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Julie Payette

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Bethany Downer, Scientist-Astronaut Candidate, Project POSSUM

30 September, 2018
Bethany Downer

Bethany Downer

At 24-years-old, Bethany Downer is on the road to achieving her dreams in space. She has recently become the first scientist-astronaut candidate from Newfoundland, Canada through Project POSSUM, with upcoming training including high-G aerobatic flight training, similar to the forces astronauts experience during rocket liftoff and re-entry to Earth, and was invited to lunch with her excellency Julie Payette, the former Canadian astronaut and current Governor General of Canada.

Bethany talked to Rocket Women about pursuing her passion and the one piece of advice she would give her 10-year-old self.

Congratulations on becoming the first scientist-astronaut candidate from Newfoundland under Project POSSUM! Your mission has been to inspire everyone from all walks of life to become engaged with space. Can you talk about your journey to become an astronaut and how you hope to achieve your goals?

My first step was to develop as much knowledge as I could. I’ve always loved school and learning, so this task was embraced with enthusiasm. I achieved my BSc in Geography to learn as much about the Earth’s systems as possible, followed my a masters in Space Studies from the International Space University in France. From here, I found my niche and area of skill/interest in communications.

My passion is for communicating the technology and science of the space industry to the general public and to alter the perception of “rocket science” being beyond general comprehension. I genuinely enjoy taking something like a new finding in astrophysics or the development of a new rocket engine concept, and bringing its language and content to a simpler and more accessible level.

I genuinely enjoy taking something like a new finding in astrophysics or the development of a new rocket engine concept, and bringing its language and content to a simpler and more accessible level.

In this domain, I’ve worked for various agencies and organizations. These include the European Space Agency (ECSAT), Design&Data, Leiden University Observatory, SES Networks and the Space Generation Advisory Council. I’ve also developed my own website that actively communicates the science and technology of the industry, called Reaching Space Science. I’m also in the process of publishing a book.

When applying for PoSSUM, I emphasized that this was my skill and passion – communicating research and technology – and as this program focuses on important climate change research in the upper levels of the atmosphere, I could be of benefit in terms of disseminating this important work to broader audiences. I am very excited and honoured to take part in this program that will be preparing me for conducting research in the next generation of suborbital commercial vehicles.

Designed and instructed by former NASA astronaut instructors and PoSSUM team scientists, just some of the training that the program includes is high-G aerobatic flight training (to experience higher gravitational forces like those experienced during rocket liftoff and re-entry to Earth), crew resource management training, spacesuit training, high-altitude training, biometric analysis, and camera operations.

Bethany Downer carrying out space outreach

Bethany Downer carrying out space outreach

My interest in space has always been inherent, I did not have a lightbulb moment that made me realize that this is what I want to do – I’ve simply always loved it. I’ve had helpful advice along the way (such as support from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield) that also encouraged me to develop myself beyond the space realm. For example, in 2014 I founded a federally-incorporated non-profit organization that operated across Canada to encourage sustainable practices by bringing unwanted shoes to those in need.

Through the education of sustainable consumerism, the program redistributed over 18,000 shoes to more than fifteen countries worldwide and retained over 14,000lbs of waste from Canadian landfills. I brought talks and lectures to more than 5,000 youth of Newfoundland and I truly feel this experienced developed necessary skills that I still rely on today, such as public speaking, media relations, leadership and networking.

In 2014 I founded a federally-incorporated non-profit organization that operated across Canada to encourage sustainable practices by bringing unwanted shoes to those in need. Through the education of sustainable consumerism, the program redistributed over 18,000 shoes to more than fifteen countries worldwide and retained over 14,000lbs of waste from Canadian landfills.

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young girls?

Growing up, without realizing it, my role models were always women. This included my mom and grandmothers, but also in school when assigned hero or role model essays, I always selected distinguished women. In particular, I grew very familiar with (and always looked up to) the careers of Sally Ride (the first American woman in space), Roberta Bondar (Canada’s first female astronaut and the first neurologist in space), and Julie Payette (former Canadian astronaut and current Governor General of Canada). In fact, just last week I was invited to have lunch with her excellency, so this was a very meaningful and memorable discussion.

