Australia’s Katherine Bennell-Pegg graduates from European Space Agency astronaut program

Australia’s Katherine Bennell-Pegg graduates from European Space Agency astronaut program
  • PublishedApril 24, 2024

It’s been a journey of countless small steps, along with a few giant leaps into the unknown, but Katherine Bennell-Pegg is hoping her future as a space traveller is finally on the launch pad as she graduates as a fully qualified astronaut.

“It’s still so surreal that this is happening,” said the 39-year-old Adelaide resident, who grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches.

“When I dreamed of becoming an astronaut, as a child growing up in Sydney, I never thought it possible to do so representing Australia.”

A woman holding a graduation certificate.
Katherine Bennell-Pegg with her ESA graduation certificate on Monday.(Supplied: ESA)

For the past 12 months she’s been training to become an astronaut at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany.

The mother-of-two was initially among 22,500 other applicants for the training program with the European Space Agency.

Ms Bennell-Pegg is one of six to graduate.

“It’s been such an intense year and … I’m yet to take a breath and step back and realise that, ‘Today I become an Australian astronaut and I’m spaceflight ready’,” she said.

“It’s really ‘pinch me’ stuff.

“I’m filled with gratitude, because this isn’t my accomplishment alone. Throughout my life, throughout this year, I’ve been very well supported by my family, by my schools, by my colleagues. It’s just incredible.”

While her graduation from the astronaut training program is not in itself a guarantee of being selected for a future space mission, Ms Bennell-Pegg joins a select group of “space-ready” individuals eligible for consideration.

“There’s no flight guaranteed for me. That’s not unusual for astronauts when they graduate,” she said.

“For my class, I’m graduating with five others. All five of them will go to space by 2030 and I’m so excited to see them go up and I’ll be cheering them on.

“And who knows, maybe one day I’ll see them up there too, but the decision for if or when I fly is a decision for Australia to take in the future when the time becomes right to take it.”

A composite image of Katherine Bennell-Pegg bouncing around in a plane as it goes into a steep dive.
Australian astronaut Katherine Bennell-Pegg experiences zero-G conditions during her training.(Supplied: European Space Agency)

If that happens, Katherine Bennell-Pegg will not be the world’s first Australian-born astronaut.

That distinction already belongs to Paul Scully-Power who joined a NASA mission in 1984.

Fellow Aussie Andy Thomas also went to space with NASA in 1996.

Both men were United States citizens when they went to space.

But Ms Bennell-Pegg has pushed into a new frontier by becoming the first person to be trained as part of Australia’s own space program.

At the front of the line

That means she is well-placed to potentially become the first person sent into space as part of an Australian mission.

“Well, the future is full of promise, but still unknown,” Ms Bennell-Pegg said.

“Australia has a long and proud history in space, but we’ve only just accelerated our capabilities in recent years.

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“Our space agency is quite young, so it’s early days.

“And I really stand on the shoulders of giants here as well. Not only the first Australians to go to space in recent decades, but the many others who have worked to build Australia’s space sector over the years.”

With her training secondment to the European Space Agency at an end, Ms Bennell-Pegg returns to her day job as director of space technology at the Australian Space Agency.

Katherine Bennell-Pegg stands on steps alongside her fellow trainees.
Ms Bennell-Pegg says her fellow graduates will go into space by 2030.(Supplied: European Space Agency)

It was an arduous 12 months for the Sydney woman as she tackled the rigorous training required to help her become accustomed to the physical and mental demands of space flight.

That included learning to speak Russian, long hours underwater in scuba equipment practising how to perform spacewalks, and stints in centrifuges and oxygen low-pressure chambers.

Katherine Bennell-Pegg stands with other trainee astronauts.
Ms Bennell-Pegg is the first person to be trained as part of Australia’s own space program.(Supplied: European Space Agency)

Simulated weightlessness flights have been a particular favourite.

“Oh, it’s absolutely incredible,” Ms Bennell-Pegg.

“When we go on zero-G flights, as they’re called, you experience weightlessness for about 22 seconds at a time.

“You lift off the floor and your belly goes into your throat and stays there, but as the gravity kind of drops off, you just get the biggest smile on your face.

“It’s the most different feeling. You just have this feeling of absolute freedom.”

Regardless of whether she travels into space one day, Ms Bennell-Pegg hopes she can be a trailblazer for future generations of Australian kids ready to set their sights sky-high.

“For those that want to become astronauts, it’s absolutely as fun as you can imagine,” she said.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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