Maggie Aderin-Pocock, 44, is the first to admit that she doesn’t look like a space scientist. The mention of her career has surprised many, including the Queen of England. “When I got my MBE, the Queen said a few words and then she asked me what I did in life. When I told her that I was a space scientist, she was physically shocked,” says Aderin-Pocock. “It’s a curve ball for some people because they expect me to say something different.”
On the day of our meeting Aderin-Pocock looks like a housewife from a bygone era: dressed in a 1950s-style dress, she offers me tea and muffins in her home in Guildford, a middle-class town to the southwest of London, where she has lived for the past seven years with her husband Martin and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Lauren.
Red-brick houses line streets with names like Appletree Court and Cinnamon Gardens. For someone whose life ambition is to travel 35m miles to Mars, the Aderin-Pocock home is a surprisingly down-to-earth choice.
“You can see the stars a little better in Guildford than in London,” says Aderin-Pocock, who plans to convert a garden shed into an observatory. “I go into the back garden, away from the street lamps, and lie in the middle of the lawn to look at the stars.”
It is an important consideration for someone who designs optical equipment for satellites and telescopes, including a small part of the James Webb, the planned successor to the Hubble telescope. The Webb, which is a joint European Space Agency/Nasa venture and scheduled to launch in 2018, has a mirror 21 feet in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. By looking at infrared light, it will allow scientists to peer deeper than ever before into the universe.
“It is a huge beast,” says Aderin-Pocock. “It went through some difficulties recently and was almost cancelled by the American government because it has overrun its budget. But it has survived.”
Since becoming a mother, Aderin-Pocock divides her time between running Science Innovation, a company that educates children about space, and presenting television programmes for the BBC. Although these roles have typically been reserved for greying white men such as Sir Patrick Moore and Bill Nye, Aderin-Pocock has won audiences with her approachability and enthusiasm.
“People in the profession sometimes look at me and think: ‘Who’s this one? She’s not one of us,’” says Aderin-Pocock. “But then we start doing the science and they realise that I am just as enthusiastic and competent. The barriers disappear and we get caught up in the science.”
In the living room we drink tea overlooking a garden with an apple tree. Paintings and photographs from travels fill the small room: Japanese cranes hang beside an aboriginal painting and a deflated silver whale balloon belonging to her daughter. On a coffee table a family of Tanzanian sculptures huddle together. Aderin-Pocock has covered their heads in bright wool caps, as if protecting them from the cold. “My father came over from Nigeria in the late 1950s and said he remembered feeling cold for the first time,” she says. “The first thing he did was buy a really thick coat.”
Except for a carpet ringed in celestial-looking spheres and books on the history of astronomy, there is little in Aderin-Pocock’s home that reveals anything about her scientific pursuits or what has been the biggest influence in her life: the moon.
Born in 1968 to Nigerian parents and raised in Camden, north London, Pocock has often said that she looked to the moon because life on earth was so hard. Her parents divorced when she was four years old and she moved homes 13 times. She also suffered from dyslexia and was put in remedial classes, “expected to do little more than play with safety scissors and glitter”. When she expressed interest in becoming a scientist, teachers pointed to her warm nature and encouraged her to become a nurse instead.
For comfort Aderin-Pocock turned to television programmes such as Clangers and Star Trek, and was drawn to characters like Spock, a human-Vulcan caught between two opposing worlds.
“Growing up in London at that time, I was a black kid in a mainly white area and I often got teased,” says Aderin-Pocock. “Although I had never been to Nigeria, I was scared that if I said ‘I’m British’ the other kids would say, ‘No, you’re not. You’re black, you’re not from here.’ That led me to feeling a bit lost, like I did not belong here or there. That’s why space was brilliant: space was all-encompassing.
“If you look at the earth from space, you don’t see the divisions,” adds Aderin-Pocock. “Space almost unifies the earth, because when you look at the earth remotely, you get the feeling that we’re one. Down here it often doesn’t feel that way.”
Aderin-Pocock credits her family, especially her father, for giving her the confidence to pursue science. He came to the UK with aspirations of becoming a doctor but circumstances never allowed it and he took a job making pizza dough for a PizzaExpress restaurant on Arlington Road. Encouraged by her father, Aderin-Pocock excelled at school and earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering at London’s Imperial College.
Over the years Aderin-Pocock has had a varied career, from designing handheld landmine detectors for the Ministry of Defence to working on the Gemini telescope in Chile and building an instrument that probes the heart of stars. These days she is determined to get more children involved in science, a profession that is still dominated by men in both the UK and the US.
“There aren’t enough people going into science, especially girls,” says Aderin-Pocock. “The structure of the UK is changing. We used to be a manufacturing society, but most manufacturing can be done elsewhere and more cheaply. We’ve become a knowledge economy but to have that, we need to have people coming through with ideas. It’s a matter of getting science out there and showing the difference we can make in people’s lives.”
After finishing tea we walk into the garden, which is planted with sage and raspberry canes. Lauren, dressed in pyjamas, trails behind with a bowl for collecting fruit. Aderin-Pocock takes a seat near the apple tree and looks towards the house. “I’m quite a restless spirit and I find it hard to be static,” she says. “But I love this house, the structure of it, its traditional layout, and that it was built to last.”
Considering Aderin-Pocock’s tumultuous childhood and, indeed, her lifelong passion for outer space – a void without definitive boundaries – it is hardly surprising that what she appreciates most about her home is its sturdiness. And her motherly image, which she promotes by taking her daughter to every public performance, including up on stage at a recent talk at the Royal Albert Hall, is perhaps her way of grounding what has been a complicated and unusual life.
More than 40 years since discovering her love of outer space, Aderin-Pocock is still determined to travel to Mars. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get there but the fact that I have that aspiration means that I have achieved so much more than I ever would otherwise,” she says. “You’ve got to find your dream and then do it. It could be hard work. Trust me: being a space scientist with dyslexia is hard work.”
“It’s a bit bizarre but it makes me smile every time I see it,” says Aderin-Pocock, pointing to a map in the kitchen. “It is a record of my daughter’s travels. She accompanies me everywhere and has made just under 50 flights to date. As a space scientist I want to travel into space, but I want to have a good look at the earth first.”