I’m training to become Australia’s first woman astronaut. Here’s what it takes
I am currently training to be Australia’s first female astronaut. My first suborbital flight is expected to take place in 2023 as a payload expert on a commercial space mission. I will be one of the few crew members certified to handle scientific equipment aboard suborbital spacecraft.
My team and I plan to research Earth’s atmosphere once we’re in the air. This is an opportunity for me to find out about this planet. It has taken a great deal of work to make this dream a reality.
PoSUM: My journey to PoSUM
My past jobs as a woman STEM and legal professional included working in the mining and metals industry for BHP-Billiton and Rio Tinto and at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. But I have always been fascinated by space.
After combining two law degrees with my science degree, I was awarded a scholarship to the International Space University. I received the Australian Government Endeavour Executive Award in recognition of a NASA Kennedy Space Centre project. This was the turning point in my career, which has never looked back.
Students and teachers from the International Space University in 2012 in front of Shuttle Atlantis, Kennedy Space Center. Author provided
I was chosen as a PoSSUM Scientist-Astronaut (Polar Suborbital Sciences in the Upper Mesosphere) and as a global ambassador for 2021. PoSSUM, a US non-profit astronautics education and research program, is run by the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences.
Suborbital spacecraft of the next generation are used to study the upper atmospheric layer and its possible role in climate change. Suborbital spaceflights are any flights that reach an altitude greater than 80km but do not escape Earth’s gravitation to enter orbit.
The US law defines “space” as anything above 80km, but some countries (including Australia) disagree with this. There is still a debate over where the “space line” starts — otherwise known as the Karan line.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, two commercial space tourism companies, completed the first suborbital spaceflights with passengers (without any research) last month. Many have said that this was a remarkable achievement and could be the beginning of commercial space tourism.
I was the leader of a Victorian Trade Mission for Aerospace in the US. This photo was taken at the International Space Trade Summit in Connecticut, where I gave a speech. Here I am (third from right) with Karl Rodrigues, the Australian Space Agency, and the Victorian Delegation. Author provided
Read more: Keen to sign up for space tourism? Here are six things to consider (besides the price tag)
Preparing for every possibility
Before I can graduate as a PoSSUM candidate Scientist-Astronaut, I have to complete several academic and training components.
In 2020, during my academic training, I studied topics like spaceflight biology (what happens to your body in space), life support in spaceflight, atmospheric science, and research equipment for spaceflight.
I will be spending days with scientists and former NASA astronauts during my flight training in the coming months. We’ll start using the spaceflight simulation on the first day, which is set up to look like the Virgin Galactic Unity 22.
We will receive training in high-G, crew resource management, high-altitude, and equipment. These are all crucial for conducting our research. We will learn to use a variety of instruments that measure atmospheric physical properties.
The spacesuits will be similar to the ones used by NASA. The orange suits provide astronauts with a means of life support. Astronauts on orbital and suborbital flights must wear the suits during launch, aviation, and return in case of an emergency or if the spacecraft becomes depressurized.
I’m sitting in the cockpit of NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour. The author provided
Decompression is one of the unexpected events that we’ll have to deal with. A leak can reduce the pressure in a spacesuit or spacecraft. When the pressure inside a spacesuit or spacecraft is too low, oxygen can escape. Hypoxia (lack of oxygen in the body tissues) can be fatal for an astronaut.
Let’s say that we are unable to land in the place we had planned. The training will include how to handle a water landing and how to exit the vehicle quickly. We need to be ready in the event that one of our electrical or physical systems fails, creating a dangerous environment.
Planning for emergencies is important.
The steep learning curve on parabolic flight
The Virgin Galactic spacecraft is likely to be the vehicle I use for my first space research flight. Still, with the rapid pace of spacecraft developments, it may also be another similar craft.
If everything goes according to plan, I could be going to space with my team in a Virgin Galactic Unity 22 spacecraft — or possibly in another spacecraft similar to that. Virgin Galactic/EPA
The human body is subjected to many forces when launching aboard a spacecraft. It is important to learn how to recognize and manage the changes that these forces cause. On the fourth day of training, I will get into an aerobatic plane with a 317km/h cruise speed and practice using equipment to prevent blackouts while aerobatic flying.
The final test is a series of illustrative flight simulations of microgravity on a different aircraft. Parabolic flights involve an aircraft climbing steeply and then diving deep to achieve weightlessness. This can last up to 40 seconds. The lightness is demonstrated by repeating this 20-25 times throughout the flight. Lightness is used to conduct experiments.
On the last day of training, we will use virtual and augmented realities to practice planning space missions. Before our final evaluation, we can work on any part of the training that is necessary.
If everything goes according to plan, I’ll graduate with FAA qualifications as a crew member of any US spacecraft (orbital or suborbital). My training and my work as a suborbital payload specialist will follow the guidelines in the FAA advisory Circular, released on July 20, 2008.
Once the mission has been completed, if there are no changes to the eligibility criteria or requirements, I may be eligible to receive Astronaut wings.
Why research space?
What’s so special about research in space? One of the benefits of spaceflight is that it allows researchers to see how materials behave without gravity.
Scientists have found it extremely useful to study how materials behave when in weightless conditions. Scientists could, for example, benefit from learning the way a virus reproduces in space to develop better treatments and vaccines against diseases like COVID-19.
The International Space Station is a laboratory that orbits the Earth constantly. It’s about the size of a football field. Generally, only astronauts from space agencies in the US, Russia, and Europe travel to and back from the ISS using rockets. Research on the ISS can be expensive, slow, and involve long waiting times.
Suborbital flights to the USA offer research opportunities for Australian companies. It is much more affordable to conduct human-tended research in a suborbital flight. This is a game-changer. Small companies who couldn’t afford spaceflight before can now participate.
It is an honor to be able to train for this mission and hopefully bring Australia’s space dream closer. By teaching space technology and the law, I hope to play my part in improving access to areas for future generations.