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Within her reach

Year at International Space University brings alumna closer to the stars

Student Life

By Kelly Foss

It’s been a busy year for Bethany Downer.

Last summer Ms. Downer, B.Sc.’16, moved to Strasbourg, France, to begin an M.Sc. degree at the International Space University (ISU).

As one of 40 individuals chosen from thousands of applicants from around the world, her goal was to get one step closer to her childhood dream: becoming an astronaut.

Making the impossible possible

For the past 12 months, Ms. Downer’s academic studies at ISU have included a broad range of fields within the space domain, including engineering, science, business, law, economics, humanities and satellite applications.

“One morning, we would be conducting an experiment with the school’s drop tower to assess the conditions of microgravity, and the next we could be having a lecture about orbital mechanics or producing a legal treaty for the creation of a theoretical international moon base,” she said. “The program allowed me to explore aspects of the industry that I never thought possible.”

Lectures were delivered by university faculty and guest speakers from all over the world, and across all disciplines.

Ms. Downer was able to meet astronauts and leading industry representatives on a daily basis in what she says was a motivating academic environment, complemented by field trips to agency and industry facilities, including those in France, Germany and Luxembourg.

Bethany Downer
Bethany Downer is determined to go to space one day.
Photo: Submitted

Space transportation

As part of the graduate program, Ms. Downer completed an individual thesis project in the domain of reusable launch vehicles.

To date, a fully reusable launch system has not been realized. However, due to advancements in materials, engine and aerospace technology, Ms. Downer says reusable launch systems are under steady development. SpaceX, for example, actively reuses the first stages of its rockets.

“My project conducted a parametric cost estimation of reusable launch vehicles to compare the innovation and investment strategies of these commercial projects and provide insight on their prospective market potential,” she said.

“This was the first study to compare the cost estimations of the reusable vehicle designs that are currently in development.”

Assessing impact of technology

A special component of ISU’s master’s program is a group thesis project.

As lead editor on a team of 22 individuals from 13 different nationalities, Ms. Downer co-operatively produced an extensive report, executive summary, research poster and conference paper during the course of the year.

The project assessed the impact of new and upcoming space-based and space-derived technology solutions on the corporate social responsibility practices of the oil and gas sector.

Her team then recommended ways the oil and gas sector could improve its work through the implementation of various space technologies.

As a result of the project, Ms. Downer was one of three class representatives to attend the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, in September.

“My [conference] highlight was surely shaking hands with Bill Nye the Science Guy . . . and witnessing Elon Musk reveal his new plans for colonizing Mars.” — Bethany Downer

The conference is the largest gathering of representatives of the space industry, ranging from students, professionals, agency heads, and senior executives of the world’s space agencies.

“In addition to presenting and publishing three papers at the congress, my highlight was surely shaking hands with Bill Nye the Science Guy, following his presentation on solar sail technology, and witnessing Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, reveal his new plans for colonizing Mars.”

From May to August, Ms. Downer completed an internship at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) newest facility, the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications in Harwell, England, also known as the U.K. Space Gateway.

“Working in the communications department, I assisted the agency in communicating its science and technology programs to the United Kingdom, and had the pleasure of working alongside famed British ESA astronaut, Tim Peake,” Ms. Downer said.

Engaging aspiring astronauts

Representing the ESA at public events was also a high point.

Engaging with the many young aspiring astronauts, knowing they may well be members of the generation that one day sets foot on Mars, was inspiring to the Memorial alumna.

Bethany Downer with child
Bethany Downer represented the European Space Agency at public events where she engaged with young aspiring astronauts.
Photo: Submitted

“I love this area of outreach because I remain intellectually challenged and engaged with the new data and technological advancements being developed, which I then find ways to effectively interpret to the public and various audiences,” she said.

This passion for the communication of the industry’s science and technology to the greater public inspired her to create Reaching Space Science.

Through the interpretation of various aspects of the sector — from dark matter to rocket propulsion — Reaching Space Science tries to make the fascinating advancements of the space world understood and valued by all.

Youth ambassador

Ms. Downer also continues to serve as an ambassador of The Mars Generation and has undertaken roles with the Space Generation Advisory Council for the United Nations.

“I am very grateful this work has allowed me to develop a platform, in which I can educate and inspire those not involved in the industry, to not only be fascinated by the space sector, but to value it for the services it provides us every day,” she said.

Ms. Downer is currently living in Leiden as she considers various prospects within the European space sector in The Netherlands, where the European Space Research and Technology Centre is located. She still works actively with The Mars Generation and the Space Generation Advisory Council, while managing Reaching Space Science.

On Monday, Dec. 11, Ms. Downer will hold a public lecture at the Johnson GEO Centre in St. John’s to discuss exciting new projects in the space sector and a few of her personal industry insights. The lecture, titled Space Exploration’s New Generation, will take place at 7 p.m.

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