Role models are of integral value to young women. I’m confident that having a visible example of a profession or career that a young person wants to achieve can be highly motivating and validating for them. Since I began my work in the space industry and my recent training with PoSSUM, I’ve very much made it my personal goal to make space careers more accessible to those from my home province of Newfoundland, particularly to young girls.

When I was young, I often dismissed my dream of working in space because I did not have a nearby or accessible example of someone who was actively working in the space field and doing the type of work I was interested in. I’ve been scheduling dozens of school and scout/guide group visits to help make my involvement in space as accessible as possible to those from home so that they don’t have to dismiss their career ambitions, whether they are pertaining to space or not.

I’m also actively looking at ways to bring more space-related courses at the university level to my hometown as well. There’s a lot of work to do, but I hope to use this new (and unexpected!) public platform to make meaningful and lasting change.

I’ve been scheduling dozens of school and scout/guide group visits to help make my involvement in space as accessible as possible to those from home so that they don’t have to dismiss their career ambitions

Bethany Downer at European Space Agency's (ESA) ESTEC, The Netherlands

Bethany Downer at European Space Agency (ESA)’s ESTEC, The Netherlands

What does success mean to you?

To me, success means that you’ve found a way to do something for a living that makes you feel fulfilled and happy. I think its also important to establish yourself in a career in which you are learning everyday to not only better yourself, but to expand upon you knowledge and experiences. This success is best celebrated and cherished when you have the right group of encouraging friends and family.

How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive?

I am genuinely inspired by the success and achievements of women that have spearheaded important developments in the space industry. I am confident that the matter of inclusion is significantly improving. By highlighting and sharing stories of what women around the world are doing in space, in various different fields, there is a communal sense of encouragement in that we all wish to support and motivate one another. I think with time, we have grown to accept and integrate the invaluable knowledge and experience women have to offer the space industry.

I am confident that the matter of inclusion is significantly improving. By highlighting and sharing stories of what women around the world are doing in space, in various different fields, there is a communal sense of encouragement in that we all wish to support and motivate one another.

Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

Growing up in Newfoundland, Canada I was not exposed (or perhaps naive) to the realities of sexism that exist, not only in the space sector but in general. This was something that surprised me, but the initial discouragement was quickly flipped when I spoke with and was exposed to the vast work and accomplishments being undertaken by the countless women worldwide who are conducting inspiring work in various disciplines within the space sector. I’ve also been surprised to learn just how small the space sector truly is – the networks and connections made are all related and it is always exciting to catch up with new and old faces.

I’ve also been surprised to learn just how small the space sector truly is – the networks and connections made are all related and it is always exciting to catch up with new and old faces.

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

Aside from my family being extremely supportive and my parents coming from an engineering and science backgrounds themselves, while in grade school I participated in several engineering and science camps. I was actively exposed to many STEM areas that helped me decipher what my specific interests were. I am forever grateful for the support that my family gave me since I discovered my love for space, as they always encouraged my academic and professional pursuits, wherever and whatever they were.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

I don’t regret anything that’s gotten me to where I am now. I’ve learned to embrace failures and setbacks (from lost awards or scholarships, failed relationships, academic or job rejections – anything). All of these gave me opportunity to grow, and instead lead me to alternative opportunities that put me on the path to where I am now. I consider where I am now a blessing and exciting, so I can’t regret whatever got me here.

To my 10-year old self, I would stress that there is no wasted knowledge or experience. Take the most of every opportunity and of everyone you meet. I would reassure myself that although things will be hard, things will work out and that there is reward to hard work.

Bethany is currently raising funds for her POSSUM programme and travel to Florida, in order to allow her to carry out the POSSUM astronaut training. Any leftover donations will be put towards the development of an education program and talk tour across Newfoundland, Canada and other space outreach activities for the province. Any and all donations are sincerely appreciated by Bethany. Check out her GoFundMe page here!

