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Sogand Talebi: Part of Canada’s Future in Space Engineering

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

By Mashoud Nasseri

Sogand Talebi: “I want to make sure I’ll play a part in the next 50 years.” Source: CBC News

“What Excites you most, not the last 50 years, but the next 50 years?” CBC host asks Sogand Talebi during their special program for 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Sogand's response: “I want to make sure I’ll play a part in the next 50 years.”

The above exchange was part of a panel discussion on The National with Sogand Talebi, an Iranian-Canadian student in space engineering and Canadian astronaut Dave Williams. The panel aired on July 20, 2019 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landing’s.

Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut and the current Minister of Transportation, talked about the importance of space and space science on the same occasion in another interview and said that he is convinced that getting a new perspective — via an out-of-this-world experience — would make all the difference when it comes to humanity’s attitude toward the planet and the steps it might be willing to take to save it. Garneau who has been talking about the environment for 35 years, since his first mission, believes that "the more people that go into space, the better the future of humanity will be”.

On September 18, 2006, the Iranian American engineer Anousheh Ansari became the first Iranian in space and fourth space tourist. Now Sogand Talebi, a space engineering Iranian-Canadian student, is the one who has the ambition to "play a part" in the future of Canada’s space exploration. Sogand Talebi moved to Canada with her family when she was 13 years old. The Iranian Canadian Journal (IC Journal) reached out to her for an interview.

Sogand Talebi: There are international legal frameworks that govern space activities from the beginning to end

IC Journal: Please tell us about yourself, your passion for space exploration? And why did you choose York University to study space engineering?

Sogand Talebi: I was born in Tehran in February 1997. My mother is a nurse and my father is a geomatics engineer. I am the only child, so since I was little I had both model cars and barbies, and my dad would make sure that I helped him fix things around the house. My curiosity about space started when I was very young, when my parents would read me from astronomy books instead of normal bedtime stories.

Grade 12, Sogand Talebi with her robotics team

We had a very comfortable life in Iran, but my mother decided that we should immigrate to Canada. She is an incredibly wise and strong woman and decided that money is not the only factor in having a fulfilled life. I am forever grateful for her decision. In my first year in high school, they introduced a program called FIRST Robotics, FIRST stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. I was part of my high school robotics team for four years, and it made me realize that I want to study engineering.

York University has a fairly new engineering school called Lassonde School of Engineering, and they offer the only Space Engineering program in Canada. Space Engineering is different from aerospace engineering since we only focus on activities that occur after the Kármán line (which is at an altitude of 100 km). We study a little bit of mechanical, electrical, and software engineering with a focus on space applications.

Sogand's Space Engineering Class

I had the opportunity to attend a course offered by the European Space Agency (ESA) that was about space law. Although Canada is not part of Europe and is not an ESA member state, we are lucky to have a special relationship with them that allows Canadians to participate in ESA activities.

This training was one week long, and it took place in Belgium. This course was designed to educate engineers who work in space fields to learn more about legal processes behind space missions. Space missions by nature are very interdisciplinary endeavours involving multiple bodies working together.

There are international legal frameworks that govern space activities from the beginning to an end to ensure the success of the mission. Moreover, these international frameworks play an important role in the development of space sector in a country. You may read this article by ESA that is specifically about the program I attended.

Sogand Talebi: I had the opportunity to attend a course offered by the European Space Agency (ESA)

IC Journal: In 2006 Anousheh Ansari became the first Iranian traveling to space and the fourth self-funded space tourist. There have been several other successes since for Iranian women in Air and Space industries. For example, Farzaneh Sharafbafi is an Iranian businesswoman and academic who was appointed as the Chairwoman and CEO of the Iranian commercial airline, Iran Air, back in 2017. Also last week 29-year-old Neshat Jahandari, did her first flight in Iran as certified Captain, one of the few female captains in recent history in Iran. Who is your role model, and who inspires you the most? You are only 22, what is your plan for future? As for your career, where do you think will best fulfill your passion and dream?

Sogand Talebi: There are many people who are incredibly inspiring from all genders, and races, and nationalities who dedicated their lives for advancing space science and technology. Mrs. Ansari has been a great inspiration for many people. I still remember counting down to her launch day, and watching it when she went to space. One of my good friends back in Iran got me her memoir, and I remember reading it all in 2 days. I am not sure about my future. I believe I would continue with my education and pursue a masters degree. Yet I am open to different opportunities that might introduce themselves. I would love to be involved in the space industry and work on future space missions.

IC Journal: What do you think is needed to be done to encourage more female students to pursue their dreams and enter the professions in technology and aviation and space exploration which are traditionally male dominated?

Sogand Talebi: When it comes to achieving gender parity in science and technology, it is important to start at a very young age. When I was young, my parents never restricted my curiosity. I had remote control cars as well as Barbies, or when my dad wanted to fix something around the house, he would call me to help him out and learn.

In the book Outliers written by the Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell, he highlights how your upbringing and other factors can lead to opportunities which lead to success. For example, he observed how majority of best hockey players are born in the first few months of the year. This is because when they are choosing young kids based on their age group to play in competitive programs, the kids who are born in January tend to be physically larger, so they are able to play better compared to kids born in December of that year. This random fact leads the kids who are born in January to get selected for more rigorous programs which allows them to practice more and become better, and this opportunity leads to another to the point where they are so much better than players who are born in December.

The same can apply to children, when a young child is asked to help fix the car or play with a train model, it makes them more curious and comfortable in technical environments. This small opportunity provided to the child would lead them to more opportunities and choices that would ultimately lead them to pursue a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. Therefore, it is mostly the responsibility of parents and educators to expose their children to a variety of learning opportunities, and not to confine their children, especially young girls, into the status quo.

IC Journal: On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, tell us how the historic Apollo 11 mission has played a role in shaping your dream and passion for space exploration?

Sogand Talebi: Humanity landed on the moon! This is an incredible achievement that took generation of scientists from different nations over hundreds of years. Many of which who dedicated their lives to further humanity's understanding of the universe, and the fruit of their work can be seen in the triumph of Apollo 11.

For instance, Johannes Kepler, the scientist who laid the foundations for orbital mechanics wrote one of the first works of science fiction, where he travels to the moon. It’s incredibly touching that a scientist’s life work put humanity on a path that ultimately lead to realizing the thing that he dreamed about — stepping on the moon. Kepler himself had a very difficult life. He was persecuted for his religion and had to go on trial because his mother was accused of witchcraft. This is a pattern that we unfortunately see in the lives of many revolutionary scientists.

Another example is Alan Turing, the father of computers, who was persecuted for being homosexual, and that ultimately led him to commit suicide. It is painful that people who contributed so much to humanity were being mistreated and under-appreciated.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, we should thank those who have helped us come this far, and pledge not to let others be mistreated the same way they were. For me, this is a wake up call to be kinder and open-minded, something that I think frankly that our community can do better.

IC Journal: Thanks Sogand for your time. Wish you best of luck.

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