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Project PoSSUM

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!

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet The Next Generation of Rocket Women: Alyssa Carson,16, Future Astronaut

4 February, 2018
Alyssa Carson in a simulation

Alyssa Carson in a simulation with the PoSSUM Academy – the youngest person to have been accepted

Alyssa Carson is a regular teenager, except alongside impressively taking her classes at school in four languages (English, French, Spanish, Chinese), she’s training to become an astronaut and travel to Mars. Alyssa is the youngest person to graduate from the Advanced Space Academy and the first person to complete every NASA space camp in the world!

Alyssa Carson is certainly the most dedicated 16-year-old that I know of and her drive to become an astronaut has motivated me work harder! In a new series featuring the next generation of Rocket Women, Alyssa talks to Rocket Women about her drive to travel to Mars.

How were you inspired to choose a career in the space industry and what drives your passion for space?

I got inspired to become an astronaut and go to Mars while watching a cartoon television show called the Backyardigans. In this show there were friends who went on an imaginary trip to Mars. Watching this as a 3-year-old made me want to be like the characters in the show and travel to Mars. After the episode ended I asked my dad if humans had been to Mars and if it was possible to travel there.

I was then fascinated with wanting to go to space. I began reading books, watching videos, and started learning everything I could about space, rockets and Mars. I never let go of my dream of becoming an astronaut.

I was fascinated with wanting to go to space. I began reading books, watching videos, and started learning everything I could about space, rockets and Mars. I never let go of my dream of becoming an astronaut.

Your goal is to become an astronaut and be one of the first people to step foot on Mars. Can you talk about your journey to become an astronaut and how you hope to achieve this?

The journey for me to become an astronaut includes me completing the rest of high school and then going to college to get a degree in astrobiology. With that degree I could become a mission specialist and study the soil, water, and history of the planet Mars. After graduating college I will start applying to the astronaut selection program after my PhD and work in the astrobiology field as I continue to apply. Once selected I will train for the mission which is currently scheduled to happen in the 2030s.

Alyssa Carson, 16, Future Astronaut

Alyssa Carson, 16, Future Astronaut

Who have been your role models growing up? How important are role models to young girls?

One of my biggest role models growing up was astronaut Sandra Magnus. I had the chance to talk to her when I was 9 years old at a Sally Ride Day Camp. When I spoke to her she told about how she she decided to become as astronaut at the age of 9. Hearing how she decided her career at a young age and then fulfilled it by going to space several times really inspired me that you can decide what you want to do at a young age and then accomplish those goals. Role models are extremely important to girls because it gives them someone to look up to. Also it is motivation to continue searching and following dreams.

Success for me means becoming a mission specialist for the mission to Mars.

What does success mean to you?

Success for me means becoming a mission specialist for the mission to Mars. Also having the opportunity to make new discoveries by exploring a new planet. Another big success would be influencing as many kids as I can to follow their dreams and to help them as much as I can.

Alyssa Carson speaking about her drive to become an astronaut

Alyssa Carson speaking about her drive to become an astronaut

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

My family has been a huge support in my dream. Even from the first time I mentioned the idea I had a lot of support. My dad especially has helped so much and enabled me to pursue the career that I wanted. I definitely would not be at the point I am now without him.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up? 

It wasn’t too hard to keep myself motivated when the things that I was doing was tough. Sometimes things can be very busy and hard however the benefits that I am getting out of all these experience most definitely made up for it. I just had to remember that my goal required a lot work to get there and without it I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I wanted.
Alyssa Carson

Alyssa Carson

Everything has been an amazing experience and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

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?

The advice that I would give my 10-year-old self would be to cherish every moment because all experiences are once in a lifetime. I don’t really think I would have done anything differently since I began working on my dream. Everything has been an amazing experience and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

Learn more about Alyssa Carson in this short clip produced in conjunction with National Geographic’s brilliant Mars series: