Since the age of 11 Dr. Norah Patten set her sights on space.
A scientist from Ballina in County Mayo is currently in training to become Ireland’s first astronaut.
Dr. Norah Patten was one out of 12 participants from around the world to be chosen to train as an astronaut as part of Project PoSSUM, the astronautics research and education programme studying noctilucent clouds in the Earth’s upper-atmosphere and its role in the changing global climate.
Noctilucent clouds are the highest clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere, 83 km (50 miles) and are observed slightly below the mesopause in the polar summertime. These clouds are of special interest, as they are sensitive to both global climate change and to solar/terrestrial influences.
PoSSUM, an acronym for Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere provides three types of intense training courses for secondary school and university students over the age of fifteen, undergraduate students and professionals holding an accredited B.S. degree in a STEM related field.
Project PoSSUM is a non-profit research and education organisation which has been training citizen scientists for work in the upper atmosphere and suborbital space in conjunction with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University since 2015. The project was developed by its Executive Director, Dr. Jason Reimuller.
The PoSSUM Scientist-Astronaut Programme Norah is now a part of is designed and instructed by former NASA astronaut instructors and PoSSUM team scientists.
For those holding a B.S. Degree from an accredited university, the PoSSUM Scientist Astronaut Qualification Programme at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is a five-day, fully immersive training programme that will provide the skills required to effectively conduct research on the next generation of commercial space vehicles as part of Project PoSSUM. It combines three weeks of webinar instructions followed by one-week of intensive training.
The atmosphere is what surrounds the Earth. It is made up of nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%) and other gases (1%). The four primary layers of the atmosphere; troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere and thermosphere protect Earth from harmful radiations by absorbing them.
According to NASA, studying the mesosphere is fundamental to understanding long-term changes in the Earth’s atmosphere and how these changes affect climate.
The first of “many training programmes” with Project PoSSUM available to Norah occurred in October 2017 at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
“They had multiple strands to the training,” explained Norah.
She continued with further details:
“When we got to Florida we did a lot of hands on training. We did aerobatic flights where we experienced 2G, 3G and 4G load as well as ZERO-G so we had that floating experience.
“We also did hypoxic training where they put us in a chamber and highered the altitude in the chamber so it reduces the oxygen and that’s really about understanding how our own bodies behave in those conditions so that you can recognise slow onset hypoxia.”
In 2013, former International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield hit social media by storm by sending the first ever tweet in Irish from space. It read “Tá Éire fiorálainn! Land of green hills and dark beer. With capital Dublin glowing in the Irish night”. The tweet was accompanied by a spectacular galactic photo of Dublin. At the time, Hadfield’s daughter Kristin was in Trinity College studying for her PhD in Psychology. On St. Patrick’s Day of the same year Hadfield also put Ireland on the map by recording a version of “Danny Boy”. “From high above the world to the Irish everywhere, Happy St. Patrick’s Day,” said Chris Hadfield at the start of his recording.
Hypoxia is a state of oxygen deficiency in which the body or a region of the body does not receive an adequate amount of oxygen at tissue level.
Common symptoms of hypoxia include shortness of breath, rapid breathing and a fast heart rate, while severe cases can result in confusion, the inability to communicate and even death.
The challenge with slow onset hypoxia is that changes are so gradual and subtle they can be difficult to identify. “If something did happen in a sub-orbital spaceflight and there was a depressurisation you could recognise your own symptoms in that event,” added Norah.
Participants receive comprehensive instruction on noctilucent cloud science, observational history, research methods from some of the world’s leading noctilucent cloud scientists, then learn to use real PoSSUM instruments on customised simulations of actual PoSSUM research flights, using the most modern training facilities available. Upon graduation, you will be fully trained and qualified to participate in PoSSUM graduate specialisations, become a PoSSUM educator, or to fly to space as a PoSSUM Scientist Astronaut.
In addition, PoSSUM works alongside Final Frontier Design, a company who produces space suits for NASA as part of a Space Act Agreement. Candidates with PoSSUM get to try them on and test them out.
Norah says the training is extremely hands on and that she’s looking forward to getting back.
“Now that I have the first foot on the ladder I can continue training with them over the next few years. When the opportunity came up to do the training with PoSSUM I jumped at it because I realised I had done the academic study and the academic side of what I need to do over the past 15 years.
“I realised I really needed to do more hands on stuff. That’s why when PoSSUM came up it was the perfect match because it was a lot of hands on training coupled with book learning.”
On the overall experience she said:
“They sit us in an actual simulator and they have a pilot that pilots a sub-orbital spaceflight. So we’re sitting in that simulator in a pressurised suit and we get to take measurements and experience what it would be like in an actual sub-orbital spaceflight.
A sub-orbital spaceflight is a spaceflight in which the spacecraft follows a flight path of less than one orbit.
“The idea is to couple that with the experience we had in the aerobatic aircraft where we had a 4G load on us and we can say if it was that difficult to move and to work in the pressurised suit, how much more difficult would it be under the 4G load.”
Obtaining a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering, Ms Patten never gave up on her childhood dreams to venture into space. She has spent her entire life working towards her goals, involving herself in numerous space related professional development programmes. Now a faculty member at the International Space University, Norah remembers back to when it all began.
“The first time I got a spark of interest was when I was 11 and I got to visit NASA in Cleveland, Ohio. We were on a family holiday,” said Norah.
“I had lots of different relations over there on my Mother’s side and on my Father’s side. We were over visiting them and we were doing the usual tourist spots. It was that visit that opened my eyes to what was happening.
