Norah Patten is on course to be Ireland’s first person in space.
The aeronautical engineer has just completed two programmes, back-to-back, with Project Possum, an organisation preparing citizens and scientists for commercial space travel.
“Project Possum is based in the US but it accepts international participants. Unlike Nasa, you don’t have to be a US citizen to be accepted. I have just completed their aviation egress training, egress is basically how you exit a situation, so we learned about how you would ditch if you landed on water,” said Norah.
“We were set up in a helicopter unit and strapped in and then dunked into a body of water, you then get used to being upside-down in water, find your reference point, learn not to panic and then unstrap yourself.
“My second training was spacecraft egress, where we were in a mock-up space-craft capsule and wearing Final Frontier Design space suits. We were moved into water and again had to egress,” adds the UL graduate.
There are several Nasa astronauts on Project Possum’s board of advisers and during training, Norah was taught by a former Nasa astronaut trainer.
Now 34 years of age, Norah has wanted to travel to space since the age of 11, but much like Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, she was not sure how she could get there, without being an American citizen.
“I remember hearing Chris Hadfield saying he thought it was impossible for him and I felt like that too. I went to Nasa when I was 11 and it was only when I was there and inside, I thought this is really what I wanted to do,” Norah said.
A number of her father’s relatives live in America so she returned to Nasa several times during her teenage years. Norah credits these return trips with keeping her dream alive and so when it came to her Leaving Cert and CAO form she knew what to do.
“I started looking at career choices and I saw I could do aeronautical engineering in UL. I knew a lot of astronauts had studied aeronautical engineering. I loved it.
"I would do my assignments in advance and I’d say I only missed two or three lectures over the whole four years there.
"But I was lucky too, because I knew what I wanted to do, so many people doing their Leaving Cert do not know what they want to do yet,” said Norah.
After her first-class honours degree Norah went on to complete a PhD in aeronautical engineering also at UL.
While she continued to work in the area, it was only in recent times that Norah realised she could actually make it into space as an Irish citizen.
“Nothing in life is a straight line. Sometimes I would sit back and think: ‘What am I doing?’ It’s actually been more recently that I realised if I put my head down that this could happen. Before it didn’t seem possible.
“With the whole area of commercial space travel, opportunities are now opening up that weren’t here five years ago. Project Possum, which wasn’t around five years ago, is a big step forward for me.
"Project Possum is very unique and I will continue with them. Next October I will be doing zero-gravity simulated flights in space suits,” said Norah.
“These commercial companies, such as Space X and Virgin Galactic, will need astronauts and we are now at the cusp of them making flights.”
Norah draws inspiration from Eileen Collins, who was the first female space shuttle commander and pilot, and whose father’s family emigrated from Cork to the US.
“When she decided she wanted to be an astronaut she didn’t tell anyone at first, she was looking for her opportunity to become one. You have to keep your goal in your head. It took me a while to realise it wasn’t going to be a straight path,” explained Norah.
As a scientist she plans to carry out Irish-focused research in space, seeing how materials and various pharmaceutical compounds behave in a zero-gravity environment.
As Norah has completed her recent training programmes, her biggest sources of encouragement in the last six months have been the children and teenagers she meets at talks in schools and universities: “I have kids telling me they want to be astronauts too — boys and girls.
"I suppose it’s giving them a sense of what’s possible. I receive letters as well from children and that really spurs me on.”
With commercial space travel now on the horizon, Norah is preparing as best she can, but it will not just be for her as an individual, but for Irish people as a whole.
“The more I progress in training the more I can see it happening. Could you imagine an Irish person up there? It’s incredible the impact it would have. How amazing would that be?”
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