Astronauts, Inspirational women

The Real Rocket Women:All-Female Astronaut Panel Represents International Cooperation

23 July, 2014

David Kendall, CSA and ISU SSP Director, Introducing The Astronaut Panel [Far Left]. From left seated: Shannon Walker (NASA), Soyeon Yi (South Korea), Wang Yaping (China National Space Administration), Julie Payette (Canadian Space Agency – CSA), Janet Petro (NASA)

“I bet the first thing you noticed about this panel was that they were all astronauts..and that they’re all women” – Janet Petro, Deputy Director, NASA Kennedy Space Center

Janet Petro, Deputy Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, opened the panel as moderator. She is an esteemed individual of her own with a career in the United States Army flying helicopters, moving onto the commercial aerospace industry before joining NASA and being chosen as Deputy Director of one of the most prominent NASA centers. Her current role involves “managing the Kennedy team to developing center policy to being involved in executing missions that transform the world“. Janet was joined by four panelists that for the first time in the history of the International Space University (ISU)-organised annual Astronaut Panel, compromised of all-female astronauts. Having been an alumna of ISU since 2008, I was proud that the institution had the foresight to organise such an event, really bringing female role models into the public eye. At the start of the event the theatre had standing room only, with the event open to the public and containing both students and children as young as three, a fantastic introduction into the space industry and allowing younger generations to visualise their potential future.

“Having been an alumna of ISU since 2008, I was proud that the institution had the foresight to organise such an event, really bringing female role models into the public eye.”

Janet mentioned that 2013 was the first time in history that NASA had chosen a new astronaut class with a half male-female ratio. Fifty-one years after Valentina Tereshkova flew as the first woman in space and “orbited over the sex barrier”. In the US, 13 female airforce pilots were selected as astronauts with 7 making the final cut. Days before final testing began that opportunity was withdrawn. It took 20 further years until Sally Ride was selected as a NASA astronaut and flew into space. Progressively, the UK, Japan and South Korea have chosen women to represent their county as the first national astronaut.

 “I was a girl, they were men. I was Canadian, they were American men. They were test pilots, nobody in my family had ever been on a plane.  I didn’t speak English (her native language being French).” – Dr.Julie Payette, Astronaut, Canadian Space Agency

Janet was joined by Astronaut Dr.Julie Payette from the Canadian Space Agency (formerly). Julie spoke about how she was inspired to become astronaut, “When you have a dream, people may encourage or discourage you to have that dream, but keep that dream in your heart”. She added that during the 1960s, whilst watching the Moon landings, little girls were inspired to do that. She realised then that she wanted to walk on the Moon and drive the lunar rover. “I was a girl, they were men. I was Canadian, they were American men. They were test pilots, nobody in my family had ever been on a plane.  I didn’t speak English (her native language being French).” Even with this multitude of obstacles against her, Julie said she was lucky that her family didn’t discourage her. She encouraged the audience through, “You never know when an opportunity is going to come your way”. “You can control your education..be a citizen in society, but if you don’t apply or put your name down for something you believe in, you have a 100% chance of not getting it and reaching your goal.”

“You can control your education..be a citizen in society, but if you don’t apply or put your name down for something you believe in, you have a 100% chance of not getting it and reaching your goal.” – Dr.Julie Payette, Astronaut, Canadian Space Agency

Soyeon Yi presenting her spaceflight experiences

Soyeon Yi was only 29 years old when she flew to the International Space Station (ISS) and experienced an off-nominal ballistic re-entry of her Soyuz capsule on landing. She endured up to 8Gs, 8 times her body weight being pushed upon her with the normal Soyuz re-entry force not exceeding 4.5Gs. Peggy Whitson, Soyeon’s fellow crewmate and the first female commander of the ISS, described the 60 second g-force as being in a “rolling car crash“. Talking about the ballistic re-entry, Soyeon joked that “as a grown up I should pretend to be ok.”

