The first thing you notice sitting down for a chat with Dr Norah Patten are three stars emblazoned across her navy blue jumper.
The perfect choice of clothing for someone aiming to become the first Irish person in space.
Norah has spent years working in astronautics. Now, the Mayo woman is closer than ever to realising her dream of travelling to space.
Growing up in Ballina, Norah wasn’t exposed to the idea of space travel much. That all changed when she was 11 and went on a family holiday to Ohio in the US.
While there, she visited NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration – and this sparked her lifelong interest in space.
“I got to go back to NASA on a few different occasions throughout my teenage years, because I’ve a load of family in Cleveland,” Norah explains.
“My interest grew more then when I was 15 years of age and I went to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. I always say it’s like Disneyland for adults, I absolutely loved it.
“They have the Saturn V Rocket – it’s the one that went to the moon – in the visitor complex. You can walk underneath it. You get to see the engines and the sheer scale of this thing. I remember at 15 years of age just thinking, ‘This is so incredible, that this was built to take humans to the moon.’ Then the whole aspect of space and human space flight, all of that just really interested me.”
From this point Norah knew she wanted to be an astronaut and travel to space. Experiences you have as a child and a teenager, she feels, can have a huge influence on your life. That’s why she has become an ambassador for the EPA’s Story of Your Stuff campaign.
Open to secondary school students, this initiative encourages them to think about the environmental impact of “their stuff”. From toothbrushes to plastic bottles, makeup and face masks, students are asked to do a project on something, charting its sustainability from formation to disposal.
Norah herself knows all too well how important teachers and schools can be in shaping people’s lives. Although she went on to study engineering and is a huge advocate for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, it was actually Norah’s art teacher who really encouraged her to pursue her dream of being an astronaut.
“Often when I’m doing talks I show my Junior Cert art project, which was all space themed – astronauts, rockets, the whole lot. My Junior Cert art teacher, Mr McDonagh, was the loveliest man and so encouraging,” Norah recalls.
“The days when I’d come in and think, ‘Why am I even considering doing something so out there?’, he’d be sitting down and he’d say, ‘Right, what kind of rockets are we going to design?’ He would say, ‘Don’t worry about what the industry will be like in 10 years. It’s really important for all of ye to pick whatever course or programme ye want to do.’
“I always show that and say how important it is for teachers to encourage students.
“Particularly in secondary school, if you have a supportive teacher it can have a huge impact on your subject choices and your career choices.”
Making dreams a reality
Although Norah was quite clear on what she wanted to do after school and received encouragement, being an astronaut wasn’t the most accessible career. There’s no undergraduate degree you can put down on your CAO form that will allow you to become one. Still, Norah was undeterred.
“I started to do a bit of research on the astronauts who had gone to space and trained for space,” Norah says.
“A lot of them had studied aeronautical or astronautical engineering. Then I did a bit of digging around into what that was. They had and still have an aeronautical engineering degree in the University of Limerick (UL).
“I just thought it looked really interesting in terms of the modules and what you were learning. It’s all about flight and how things fly. That was the path I took.”
While completing her degree, Norah did an internship in Boeing in Seattle. Afterwards, she went on to do a PhD in the area of aeronautical engineering, also in UL.
Finishing in 2006, it was getting involved in a number of programmes after her PhD that led Norah to where she is today.
In 2010 she did a nine-week space study programme in the International Space University (ISU) in France.
“It’s been this navigation of always looking out for opportunities,” Norah explains.
“Really, I think, participating in the ISU was one of the best decisions I’ve made, because it put me in touch with that international network.
“It was a huge learning curve, you learn about all kinds of things space related. I’ve stayed involved with that programme since.
“Through the ISU I met the co-founder of a company called Nanoracks – a commercial company in the US which has access to the Space Station. In 2013 I signed an agreement with them to send a student experiment from Ireland to the Space Station.”
Norah went on to publish a children’s book in 2017, Shooting for the Stars: My Journey to Become Ireland’s First Astronaut, which went on to win the An Post Children’s Book of the Year in the senior category.
She is now working as a science communicator and keynote speaker, as well as being involved in the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS) as a researcher for commercial suborbital space flights. Suborbital is when they launch, get to space for a few minutes and then they come back down.
Commercial suborbital space flights are the type of flights that both Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s company, Blue Origin launched last year. Virgin Galatic flew a researcher just like Norah to space. Last year was a milestone year for space travel, Norah explains, oozing with enthusiasm as she speaks.
All of this, for Norah, makes her dream of going to space more real.
“It’s been a goal that has become closer in the last few years, particularly when you see the launches of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin,” Norah says.
“You’re like, wow, this is really starting to happen. I really want to stay focused on getting that seat as a researcher and flying to space. I absolutely want to make that happen.”
When Norah does get to space, she wants her trip to be in the name of science.
“You mightn’t necessarily get your astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) if you go as a space tourist. For me, I’ve always said I want to go with real purpose and I want to go as a researcher.
“I don’t just want go on a joy ride to space and experience weightlessness for four minutes.
“I really want to do this with scientific backing and scientific outputs. That’s what the institute is allowing, facilitating and is setting us up to achieve.
“It will happen, that’s the way I look at it, it’s just a case of when. I’ll absolutely keep pushing to make it happen and to get there.
“Who knows if an Irish millionaire might get there before me? If they do, it is what it is. For me, I’ll still continue to really try and make this happen.”
Although it has been at times a hard road, Norah is still as determined to get to space as the 11 year old girl who was set alight with passion and ambition visiting NASA all those years ago.