Taryn Tomlinson grew up asking to sleep in the backyard so that she could look at the stars.
She had photos of astronauts at her desk. Looking at them, she’d tell herself she could study even harder. After graduating from Robron Secondary she went to McGill in 1993 to study astrophysics.
Alas, the astronaut ship sailed for Tomlinson in 2009.
She was one of the 5,500 applicants that were eventually narrowed down to Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques.
The dream she had as a child wouldn’t become a reality, but it was nowhere near the end of the “space nerd” line.
“The good news is that it was a great driving force behind everything that I did,” she said. “It helped me work harder, it helped me create an audacious vision.”
Tomlinson has been working as an engineer for the Canadian Space Agency since 2008, on projects like Dextre and Canadarm 2. At the moment she is six months into a 1.5 year term as the Chief of Staff.
“I love what I am doing and I am really dedicated to what I am doing now and I don’t see myself as an astronaut now,” she said.
Based on advice from graduate students in her program, Tomlinson didn’t finish her astrophysics degree.
“I transferred, very blindly, on faith, I transferred to electrical engineering,” she said. “I knew that Julia Payette was an electrical engineer and that was good enough for me.”
It was a good move for her, the job market was in engineering.
After graduating, she moved to Los Angeles and worked with small start-up companies. She became a specialist in video compression and that lead her to a job with the European Space Agency.
While there, she worked on a system that would get different locations across the globe on the same network as the space station and facilitate sending video back and forth.
“It’s amazing how everything is connected with space,” she said.
Living in Europe also made her realize that where she really wanted to be was at the Canadian Space Agency, where they had an amazing robotics reputation.
“I’d like to spend my career here, and I think I knew that,” she said.
Ever since she did a work term at the agency, while studying at McGill, she knew she wanted to come back.
Getting a job at the CSA is a long process. It took years for Tomlinson to get in. She said it was a lot of due diligence and competition, and only if the a good match comes up will you get in. But it was worth it.
“I’m kind of happily stuck here,” she said.
For Tomlinson’s generation of “space nerds”, as she calls herself, working at one of the space agencies is the best place to be, but for the next generation, Tomlinson believes that commercial space will be the place to be.
“Starting their own companies, coming up with innovative ideas, doing kickstarters to get their ideas going, that’s where it is at,” she said.
Tomlinson and her colleagues work with robotics clubs at universities, giving advice on projects and judging competitions.
She said it is her way of staying current and in touch with the changes and innovations that are coming down the line.
“They keep our tools sharp over here because they are so engaged,” she said. “I know that the future of space exploration is in good hands.”
For the kids out there who are chasing big dreams, Tomlinson recommends having role models in order to stay motivated. She would also like to see kids have vast interests and push their boundaries and limits.
And for students just finishing high school and worrying about making the wrong decision, Tomlinson said there is no wrong decision.
“In the end if you making your decisions, they are authentic and they are based on things that reflect your own values, they will go in the right direction, they will achieve the things that make them happy in the end,” she said.