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Muddy Meets: Melissa Thorpe, Spaceport Cornwall

Melissa Thorpe is leading the team at Spaceport Cornwall to launch earth-benefitting satellites to space, with the first launch set for 2022. Muddy Cornwall caught up with her to chat bias, being the only female spaceport lead and her favourite places in Cornwall.

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women as well as being a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. Here at Muddy Cornwall we are marking the day once again with an interview series of inspiring women across the Duchy.

Tell me a bit about your background and what you do – and how you came to do this? 

I grew up in a very small town in British Columbia Canada, where my dad fought forest fires using airplanes and my mom was a park ranger. I loved watching humans working with technology to help our environment. I studied at the London School of Economics where I got a MSC in Economics, specifically focusing on aerospace clusters in developing areas.

In 2010 I was brought down to Cornwall to support the airport development. Then in 2014 Spaceport came along, and I was immediately moved onto the project. Never did I imagine I would be working in exactly that, using aerospace technology to attract investment, create amazing jobs, and support environmental challenges in a rural area. (Read more about the Spaceport in our previous interview with Mel, here, which was prior to G7).

Now more than ever we need to control how we are launching, where we are launching and who we are launching with. Sovereign launch from a UK Spaceport will allow not only UK satellite companies to ensure they are launching ethically, but for all countries around the world to have a positive benchmark to aspire to.  

Has your day to day working life changed at all during the pandemic and if so, do you think it has highlighted any need for change? 

The pandemic definitely changed the way we work, and running a spaceport whilst home schooling was one step too far! I have an amazing partner in Ben, but we both agreed that the majority of the brunt of the pandemic landed on women. So many incredible businesswomen I know were expected to do it all, and that is not progression. Working with a family has always been a balancing act, but this needs to be recognised for women to reach their full potential.

Have you encountered any examples of bias in your working life? 

Pretty much all the time still, which is sad. I am currently the only female head of a spaceport in the world, and I was recently asked to speak at a global Spaceport summit, where each spaceport had 3 mins to provide an update, I was wrapping up at 3 mins when they cut me off. I then timed every male that went after me, and not one got cut off, even though some went to 5 mins!

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps visit Virgin Orbit’ LauncherOne rocket. Cornwall. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

What are you and your team doing to call out gender bias, discrimination or stereotyping?  

We do just that, call it out. Once in a meeting with local stakeholders, a man said ‘Spaceport will create excellent engineering jobs for men’, and even though this person was way up the food chain, I said ‘you must mean people, men and women?’

What’s the general vibe among women in business / business owners in Cornwall?

For the most part it is amazing, with incredibly supportive groups, which I am lucky enough to be involved with, like Tec Girls & Tec Women. However, when I do get trolled online, it tends to be by other women, which is so disheartening. It is hard enough out there without bringing one another down, especially when we are trying to move things forward. I think some people in Cornwall, men and women, have pre conceived notions of me and Spaceport, so I enjoy having challenging conversations and people being surprised at what we are actually doing, and my approach as a female leader.

Do you have any role models? 

So many. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman was the original one for me – she had enough of the way the world was going, how men were treating her, and went for changing it in her, albeit sensationalised, own way. In reality I am really lucky to work with people like Si Bellamy (Eden), Matt Hocking (LEAP), Ian Jones (Goonhilly), Carolyn Cadman (Wildlife Trust) and Caitlin Gould (Launchpad & Tec Girls) to name a few . But it will always come back to my ultimate role model,  my mother, Ranger Wendy.

What’s your favourite Cornish beach / view? 

We recently moved to Perranporth, and we love the beach, full of tourists or empty on a January day – it really is a beauty. The views from the coastal path are also amazing. Gwynver is another favourite. Seriously idyllic.

What do you do in Cornwall to make the most of living here?

Our girls love surfing, as do Ben and I. I also love a good, rough, coastal run, although often end up walking more than running. Ben and I often take a flask and head out for long walks on the beach and coast in the evening, it is our medicine & therapy!

Favourite cafe/ restaurant / shop / business that isn’t yours! 

We love eating at Ben’s places Canteen (St Agnes) and Canteen at the Orchard, in Newquay (below). We also love a cardamon bun from Pavilion in Newquay, pizza from Totti in Penzance, and a burger from our friends at Schooners in St Agnes.

Find more ideas here

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