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Erin’s story

Erin Madden has her sights set on mission control. In the meantime, she is building up her space skills by working in the defence sector.

While Erin has always looked to the stars, it was a science-themed family road trip that inspired her career. Erin’s family visited the telescope in Parkes, Snowy Hydro, the tracking station at Tidbinbilla and a Mars exploration exhibition at the Australian Museum.

Erin studied engineering and physics at The University of Queensland, followed by a Master of Science Communication. She then started working at the Department of Defence.

“I wanted to be a rocket engineer,” she says. “And the only way I could see to get into rockets in Australia was to go into defence and work on guided weapons. So I did.”

In 2016 Erin went to work at Nova Systems, a defence sector service provider. It was there that she discovered her talent for operational testing and evaluation. “It turns out, after ten years of being an engineer, I'm actually better at operations,” she says.

A mentoring session at the Space Operations Conference (SpaceOps) in 2018 helped Erin plan her next steps towards space. In a meeting with Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, Erin asked how she could plot a path to mission control.

“She told me to keep working in defence and get a big trial,” Erin says. “Once I’d done that, find a space mission.”

Erin found her big trial in 2020 when she managed the testing of a new military vehicle, the Hawkei. Despite it being a land-based project, Erin was surprised at the parallels to a space mission.

“It was the best experience I could have had to prepare for mission control,” she says. “I’m known for being very blunt and just getting stuff done, and Hawkei was the best experience I could have asked for.”

Now, she is leading the test and evaluation process for a position, navigation and timing project. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) relies heavily on navigation systems, but GPS signals can be compromised. In some places, GPS is not even available. The project looks at how the ADF can strengthen their capability in this area.

Erin hopes that her next project will involve rocket launches and Nova’s ground station in Peterborough, South Australia.

“I ran my big trial, and now I need to find a mission,” she says. “Step one, tick. Thank you, Alice.”

Erin’s journey

  • Erin completed a Bachelor of Science (Physics)/Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) double degree at The University of Queensland in 2009.
  • Not yet sure what she wanted to do, and not interested in joining her friends in the mining industry, Erin started a Master of Science Communication in 2010. She completed the qualification four years later.
  • In 2011, Erin joined the Department of Defence as a Graduate Systems Engineer. Later, she became a Weapons Test Engineer.
  • In 2016, Erin started a new role as Systems Engineer and Trial Manager at Nova Systems.
  • Erin attended the Women in Strategy Summit in the US in 2017, and SpaceOps 2018 in France.
  • She also completed the International Space University’s Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program in 2019. Her team project became the inspiration for her paper, Solving Space’s Narrative Problem, which she presented at the International Astronautical Congress 2020.
  • Erin has volunteered with a number of organisations over the years, including Engineers Australia, CSIRO and the International Astronautical Federation. She can often be found presenting STEM workshops in schools to get students interested in careers in space.