Suzie Imber interview

Hit BBC TV show winner Suzie Imber on mountains, science and space. 

Many people dream of becoming an astronaut, but for Leicester’s Suzie Imber that dream could become a reality. Winner of BBC 2 hit series, “Astronauts: Do You Have What it takes?” Suzie has also been an England U21 lacrosse player, an elite rower, and is now a high altitude mountaineer and associate professor of space plasma physics. But with a letter of recommendation to join the European Space Agency, Suzie has her sights set firmly on space.

Mercury calling

At the University of Leicester Suzie leads a small research team examining the interaction of the planet Mercury with the solar wind. She is also studying information from a spacecraft heading to Mercury. Suzie has been fascinated with science and space from a very young age: “My mum and dad studied maths and engineering which helped, I can’t put my finger on what made me want to study science but I’m so glad I did.”

Becoming an Astronaut

In 2017, Suzie applied to be on the BBC 2 show “Astronauts: Do You Have What it Takes?” by chance: “I was two months into a mountaineering expedition in South America when I arrived in a small Argentinian village. I opened my laptop and thousands of emails poured in, one caught my eye, it was from the BBC asking ‘Do You Have What it Takes to be an Astronaut?’  I read it, and feeling like I had nothing to lose, filled in the application form. I headed back into the mountains without giving it a second thought.  That was how it all began."

What followed was seven gruelling weeks during which twelve candidates were put through astronaut training with NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield. Suzie endured challenges such as taking her own blood, speaking Russian while in a centrifuge at 5g and carrying out emergency procedures on the NASA undersea astronaut training facility, Aquarius. Suzie will receive a letter of recommendation from Chris Hadfield to support her application to the European Space Agency astronaut training programme.

“I loved my time on the show, particularly meeting the other candidates and the judges. It was a very high-pressure environment, never knowing what or when the next test might be. I never dreamed that I would win, right up until the moment my name was announced.”

“I’ve been high altitude mountaineering for over a decade and have climbed all over the world, although recently I’ve spent most of my time climbing unclimbed mountains in the Andes that I discovered using the university supercomputer.  I think these long expeditions really helped me during the show, as in the areas where I climb, there is no rescue if things go wrong. I’ve learned not to panic, to work and focus under pressure, and evaluate risks fairly well."

Suzie is now a household name all over the world and gets recognised in the most unlikely of places including Hong Kong airport while waiting to collect her luggage!

Sharing science

After winning the show Suzie launched her public engagement programme to encourage and inspire young people to think about careers in physics and space science.

“The programme has absorbed most of my life for the last year but has been hugely rewarding. I have spoken with over 35,000 children, held panel discussions, recorded podcasts and spoken at science festivals, music festivals and exhibitions." 

And her advice for young people who may be interested in a career in science?

“Follow what you are most interested in and don’t give up. I wasn’t great at science when I was at school, but I worked really hard at it and ended up here, so perseverance pays off.”

Finding a home in Leicestershire

Originally from Hertfordshire, Suzie moved to Leicester in 2011 because of the University of Leicester’s world-leading status in the space industry.

“I love this place because the countryside is absolutely beautiful. I live in a tiny village and I can go for a run across the fields straight from my front door - I think Leicestershire’s an absolute hidden gem!”

So, what’s next?

“The last time the European Space Agency opened astronaut applications was 11 years ago when Tim Peake was selected.  We don’t know when applications may be open again but if they do I’m in a good position to apply, especially now I have a letter of recommendation from Chris Hadfield!

“This summer I hope to go back to mountaineering, there are plenty of unclimbed mountains in the Andes left on my list!”