How Richard Branson could help Norah Patten realise her dream of space travel
After a visit to NASA when she was just 11, Norah Patten set her sights on space. Now an aeronautical engineer and scientist-astronaut candidate, she could be close to her dream, thanks to private companies' investment in extraterrestrial flight, as Alex Meehan discovers
A fascinating afternoon chat with Dr Norah Patten begins with: "I got a letter from a little girl recently and it meant so much to me. It included a picture of her in a rocket with me and the caption, 'Here's me and Norah going to space'. That's more than I could have ever asked for."
The 35-year-old from Ballina, Co Mayo, aims to be the first Irish person to go into space. It's a lofty ambition, but if anyone has done the groundwork for such an expedition, it's Patten.
That groundwork moved up a gear last year when she travelled to Canada as one of only 12 people from around the world - and the first Irish person ever - to take part in training with the Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere (PoSSUM). It involved high-G flight training, zero gravity parabolic flight training, hypoxia training, spacesuit testing and evaluations. In short, all the preparatory work that has to be done to turn you into an astronaut.
So, just how does someone go from having an interest in space to being on the cusp of making a trip there a reality? And why are we discussing the subject while sitting in the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin?
The answer is that for people like Patten, the key to space travel is likely to be private enterprise. While space travel has traditionally been the concern of international bodies like NASA and the European Space Agency, a growing number of private space companies are getting closer and closer to offering commercial space travel to the public.
Companies like Elon Musk's Space X, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are working on the technology needed for it, and will eventually need trained scientists like Patten to help test and refine their offerings.
Meanwhile, Guinness isn't above engaging in some marketing shenanigans, celebrating International Stout Day last November by announcing that it has set its brewers the challenge of figuring out how to brew a stout suitable for drinking in space. Taste works differently at high altitudes and liquids obey entirely different laws in zero-gravity, but the theory goes that by spending time on this problem, all sorts of technology breakthroughs are likely.
"Obviously there is limited need for drinks in space right now, but as space tourism takes off, and it will, these kinds of things will be necessary," says Patten. "The commercial side of space travel is going to be enormous. In 2015 alone, there were more investment dollars spent in space start-ups than in the previous 15 years combined.
"It will start with sub-orbital flights, flights that don't orbit the earth, but which go more than 100 kilometres up and enter space. But in 50 years' time, who knows what will be possible?"
Patten's interest in space was sparked by a family holiday to visit cousins in Cleveland when she was 11. As well as all the usual tourist activities, the family paid a visit to NASA and it would prove to be a turning point for the little girl.
"I was mesmerised. It was so different, and so outside my experience. There were amazing pictures and displays of spacecraft and astronauts. I was fascinated and that hasn't left me since. That visit led me to study engineering and to a career that's brought me to where I am today," she says. "Even now when I go to Kennedy Space Centre or a NASA building, that same sense of excitement is there. It's intoxicating."
Since that first visit, Patten has gone on to obtain a PhD in aeronautical engineering from the University of Limerick and is currently a faculty member at the International Space University.
The highlight of her career so far was participating in the Project PoSSUM training. This saw her take part in high G-force training in an acrobatic aircraft, spacesuit training using a Final Frontier Design (FFD) suit, and hypoxia training, which involved low-oxygen training, bringing on symptoms such as light-headedness, slowness and numbness.
She wore a pressurised spacesuit and climbed inside a simulator to find out what it's like to try to fly an aircraft wearing the bulky uniform, and had to go through a sea survival course as part of an advanced spacecraft egress testing process. The training may be the real deal, but how exactly does she plan to find herself climbing into a rocket for real? To start with, she estimates she'll need to raise around €250,000 (£220,000).
"My bet is on the commercial sector for a start, possibly through a company like Blue Origin. They haven't started selling seats on their launches as of yet, but the programme that I am involved in with Project PoSSUM is a citizen science one, and it has excellent connections to the commercial companies in the US.
"I would be flying as a scientist and not as a tourist. The idea is that you'd get your costs sponsored and then carry out scientific experiments in space. You might be on the same flight as some tourists, but the purpose of the trip will be to conduct scientific research."
Surprisingly, given how much has been written about her wanting to be 'the first Irish person in space', she says she's not that bothered who gets there first.
"That's actually not my driving force. When I was 11, this whole dream seemed impossible, so the idea that it's become plausible is incredible to me. But the whole area of space travel has flowered and is opening up," she says.
"There are now commercial space companies that are 'unicorn' companies... billion dollar-plus companies sending payloads into space. I just think, how is it going to look in another five years? So I want to be ready once that chance comes up. Of course it would be amazing to be the first, but I want to get to space for myself, not anyone else."
How much time does Patten have left to realise her dream - is space travel a young person's game? You'd imagine astronauts would have to be in peak physical condition and, while that is true, age isn't actually the barrier you'd think.
"I think particularly with commercial flights, it will come down to physical health more than age. You obviously couldn't have blood pressure problems or anything like that, but you do need to be fit," she says.
"I go to the gym and stay in shape, so that's not a worry. As for age, people have gone into space well into their 50s. Peggy Whitson was 57 when she went and she was commander of the International Space Station, and John Glenn was 77 when he went in 1998."
I ask Patten if she feels like a role model for women and girls in the so-called STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
She briefly looks puzzled by the question, pauses for a moment and then replies.
"I've been asked that before, but I don't really know how to answer. When I was in primary and secondary school, maybe it was a little unusual to be so interested in science. But as soon as I hit undergraduate level, we were all studying the same things and it was just normal," she says.
"In general, it does annoy me a little to see things like gendered engineering toys, because there's no reason to create false division in the genders. Girls in college don't get a pink form to fill out to do engineering - why would they? In college for me, it was never a case of, 'Well, she's a girl', or, 'He's a boy'. It was a case of, 'How good are you at getting the job done'?
"I don't think in terms of, 'How do we get more girls interested in STEM'? because I don't think separating people by gender has anything to do with encouraging them to take up STEM subjects. Let's just treat kids as different people with unique interests and abilities."