Bethany Downer’s childhood dream of blasting off into space is one step closer.
The fourth-year Memorial student may be currently in the midst of finishing up a bachelor of science degree in geography, but she has already turned her mind to the fall. It’s hard not to blame her: she will begin a master of space studies at the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France, this September.
One of 40 chosen
The international institution of higher learning is dedicated to the development of outer space for peaceful purposes through international and multidisciplinary programs. Buzz Aldrin is the university’s chancellor; faculty members include astronauts, space agency leaders, space engineers, space scientists and other international experts in technical and non-technical space-related fields.
“I found my interest and desire to learn about space only grew as I got older.” — Bethany Downer
One of 40 students chosen from thousands of applicants worldwide each year, Ms. Downer will also receive a €12,000 scholarship from the European Space Agency. The 12-month program will offer intensive classes, workshops, labs, projects and field trips in all disciplines related to space programs and enterprises, space sciences, space engineering, space policy, space law, business and management and space and society. It also includes a 12-week internship at a space organization or affiliated host institution.
Sky’s the limit
If eligible, Ms. Downer could then go on to an optional second year, during which she would complete a thesis project. Following graduation, she hopes to attend flight school to receive her pilot’s licence.
“Being an astronaut was one of those childhood dreams I always had,” she said. “When I was a kid, a teacher asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, ‘Astronaut.’ She said, ‘No, something realistic!’ But things like that only served as motivational fuel for me.
“My family and friends thought the dream would fade away, but that wasn’t the case. I found my interest and desire to learn about space only grew as I got older.”
While a degree from ISU is not a required step for an aspiring astronaut, alumni—of which there are only a few hundred in number—are highly regarded and many have gone on to become astronauts, or have found senior positions within space organizations worldwide.
“The individuals with whom I will meet will be those most advanced in their respective fields and will undoubtedly connect me with others who can help me pursue my dream following graduation,” said Ms. Downer. “It will also provide an academic edge, as astronauts are required to be fully educated in all disciplines of space studies, as are many other careers in the industry. ISU is considered the top school internationally for that.”
Chatting with an astronaut
A long conversation with Cmdr. Chris Hadfield a few years ago set Ms. Downer on the path to making that dream a reality. He told her to become educated in as many fields as possible. So, in addition to studying geography and English at Memorial, she took electives in physics, math and even completed the first year of the engineering program. She believes this background will provide a strong foundation for her future studies.
“Over the program’s first year, we’ll be covering a very broad range of topics—everything from robotics to engineering, astrophysics and mathematics,” said Ms. Downer. “It’s something I find very exciting, the idea of being surrounded by academics and students who are as interested in space as me.”
“[Cmdr. Hadfield] said I needed to do something so that when I applied to a space agency, they would already know my name.” — Bethany Downer
Cmdr. Hadfield is also the reason she created her own not-for-profit organization, One Step Shoe Recycling, which collects lightly used and unwanted shoes and redistributes them to people in need in more than 15 countries worldwide. Since forming in the fall of 2015, the organization has accepted more than 13,000 shoes, saving almost 15,000 pounds of waste from Canadian landfills.
“He said I needed to do something so that when I applied to a space agency, they would already know my name,” said Ms. Downer. “I told him about this idea and he encouraged me to run with it. People thought the idea was crazy at first, but it quickly became bigger than I ever thought it could. It was one more example of why I should never put constraints on myself because of my gender, age or geographic origin.”
It’s an insight she is keen to share with the children she interacts with at her job at the Johnson GEO Centre or through the motivational speeches she has given to young girls and women.
“There are very few women in the space industry, certainly not as many as we’d like to have, so when I talk to young women, I take the extra time to enforce the idea that being a woman is an opportunity, not a constraint,” she said. “I’m not someone to say, ‘I told you so.’ I’d rather use my experiences as a means of showing others that you can do it, too.”
Ms. Downer believes the likelihood of finding herself one day working on the International Space Station has multiplied with her acceptance to ISU and is quick to recognize the many opportunities she’s been given at Memorial University that have helped her reach her goals.
“If it wasn’t for Memorial, I wouldn’t have spent three months in Alaska this past summer helping reintroduce wood bison to the state,” she said. “I also wouldn’t have published papers in my undergrad, or gone to Kenya, if it hadn’t been for the research experience I was fortunate to get from the Department of Geography.
“Selection for the ISU program was very competitive and I believe, collectively, my research experience in Alaska, presentation experience in Africa, extracurricular leadership of One Step, competitive grades, meaningful references, and relevant employment experience, all contributed to my acceptance. I am very proud to be able to go forward and represent this university and this province.”