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Mayo woman set to become first Irish person in space

Dr. Norah Patten works for Réaltra Space Systems Engineering, winner of the “Franco-Irish Business Award for Newcomer of the Year 2023”.

A woman who works for a space research company in Dublin is set to become Ireland's first astronaut.

Dr Norah Patten, who is originally from Co Mayo but now lives in the Dublin and works for Realtra Space Systems Engineering in Coolock, will be part of a research mission on Virgin Galactic's new commercial spacecraft, which is due to begin operating in 2026.

She is part of a team being sent by the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS) to advance scientific knowledge on supporting life in space and it follows on from a similar mission the Institute carried out last year.

Dr Patten, along with two other researchers from the US and Canada, will undertake the mission on Virgin Galactic's second generation of spacecraft, known as Delta, during the first year of its operation.

The commercial space flight will be less than two hours long and is sub-orbital, meaning that it will travel to and from space without going around the earth.

The all-woman team of researchers, whose flights are being funded by institutional investors, grants and sponsors, are using the mission to advance knowledge in the areas of fluids and biomedical research in space.

An aeronautical engineer and bioastronautics researcher with the IIAS, Dr Patten has taken part in multiple research campaigns into areas such as microgravity and the testing of commercial spacesuits

She has a PhD in aeronautical engineering from the University of Limerick, is a former global faculty member at the International Space University and has taken part the International Space University Space Studies Program.

Her interest in space travel was sparked three decades ago, when she visited a NASA research centre in Cleveland Ohio on a family holiday to visit relatives.

'Impossible dream'

She describes her childhood ambition to travel to space as "an impossible dream" but she said her inclusion on the 2026 missions shows how hard work and persistence can help people achieve their goals

"When I was 11, I had an opportunity to visit NASA in Cleveland, Ohio. And since that day, I've set my eyes on space and even though it's been an absolutely impossible dream, it just goes to show with persistence and much hard work I have finally been offered this unbelievable opportunity," she said.

Dr Patten added: "I'm so grateful. I'm so thankful. And I'm just so proud to have this moment. Its very hard to put into words the excitement and pride and all the emotions I feel now that this spaceflight has been secured."

The cost of the flight on this new craft, which is still in development, has not yet been finalised but it is expected to be in the region of $600,000 (€560,000).

Tickets for Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flights on its Unity craft cost $450,000 (€420,000). Unity was retired last week after a year in operation in which it took 37 people to space on 12 flights.

The research will focus on how life performs in space.

"The research spaceflight is a one-day suborbital spaceflight and from take-off to landing it's less than two hours," Dr Patten said.

"But we'll be using every single moment of that to try and maximise the research outputs. I will be flying as a payload specialist, and I'll be testing a variety of experiments in space. "

She added: "This is a progression of the Institute's inaugural spaceflight, which took place with Virgin Galactic in 2023 testing fluids research and other biomedical research.

"So, our flight will advance the research findings from that first flight, and we'll also be taking new biomedical and physical sciences experiments on board."

Dr Patten, who has written an award-winning children's book on space and has promoted numerous STEM initiatives for young people, said she hopes to use the time preparing for her space flight to engage with Irish people about the space sector.

While she admits that some of her family members are nervous about her journey into space, she said will take particular pride in explaining to her now two-year-old daughter in the future about the significance of this journey.

"I don't feel any nervousness. I feel a huge sense of pride. I feel a huge sense of responsibility to my research institute to maximise our research.

"But also as a national first, this is such an amazing opportunity to engage with people all over Ireland and to show them what's possible," she said.

In a statement the IIAS said Dr Patten’s experience was key to her selection for the mission.

"Norah Patten has consistently demonstrated the teamwork, excellence, and expertise needed to produce high-quality, cutting-edge research in operational environments.

"The IIAS team will collaborate closely with academic, government, and commercial partners to carefully plan the crew's spaceflight activities to maximise the science and technology returns gained from this mission."

 

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