“When I was fifteen I went to Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and that was really the moment I got to see the rockets and different things like that. I knew from that moment that was the thing I really wanted to do.”
The world’s most powerful rocket was launched into orbit from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in February by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Millions watched breathlessly as the Falcon Heavy rocket soared into space carrying a cherry-red Tesla Roadster as cargo. Out of the three reusable cores of Falcon Heavy, two of the boosters were filmed landing upright, simultaneously at their designated landing areas, while the core booster was lost in the water as it crashed upon returning to Earth.
So sure of herself and her aspirations, Norah made a bet with one of her friends in first year of secondary school. The friend bet one pound that Norah would change her mind about wanting to do something space related by the time they got to Leaving Cert.
“I was just a normal kid like anyone else. I just had this obsession with space and I wasn’t willing to let that go. I often show a picture in a lot of my talks of us in first year in secondary school. I had a bet with one of the girls in my class because she reckoned by the time we got to Leaving Cert I would have changed my mind in terms of wanting to do something space related. We had our one pound bet, I said no this is what I want to do.”
“We debated whether we’d have a one pound or five pound bet and we settled on one pound because we were both broke,” Norah admitted with a chuckle.
Former NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon in 1969 as part of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission had Irish roots to which he was proud of. He once told David Moore, the head of Astronomy Ireland, that he was descended from a family of cattle rustlers in Fermanagh. Upon his death in 2012 there were numerous tributes made to him across Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Ms Patten says she has always been on the lookout for different space related events.
“I have always been on the lookout for different things I could get involved in. I did the Outback Summer School in 2008 and from that I then presented a conference paper at the IAC (International Astronautical Congress) conference in Scotland. That’s a huge space conference. It takes place every year and it moves around every year.
“In 2010 I did the Space Studies Programme at the International Space University over in Strasbourg in France. I have stayed involved with them ever since as part of their space programme. I’m still continuing on with PoSSUM.”
In 2013 Norah was involved in The Only Way is Up project which saw four Transition Year students from St. Nessan’s Community School in Limerick create Ireland’s first student experiment that was sent to the International Space Station (ISU).
“That was a project I organised in 2013 while I was working in the Irish Centre for Composites Research (IComp) at the University of Limerick. We signed an agreement with NanoRacks which is an American company and they have commercial facilities on the International Space Station.
“During my time at the ISU I have met lots of different people from all over the globe doing really cool space projects.”
Ms Patton says she learned about NanoRacks in 2011 when the founder arrived at IComp’s department to give a presentation about NanoRacks and the work they were doing. In 2013 IComp signed an agreement with NanoRacks for one student experiment to go to the International Space Station.
“We then ran a national competition with Transition Year students. We got to visit a lot of different schools and talk to them about the project and what they needed to consider when they were developing space experiments and then we had a number of abstracts submitted and from that we picked our winning project to actually fly to space, to the International Space Station.
“It was developed by four teenagers from St. Nessan’s Community School in Limerick. They were looking at reinforced concrete and how it would set microgravity compared to here on Earth. It flew in July of 2014 on the Orb-2 mission to the ISS and it spent about ten weeks up there and then it came back to Earth. We brought it back to the University of Limerick and we were able to do different analysis on it like a 3D X-ray which is perfect because it’s non intrusive and non invasive. We could get lots of different images out of it without damaging the contents.”
When Norah isn’t taking part in public engagements, public speaking and outreach events or training to fly to space, she manages her own company which she founded before Christmas last year.
Planet Zebunar is a product for children aimed at the next generation of engineers, astronauts, scientists and innovators. It is essentially a pack that has a story book, comic book and downloadable augmented reality app which provides both audio and video content to bring the narrative to life.
In recent years, the Irish space sector has been expanding rapidly, generating significant economic impact particularly in terms of jobs, exports and new company formation, facilitated through Ireland’s membership of the European Space Agency.
The set-up of Ireland’s first national Space Strategy for Enterprise by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation was announced recently by Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan.
The Strategy will set out how Ireland can maximise the benefit of its investment in the European Space Agency (ESA) and in the European Union’s (EU) flagship space programmes, Copernicus, Galileo and Horizon 2020.
Enterprise Ireland is the organisation responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets. It works closely with Irish tech companies to gain access to the space industry and to support them in securing ESA contracts that will position them in the global space market.
According to Minister Halligan there are more than sixty Irish companies currently benefiting from contracts with ESA. Between now and 2020 five new companies are expected to enter the sector per year. Furthermore, employment in Irish companies which benefit from ESA contracts is expected to double from 2,000 in 2014 to over 4,500 in 2020.
Asked about where Ireland can make a greater impact in terms of the space industry in general Ms Patten said:
“Minister Halligan has announced that they are going to be putting together a space strategy for Ireland over the coming months. I really think that needs to happen to identify what areas of the space industry are most relevant in terms of financials and industry and all of those things that are here in Ireland.
“I think that space strategy for Ireland needs to be compiled to really identify which areas are of most benefit to Ireland. Hopefully that will happen over the next few months. We don’t have a space agency yet.
“We have a team in Enterprise Ireland that take care of our investment in the European Space Agency so I think it’s a case of looking strategically for Ireland as a whole, as a nation, and see where we can move forward.”
Norah will participate in her second PoSSUM training programme this coming April.
“I always say to people it’s about progressing. Every year you need to look at how you can progress so that when these opportunities come up you can apply and that you’ll have done things over the past number of years to put yourself in a good position,” concluded Ms Patten.