Dr Norah Patten and Sean O'Rourke

Dr. Norah Patten“It falls out of the sky, so everything inside floats, including me.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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For most people, air travel is pretty straightforward – getting from A to B with no dips, dives or tricks along the way, thank you very much. Not so Mayo woman Dr. Norah Patten; she’s perfectly happy in a plane that’s designed to fall out of the sky mid-flight. It’s not about the thrills as she explained to Sean O’Rourke, it’s an integral part of her bid to become Ireland’s first astronaut.

A family trip to NASA when she was 11 set the Ballina native on a path she hopes will ultimately lead her into space. She’s more than half way there, having completed a PhD in aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick. She’s part of a lucky few enrolled in a scientist-astronaut programme called Project Possum. There she gets to wear a NASA-funded space suit and it’s not exactly comfy.

“You get an appreciation for how difficult it is to be in this suit when it’s pressurised, to move it, to actually do experiments.”

The entrance of commercial companies into the space travel mix has opened up new opportunities for people like Dr. Patten. Not only has she experimented with space suits, she’s also taken parabolic flights and that’s where the dropping out of the sky comes in. It’s all done under controlled conditions with a modified Falcon 20 Jet in Ottowa, Canada.

“It’s kitted out to do these parabolic flights and it flies in a trajectory that, essentially it falls out of the sky, so everything inside floats, including me.”

Dr. Norah Patten won’t be heading off to the International Space Station any time soon. Those trips are very costly to fund, but she has her sights set on sub-orbital space flight; also not cheap, but more manageable. In the meantime, the former national title-holder in gymnastics is keeping fit and healthy. She says age is not a deal-breaker for commercial space flight companies, health is the crucial factor.

“In another 5, 10 or 20 years I’ll absolutely get there.”

No doubt there are many young boys and girls around the country that share Dr. Patten’s dream of becoming an astronaut, and now they can share in her adventure too. Her new book Shooting for the Stars – My Journey to Become Ireland’s First Astronaut is available now with illustration by Jennifer Farley and published by O’Brien Press

You can find out more about Norah’s space-related activities in the full interview on Today with Seán O’Rourke here.

© The Listener 2019

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