Soyeon  joked that it was a privilege to be a female astronaut, because everyone knew you because of your ponytail in microgravity. She said that she had considered to cut her hair prior to her flight as it became caught numerous times in helmets and affected pressure seals, however a NASA astronaut said that she shouldn’t as it was a privilege to be a woman. Soyeon recounted that in South Korea her father had to encounter public and social opinion that female astronaut candidates shouldn’t go into space and instead go home and cook for their family. Societal expectations influence public opinion and was something that she had to fight to change. Others in South Korea said that the selection of an astronaut and flight was a waste of taxpayers funds. A viewpoint that Soyeon has shown to negate, by being an ambassador of her country and encouraging the next generation to study STEM.

The first South Korean in space discussed one of her proudest moments when she met Hillary Clinton whilst representing her country. “Hillary Clinton wanted to be an astronaut, but there were no female astronauts.” Ironically, it was only after meeting Mrs.Clinton that her father was able to proudly say that the first South Korean astronaut was his daughter, overcoming societal pressures and opinion. Soyeon discussed the cultural implications of her role, with many conservative families in South Korea not educating women to the degree men are allowed to and women expected to listen to their husbands. Whilst in space and looking back on the Earth her thoughts drifted as to why she was born in South Korea and that exact time, why it wasn’t in 1915 for instance when she couldn’t have gone to middle school, or why she wasn’t born in countries such as Kenya or Haiti when she may have not received an education at all. Soyeon realised how blessed she was and decided to help others in need whenever she can to the best of her ability.

“Whilst in space and looking back on the Earth her thoughts drifted as to why she was born in South Korea and that exact time, why it wasn’t in 1915 for instance when she couldn’t have gone to middle school, or why she wasn’t born in countries such as Kenya or Haiti when she may have not received an education at all.” – Soyeon Yi, First South Korean In Space

“My favourite quote is “Earth is the cradle of humanity but one cannot remain in the cradle forever”…Humanity needs to leave our cradle and explore.” – Soyeon Yi, First South Korean Astronaut

Soyeon quoted the visionary and one of the Fathers of Rocketry, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, “Earth is the cradle of humanity but one cannot remain in the cradle forever”. Explaining that the cradle is the most comfortable place, where you are always fed and cared for, however eventually you want to be independent and learn to walk yourself and feed yourself to go to where you want to be. She stated that humanity needs to leave our cradle and explore. Soyeon also described the sense of awe when looking out of the window, humorously comparing the view of the planet to meeting George Clooney. “Earth is alive like George Clooney, your brain is gone when you meet him – and when you look out of the window.”

Shannon Walker, NASA astronaut, has been in the space industry since the beginning of her career, working for Rockwell Space Operations Company as a robotics flight controller for the Space Shuttle Program at the Johnson Space Center in 1987. She was fortunate to be chosen to fly the Soyuz with the Russians rather than NASA’s space shuttle, fortuitous training that helped her gain a flight opportunity once the space shuttle had been retired. She emphasised that spaceflight was such an international endeavour, stressing the importance of countries collaborating. Shannon’s career at NASA since being chosen as an Astronaut Candidate in 2004, has included being the lead CAPCOM (Spacecraft Communicator) for the STS-118 Shuttle mission, the primary communication link between the crew and the Mission Control Center, MCC-Houston and crew support astronaut for the ISS Expedition 14 crew. Shannon was assigned to Expedition 24/25 and spent 161 days onboard the ISS in 2010.

 “You never know what life is going to present to you.” – Shannon Walker, NASA Astronaut

Soyeon also described how traumatised the movie Gravity made her feel. The movie starting Sandra Bullock and George Clooney  tells the story of how an astronaut fought to survive after debris destroyed her crew’s space shuttle and the ISS. Soyeon was visibly trembling having watched the scene depicting the frozen astronaut in the cabin, exposed to space. “Gravity is not a movie or a drama but could happen in real life” she added. The movie also does a tremendous job of bringing space to the forefront of the public’s imagination and highlighting international cooperation in space portraying vehicles including the ISS, Russia’s Soyuz, NASA’s shuttle, China’s station (Tiangong-1) and China’s capsule (Shenzhou).

