As a child, the last of three girls, Camille Wardrop Alleyne used to sit on the trunk of her father's car at night and stare at the stars above. Her young mind whirred with curiosity about the vastness of space but little did she know, at age seven, that such fascination, coupled with her love for travel and planes, would one day land her in an enviable position to influence man's relationship with space. Wardrop Alleyne, 44, is the assistant programme scientist for the International Space Station, a scientific laboratory that orbits the earth, conducting research in biology, physics, astronomy and meteorology. The ISS is the largest space station ever built and is a joint effort between the Russians, Japanese, Canadians, Europeans and Americans. Wardrop Alleyne's job is to communicate all the experimental results from the space station, and is also responsible for all the station's education projects. She also leads an international working group on education that comprises all five partner countries. Guest speaker for Niherst's Caribbean Youth Science Forum, she was able to connect 200 regional students with the ISS crew last Sunday, making them the first in the Caribbean to talk to astronauts in real time.
Wardrop Alleyne also recently accepted the position as representative to the United Nations Human Space Technology Initiative for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). Not bad for the former Mucurapo Girls RC, St Francois Girls and Polytechnic student who, as a child, didn't even know what a space shuttle was. She says she had no context for her twin loves of space and planes back then. "They existed in a distinct way but I had no context for it until I went to college," she says during our interview at the Hyatt Regency hotel where she stayed. It wasn't until she was five months enrolled into a degree in aeronautical engineering that Wardrop Alleyne discovered her true calling. It came in the form of a disaster. In January 1986, just 73 minutes into its flight, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart, its seven crew members perishing before millions of stunned onlookers. No doubt inundated with reports and discussions about this tragedy, Wardrop Alleyne's eyes were opened. For the first time in her life she was hearing about NASA and space shuttles and her destiny became clear. "It gave me direction, I set my eyes on that and I was off to the races." She switched her degree to aerodynamic engineering charting her way to NASA by way of a job with the US Missile Defense Agency, where she led analysis and integration of several ballistic missile defense programmes. She started her career at the NASA Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where she tested and operated the equipment responsible for ensuring ideal environmental conditions for astronauts and cargo in the space shuttle.
She also worked as manager for the test programme of the crew and service module of the Orion project, the next generation of crew exploration vehicles to replace the current fleet. "It's now renamed the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle and that's the vehicle that will take us beyond earth's orbit. We want to go beyond earth's orbit so the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle will have the capability to have us rendezvous the moon, take us to what we call near earth objects or asteroids and eventually take humans to mars," says Wardrop Alleyne, explaining that the recent last flight of the space shuttle is not the end of the US space programme. "We used the space shuttle to carry elements to build the space station, so now that we are finished we no longer need the space shuttle. Our current President really wants to commercialise space so we have a contract with two American companies that are developing a crew and cargo transport to the station that will replace the shuttle." she revealed. As if her hands weren't already full with her day job and raising her 13-year-old daughter who is a competitive gymnast, Wardrop Alleyne spends considerable time inspiring young girls to follow in her footsteps through her Brightest Stars foundation. Founded in 2007, the foundation serves as a funding vehicle for the construction, operation and support of a network of learning institutions around the world that educated young women in scientific and technological fields.
Wardrop Alleyne says she started the non-profit organisation because of her experiences as a science student in Trinidad. "I wanted to transform science education in the developing world and this is from my experience of going to high school here and how the system is set up. It's taught in abstract and theoretical way and kids, even in the US, are not jazzed about science, it's not taught in ways that excites them, that opens up their mind, their curiosity to the world around them which is what science is. It does not help them to think critically and develop analytical skills," she says. To make science cool for children, it has to be hands on, she advises. "You have to present it in a way that you integrate the three basic sciences into something that applies to the real world. You can't just talk about DNA, what does that mean in the context of anything?" Wardrop Alleyne, a private pilot and a finalist in the 2004 astronaut selection programme, would like to contribute more to the development of science locally, stating that there is already talk on providing guidance and advice on how to expand the minds of the next generation and increase public awareness of space, science and technology.
The vision of the Caribbean contributing to space exploration isn't farfetched, she believes and the next generation interested in pursuing that path may not necessarily have to migrate to fulfill their dreams. "If we transform the education system in the region and expand it to include satellite development and astronomy then you start to build a base, develop human capital as a more science literate population and the sky is the limit." Wardrop Alleyne has started her work in Kenya and hopes to build a model there that could then translate into a global network of space and science academies which would includes countries in the Caribbean. If her life was to be made into a book or movie, Wardrop Alleyne would probably title it Against All Odds. Reflecting on her achievements as a woman of colour with a Caribbean heritage in a white, male, American dominated world, she says it has not been easy. Her main challenge, she says, is to always prove herself. "No matter how much I have accomplished you rarely get the benefit of the doubt but you don't focus on that, you strive for excellence, there is no substitute for excellence, determination and perseverance. You just keep your head down and keep going," she says.