Published online 9 May 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060508-4

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Girl guides go for launch

Space challenges aim to entice young women into science.

Ready for lift-off: a fresh rocket sits amongst the detritus of previous spent fuel tanks (aka film cartridge caps).Ready for lift-off: a fresh rocket sits amongst the detritus of previous spent fuel tanks (aka film cartridge caps).© Helen Pilcher / HP

An unmanned rocket built by a 13-year-old UK girl guide successfully took off on 6 May at the National Space Centre in Leicester. The craft, made from paper and sticky tape, and powered by pressurized carbon dioxide from an indigestion tablet packed inside an empty film cartridge, reached a height of several metres before it fell back to Earth.

It may not sound like much, but it is hoped that the feat, organized as part of a series of 'space days' for girl guides led by the centre, will inspire more women to pursue careers in science.

"The idea is that the guides have a great day out, learn a little science and come away thinking that science mightn't be such a bad career option," says co-developer Louise Webb from the UK Network of Science Centres and Museums (Ecsite-UK), who is also a trainee guider with the Second Chester patrol.

In Britain, three-quarters of the 3.4 million people working in science, engineering and technology-related careers are men1. With more than 600,000 members, Girlguiding UK is the country's biggest voluntary organization for women. This makes it a huge untapped resource, says Webb.

The communications officer calls back to base for advice while conducting spacecraft repairs.The communications officer calls back to base for advice while conducting spacecraft repairs.© Helen Pilcher / HP

So far, around 3,000 girl guides have attended the space days, which have been held at 12 science centres this year. Groups of guides must complete a handful of practical astronomy-related tasks in order to receive their 'Go For It!' space certificate.

Girl power

The initiative is the brainchild of the European Space Agency, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, Ecsite-UK and Girlguiding UK. By the scheme's close later this year, it is hoped that some 4,000 girl guides will have got a space certificate. And plans are afoot for a written resource that will enable guides to get a revised award from the comfort of their home or local meeting area.

It is also hoped that the scheme will travel. With around 10 million guides worldwide, Webb and colleagues are exploring ways of promoting 'Go For It!' internationally. In the United States, for example, the initiative could fit within the 'Girls Go Tech' programme, a national girl-scout initiative that already has some activities based at science centres.

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Twenty-eight girl guides from North Lincolnshire attended this weekend's event, along with this reporter, who was sadly too old to qualify for a certificate (see 'Going for it'). As well as building rockets, the girls also repaired a broken communications probe in a simulated space mission, and completed a tour of the Solar System in an interactive planetarium show.

"It's so ace," says Rachel Jones, a guide from the First Broughton patrol. "I've always wanted to be an astronaut."

Visit our guidesgoforlaunch.html">newsblog to read and post comments about this story.