Soyeon also pointed out that young girls should be encouraged to follow their dream, “If they can hear from their heart that they want to be an engineer of an astronaut. [But] If they want to be an actress then they should, as they help to make us a happier society.” She also admitted that as there are no other senior astronauts in South Korea to advise her she sometimes feels lonely as the sole national astronaut, however she’s a part of organisations such as ISU and the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) that provide guidance and mentorship.

The hashtag #AskAnAstronaut was used in order to allow global interaction with the panel through social media

The panel also took questions from the audience and through social networks using the hashtag #AskAnAstronaut. When asked about the psychological differences between men and women, Wang Yaping, China’s second woman in space and Soyeon Yi clarified that” Women completely adapt to the space environment, just like men, physiologically. However women are considered to be more considerate and serious,” and joked that the advantages of being female were that they were lighter and more economical. Shannon Walker, NASA, added that astronauts sometimes feel like robots on the ISS as their tasks are repetitive, however both male and female adapt to the station and microgravity environment.

When discussing their biggest challenges in the pursuit of their goals, Julie Payette, CSA, admitted that it was “Fear and doubt I wouldn’t perform as needed.” A lack of self-confidence in one’s ability is an internal barrier that women battle around the world. Julie Payette said that it had been her biggest challenge and took a lengthy amount of time to convince herself that she was good for the job, even once she was selected and in training. “Astronauts are not rocket scientists, we don’t invent rockets.” Soyeon Yi added that 7-year-olds think astronauts know everything and ask her about detailed astronautics. She felt that she disappointed them as she couldn’t answer their questions and decided to gain a wider space knowledge base to be a good role model to younger generations. “The SSP [ISU Space Studies Program] is the perfect program to be a leader in the space field. Now I can collaborate with and have friends in over 30 countries from the course.” Shannon Walker’s biggest fear was speaking Russian in public in addition to the astronaut training programme being very physically challenging. “Like all fears, you need to do them a few times to overcome them.”

“[My biggest challenges were]..Fear and doubt I wouldn’t perform as needed.” – Julie Payette, Astronaut, Canadian Space Agency (CSA)

Wang Yaping Presents On The Importance Of Female Astronauts

An attitude shift was needed in the US to allow women to become astronauts. In South Korea, Soyeon Yi recounted that the older male generation “thought their first astronaut should be a military guy, not a civilian girl.” Chinese taikonaut, Wang Yaping, revealed that there were no restrictions for in place for the selection of female astronauts, apart from the fact that she must be married. This is stipulated for all Chinese astronauts, unlike the other agencies represented in the panel. Soyeon Yi described the necessity of a female crewmember through depicting events during her survival training. “All Russian guys were worried about the small Asian woman. The Russian guys compete with each other.” Soyeon encouraged them and their strength, whilst being proactive and cut parachutes to be prepared for the next part of the training. The Russian psychologist confirmed that she was a positive influence and made the team more efficient, “showing that you need a female in the crew”. In China, “A female in space is just like a female in the family, indispensable. Confidence and a sense of humour are equally important.”
“All [the] Russian guys were worried about the small Asian woman.” – Soyeon Yi, First South Korean Astronaut
The ISS will go down in history as an extraordinary feat through constructing an international outpost in orbit and the panel hoped that it would also be taught in history books just how successful it’s international partnership has been. “We have to continue to embrace even more women to surpass borders and frontiers.” The second Chinese woman in space also hoped for more female astronauts in the future, as there were too few females currently. Julie Payette stated that, “The number of women who have flown in space that are not from the US is only 12 out of 57 female astronauts”. The all-female astronaut panel’s wish for the future was that there would be enough diversity in human spaceflight; that being different would not be looked at as being suspicious or strange.