exciting. I get to see things happening in real time soon.”
But in Grade 10, this was all a dream for Lacson. To work in the space industry—and ultimately become an astronaut—she knew it would take planning and hard work.
Over the course of her research, Lacson found that a lot of Canadian astronauts had done military training, so she joined the Air Cadets, where she experienced survival training, learned about planes, and dipped her toes into flight training.
“It was also kind of a testing ground [to see] if I actually wanted to pursue trying to be an aerospace engineer [and] trying to work in the space industry,” Lacson said.
At the University of Alberta, Lacson majored in mechanical engineering. After her first year of university, she attended a space camp in Alabama, where she experienced a simulated space mission, did scuba training, and even took Russian language courses.
Back in Edmonton, Lacson joined the AlbertaSAT team, a student group that built the first satellite made and launched in Alberta. She also started a new student group, the Student Team for Alberta Rocketry Research (STARR), which aims to launch amateur rockets in competitions.
“Working with AlbertaSAT and also creating STARR, they were really … the founding stones,” Lacson said. “They were basically how I got my job, because they were the most relatable experience that I had coming from university.”
While Lacson works incredibly hard toward her dream of being an astronaut, she also knows how to have fun. As an Instagram micro-influencer, her page is full of videos of her roller skating around Montreal.
“I do all these cool tricks, but it takes hours of practice,” Lacson said. “And I fail all the time … But it’s also about being resilient, and taking that skill from roller skating and putting it into the work that I do in my career.”
The reality of becoming an astronaut means lifelong learning, but it also means being a role model and a team player.
“I think hobbies are super important, and they make you a more well-rounded person,” Lacson said. “And I definitely think a lot of astronauts are that way as well.”
Besides getting involved in extracurriculars like cadets or space camp, and paying attention in math, physics, and computer science classes, Lacson’s advice for aspiring astronauts is to find relatable role models in space science. This is especially important for young women, as the space industry has long been dominated by men, with only 11 per cent of astronauts so far being women.
“What helped me when I was younger was trying to find astronaut examples for myself. So I would search [for information] about the women who had gone to space or were working as astronauts. And I read their stories online, and tried to relate them to my life,” Lacson said. “And telling yourself that it’s really just about what you want, and not about what the world wants and what they see. It’s what you see yourself as.”