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Shooting for the stars

Living

SUITED AND BOOTED Ballina-born scientist Norah Patten has taken one giant leap closer to realising her dream of travelling into outer space. She is pictured at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Florida, with ‘Astro Granny’, one of the characters from ‘Planet Zebunar’, her brand of educational toys and games

Interview

Cory Kilbane

For aeronautical engineer Dr Norah Patten, the past few weeks of her ever-active life have been an incredible experience. The Ballina native has been completing a space-training programme as part of her bid to fulfil her dream of becoming the first Irish person to travel into space.
Norah was one of 12 people who recently took part in a unique scientist-astronaut training programme at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The Mayo News reported on October 10 that she was taking part in the five-day programme – called Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere (PoSSUM) – which is designed to teach candidates the skills they need to conduct research on the next generation of space vessels.
So now that she’s finished the training, how did it go?
“Every day was just brilliant. It was all the hands-on stuff,” she tells The Mayo News.
The 34 year old took part in several different simulated flights over the five days, with the G-force conditions varying in each one. New experiences included experiencing altitude-induced hypoxia (oxygen deprivation), as well as wearing a pressurised space suit during a simulated suborbital flight. By the end of it, her appreciation for the work that astronauts undertake – and for just how hot and uncomfortable space suits can be – had risen to a new level.
According to Norah, it was a ‘fascinating’ and ‘very cool’ experience, but she admits that she was quite nervous about some parts of the training. “It was all done totally safely, but I was a little cautious because some of it was totally new, and you don’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how my body was going to react or behave in some of the scenarios; it’s like your first time doing anything.”
Norah had previously told The Mayo News that the training would be ‘a step in the right direction’ for her, and that’s exactly how it worked out; she is already keen to get back to the university in Florida in the near future.
“I’m already looking at their schedule for next year, and I want to go back as soon as I can really … I’m only after coming back and I’m itching to go again,” she says.

The spark
Norah’s love for space began when she first visited NASA in Cleveland, Ohio, when she was eleven.
“I think it was the spark for me. Then when I visited the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida when I was 15, it was a real ‘Oh my God’ moment,” she explains.
“Definitely since I was eleven after seeing all the aircraft and the wind tunnels, it left me fascinated with space. But then when I saw the actual rockets at Kennedy Space Centre, that was it, I said that there was absolutely nothing else I wanted to do.”
Norah’s interest remained, and when she left school she began studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick, where she later completed a PhD in Aerodynamics.
“Anyone will tell who’s done a PhD that it’s not an easy thing to do. It was a lot of hard work but I think in overcoming those hard times, I kind of think later on ‘I’ve done it before, so I can do it again’.”

Passing on the fire
That valuable lesson has also seen her through the challenges involved in setting up a new business. Her company, Planet Zebunar, is set to launch an educational but fun series of online and offline products designed to inspire the next generation of engineers, astronauts, scientists and innovators. While playing with the series’ games, toys and characters – all designed to save Plantet Zebunar from doom – children will learn valuable nuggets of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) along the way.
The company was something Norah had in the pipeline for a long time.
“I’ve had the idea for years, probably since 2011, but I didn’t really know how to go about doing it or how to even start. I did finally start in 2015, and now finally, two years later, I have a finished product that I’m absolutely delighted with.
“I wanted to create something that I could scale to multiple products so that kids could really get involved and that it’s not just a one-off thing that parents buy and throw in the bin,” she explained.
“I worked with a lot of STEM professionals, game developers and child psychologists. It was all about the characters and the stories, science literacy and really to have something inclusive, that is not gender specific.” And it’s not just about challenging gender norms and myths – it’s about tackling age preconceptions too, with characters like Astro Granny.
For Norah, it’s about making sure that everyone feels they can reach their potential, and that all children, regardless of background or gender, feel empowered to overcome any obstacles they might encounter on the way to their goals, their own final frontiers.   
Norah has no guarantee that her dream of going to space will ever come true, but one thing is sure: She’s bringing more people along on her journey to the stars than she may ever realise.

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