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Column: Why I want to be Ireland's first female astronaut

Engineer, Norah Patten, has always been fascinated with space and has even made a career out of it. Now she wants to be Ireland’s first female astronaut. Here she tells us why.

Norah Patten

AT THE TENDER age of 11, I visited NASA and since then I’ve never looked back. I set my heart on a career in the space sector and fuelled with excitement and determination – I was going to do everything in my power to make it happen. I consumed myself with as much space-related material as possible, feeding my need to know everything I could about space.

When I returned from a visit at NASA Kennedy Space Center at the age of 15, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that space was the only career for me. Nothing could ever come close to the excitement I felt in this environment. My passion carried on into secondary school: I remember making my second year art project in secondary school – a Saturn V model rocket made from washing-up liquid bottles with an Irish flag painted on the side!

Growing up

Growing up in the West of Ireland, I knew this was not going to be an easy task. When I completed my Leaving Certificate, I secured my first choice in the CAO and went to the University of Limerick to study Aeronautical Engineering. I loved the course and during this time completed an 8-month placement at The Boeing Company, Seattle, Washington, USA. I graduated in 2006 with a first class honours degree and, that same year, enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Limerick. When I finished my PhD in engineering, I lectured in the Mechanical, Aeronautical and Biomedical Engineering Department and currently work in the Irish Centre for Composites Research (IComp) in the MSSI at University of Limerick.

Some of the experiences I have had over the past number years I really could only have wished for – I think some things in life are best kept as surprises. My message is to go after what you love – and with motivation, time and effort, great things are possible.

Studying space

Driven with passion, I attended several professional development courses related to space. However, the launching point for me was in the summer of 2010 when I was a participant in the Space Studies Program (SSP) at the International Space University (ISU), held in Strasbourg, France. I received a scholarship from Enterprise Ireland and the European Space Agency to attend the programme and, to be honest, I can’t imagine life before ISU. The opportunities it has given me I cannot even describe.

The SSP is a nine week program run by ISU and is hosted at various prestigious sites around the world every summer. It has provided the perfect platform to push forward; it opened the doors into the space career I have always longed for. I returned to SSP in 2011 as a teaching associate in Graz, Austria, and was selected as the Emerging Chair in 2012 for the Space Management and Business Department in Florida, USA. I am currently the Chair of the Space Management and Business Department at ISU SSP, which will be hosted this summer in Brazil.  In recent years I have had some of the most incredible experiences, I’ve had the opportunity to meet inspirational people, and I’m very excited about what the future will bring.

Chance of a lifetime

When I read about the Lynx Space Academy competition, I knew I had to apply. The support from people has been unbelievable, I feel extremely fortunate. The competition is run by Lynx and is offering 22 people from across the globe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel into space. There are three stages involved in the competition and the first stage is down to votes. I’ve set up a Facebook page ‘Ireland’s First Astronaut’ with details of how people can vote for me – all you need is an email address and it takes less than a minute.

To achieve something of this significance would not only be a childhood dream realised but an on-going passion fulfilled. Although the competition is open to everyone, I would love to have the opportunity to get through to the second phase because there the competition is based on physical and mental ability. As commercial space continues to grow and evolve, I have no doubt that in years to come, access to the adventurous paying customer will become cheaper, easier and faster.

So elegantly put by Robert Goddard:

It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.

History changed in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik and we have witnessed an immense evolution of the space sector over the last few decades – landing men on the moon in the 1960s, the commercialisation of the Mir Space Station with establishment of MirCorp in the 1990s and now commercial suborbital space flights. Space markets have experienced significant growth over the past two decades and the total global space economy in 2011 was almost $290 billion, an increase of 41 per cent from 2006.

Commercial space travel

However, in these difficult economic times, governments, space agencies and private enterprises around the world are trying to adapt to the ‘new normal’. As outlined recently in the United States Air Force (USAF) Posture Statement 2012, the acquisition strategy for the Efficient Space Procurement (ESP) of complex space systems is designed to identify efficiencies, to provide enduring capability and help provide stability to the space industrial base. NASA has established an approach to stimulate the commercial space transportation industry also.

Technological advancements, innovative funding models and new and emerging space markets are enabling ‘mankind to boldly go where no man has gone before’. As the famous quotation from Tsiolkovsky, one of the fathers of rocketry goes:

Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.

Column: Why I want to be Ireland's first female astronaut
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(Images via Norah Patten)

Norah Patten is the Chair of the Space Management and Business Department at International Space University. To help support Norah achieve her dream and travel to space please click here.

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Norah Patten

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