Next generation inspired by Australia’s first female reserve astronaut

Dr Meganne Christian may one day cast a shadow on the surface of the Moon, but for now, Australia’s first female reserve astronaut is shining a spotlight on science careers in partnership with QUT and World Science Festival Brisbane 2024.

Speaking at the flagship QUT research event series, QUT Connections: a forum for bold ideas, Dr Christian used her own career journey to inspire the next generation of critical thinkers.

And she started by admitting to moderator, ABC presenter Rebecca Levingston and the QUT Gardens Theatre audience, that she had no idea on a career path when she was at school in Australia.

Dr Meganne Christian speaking at the forum.

“I changed my mind pretty much every single day,” the European Space Agency reserve astronaut, who has citizenship in four countries, said.

“Everything from being an artist, to architect, to actor. All the A’s. I did know that I really liked maths. At the same time, I really love languages, so when it came to choosing my subjects for HSC, I did maths and chemistry and languages as well.”

Her comments rang true for school students who came from as far as Sydney to hear her speak.

“I have no idea what I want to be,” Fortitude Valley Secondary College Year 11 student, Portia Griffith, said. “A whole bunch of things but also nothing at once. So I came here to try and figure out if there’s anything I’m interested in or a pathway I could look at.”

Waiting in the theatre foyer before the forum was Kirsten Bott and her son Kieran, 15, who had travelled to Brisbane from Sydney to see family and Australia’s astronaut-in-waiting.

“Kieren is home schooled and his interest can be sparked by anything scientific, he loves history as well, and he comes up with really good questions from a perspective that I’ve never thought of,” Ms Bott said.

“So we grab opportunities to have peeks into all sorts of different areas because otherwise you don’t know what’s out there. There’s so much.”

Even QUT Distinguished Professor Christopher Barner-Kowollik, who last year received one of chemistry’s highest honours, the Royal Society of Chemistry 2023 Centenary Prize, admitted that a preferred career path was difficult to decide on.

QUT Vice-Chancellor Professor Margaret Sheil welcomed Dr Christian to QUT

along with Distinguished Professor Christopher Barner-Kowollik

“I was either going to do chemistry or history and at the day of enrolment at university I still wasn’t decided,” Professor Barner-Kowollik said.

“For all the students here today, they will all have interests. Be passionate about those interests and follow those.

“If you are good at something and enjoy it, everything else will work itself out. And don’t listen to what other people tell you because they are not inside your head. It’s your life so get out of that pressure box.”

The search for her ideal career has taken Dr Christian from Wollongong in Australia, where she worked at a wastewater treatment plant while studying industrial chemistry, to Antarctica, working for a year as an atmospheric physicist and meteorologist in temperatures that regularly dipped below minus 60 degrees Celsius.

She also moved to Bologna, Italy for a postdoctoral position which saw her take parabolic flights while tested the effectiveness of graphene in space technology.

Moderator Rebecca Levingston with Dr Christian during the forum

Then in 2021 the European Space Agency started a recruitment drive for astronauts for the first time in 13 years, and Dr Christian decided to give it a go.

An 18-month, six-phase interview process began and out of 22,500 initial applicants, Dr Christian was chosen as one of 12 reserve astronauts, including the world’s first para-astronaut, with a further five applicants chosen as career astronauts.

While she waits for her call up, which could come with a week’s notice, she is working with the UK Space Agency as the Exploration Commercialisation Lead on partnerships with future commercial international space stations.

From the second row of the Gardens Theatre, QUT IT and Engineering students and Westpac Scholarship recipients, Joshua Ho and Lily Baxter, asked the first audience questions, including whether space will ever be more accessible to the general populus.

“It’s slower than we would hope,” Dr Christian said.

“Science fiction writers of the day would be disappointed with where we’re at. But I’m quite positive that it will happen in the next 10 years or so. I am also a little bit concerned about how it all happens. It has to happen safely and sustainably. We really have to make sure these companies are responsible.”

QUT students also caught up with Dr Christian after the forum

“Would you consider a multi-year mission to Mars?” Moderator Rebecca Levingston asked on behalf of an online viewer watching the forum via livestream.

“Actually, this was one of the questions I got during the selection process,” Dr Christian replied.

“My answer was yes, as long as the plan was to return. There have been ideas of going to Mars and staying there but I definitely want to come back. I realise that there’s a risk and I would take that risk.”

There was also a question on whether Australia would select its own astronaut students one day.

“I really hope so,” Dr Christian said.

“In my selection there was an Australian who got right through to the final round but wasn’t selected in the end.

“But she works for the Australian Space Agency and has been sent to do training with the five career astronauts … to potentially set up a human spaceflight program in Australia. So let’s hope that happens.

“But I do think that before we send the first person to space under the Australian flag, there should be a selection that is open to all Australian citizens.”

In the Gardens Theatre foyer, several students were keen to learn more.

“What interests me about space is the fact that we don’t know it, it’s confusing,” Fortitude Valley Secondary College Year 11 student, James Free, said.

“We went to the careers expo last year and the Australian Space Agency was there. I didn’t even know we had a space agency.”

The World Science Festival Brisbane 2024 continues until Sunday.

A replay of the QUT Connections: a forum for bold ideas with Reserve Astronaut, Dr Meganne Christian will be available in the coming days HERE

Main picture: Dr Meganne Christian at the QUT Connections: a forum for bold ideas. Photo: Anthony Weate

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