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.
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
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!