Seeing Stars

Dr Norah Patten

A graduate of UL’s aeronautical engineering programme, Dr Norah Patten is set to be the first Irish woman in space.

One of just 12 people invited to take part in a unique citizen-astronaut training programme, Ballina woman Dr Norah Patten shares her journey from University of Limerick to the final frontier.

“At the age of 11, I was fortunate enough to visit NASA in Cleveland, Ohio and that experience shaped the rest of my life. It ignited a lifelong passion for space that has steered my studies. Growing up in Mayo as the youngest of five children, I was always looking for the next adventure and that characteristic has stuck with me ever since. After secondary school, I studied Aeronautical Engineering at UL where I learned all about aircraft, aerodynamics, materials and how planes fly. During the course, I interned at the Boeing Company in Washington and in the summer of 2006 when I completed my undergraduate, I spent six weeks at Space Florida and NASA Kennedy Space Centre learning all about space. I enjoyed the course immensely.

I managed a project that sent Ireland’s first secondary school experiment to the International Space Station.

After my undergraduate, I obtained my PhD in aeronautics from UL and, always keen to progress, I attended the Alpbach Space Summer School in Austria, a research and education lab for space science and technology. In 2010, I was accepted into the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program in Strasbourg, France and this was really the platform that allowed me to advance my space career. I have stayed involved with ISU since then and currently I am a faculty member. My tenure at ISU has also allowed me to bring something back to the younger generation at home in Ireland.

After finishing my PhD, I worked as Communications and Outreach manager at the Irish Centre for Composites Research (IComp) in UL for almost three years. That experience allowed me to work with industry from all over Ireland, write funding applications and increase my knowledge and capabilities in the workforce.

Space suit training at Project PoSSUM

Space suit training at Project PoSSUM

In 2014, while working in IComp, I managed a project that sent Ireland’s first secondary school experiment to the International Space Station. This was possible through a commercial agreement with NanoRacks and I hope will be the first of many for young Irish students.

Over the years, I have enjoyed fantastic experiences and in October 2017, I made it one step closer to achieving my ultimate goal of one day making it to space when I became a scientist-astronaut candidate with Project PoSSUM. Project PoSSUM, Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere, is a NASA supported research programme that is designed to teach candidates how to perform research on the next generation of commercial space vehicles and I am excited to continue training with them in 2018.

I wanted to create something that could reach children worldwide and inspire them to follow their dreams – however big and bold they might seem.

One really important element of everything I do is being able to share it with others and encourage everyone to follow their dreams. I teamed up with Wexford Libraries for Science Week 2017 events and workshops, and I was delighted to host a live Q&A at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition 2018 to answer questions about space.

Over the years, I have spoken with thousands of students about STEM and space and the opportunities that studying these subjects can bring. I realised, however, that my impact as one person alone is limited and this was one of the reasons for my latest project. Planet Zebunar is a world we have created to excite the next generation of engineers, astronauts, scientists and innovators. Realising that not every 11-year-old is going to get the opportunity to visit NASA, I wanted to create something that could reach children worldwide and inspire them to follow their dreams – however big and bold they might seem. We launched our first product in Ireland at the beginning of November: a pack containing a storybook, comic book and free to download augmented reality app.

People have often asked me over the years who my role models were. I have met many amazing people over the years but definitely meeting Eileen Collins – the first female space shuttle commander – was a highlight. One word: legend! I really hope that sharing my story will encourage others to shoot for the stars because after all, the sky is not the limit!”

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