Science

A scientist from Wollongong took a call from France last month that put her on a course to become the first Australian woman in orbit. By Bianca Nogrady.

The woman who could represent Australia in space

Astronaut Meganne Christian at Concordia Station, Antarctica.
Astronaut Meganne Christian at Concordia Station, Antarctica.
Credit: Meganne Christian

“I’ve always thought astronaut would be the coolest job in the world.”

Dr Meganne Christian looks pretty relaxed for someone who has just achieved that childhood dream. But speaking via Zoom from Paris, barely 48 hours after she was announced as one of the European Space Agency’s new astronauts, the irrepressible smile on Christian’s face gives away how excited she is.

We should be just as excited, because the 35-year-old is set to be Australia’s first woman – and only the fourth Australian overall – to orbit Earth.

On November 23, the European Space Agency announced its first new class of astronauts since 2009 – 17 individuals from across Europe and the United Kingdom who will crew the International Space Station and future missions to the moon and beyond. Eight are women, and one is a former Paralympian who will work to identify and overcome the barriers to space flight for people with physical disabilities.

Five of the astronaut class have begun training immediately as career astronauts, while the remaining 12 – including Christian, who holds Australian, British, Italian and New Zealand nationality but represents Britain in the astronaut group – are astronauts-in-reserve.

So how did a girl from Wollongong end up a step away from the International Space Station?

“I’ve always been interested in science, and I think I get that from my dad,” Christian says. Her father is a chemist, now retired, and initially Christian’s love of science followed that familiar pathway, via an engineering degree and on to a PhD in industrial chemistry at UNSW Sydney.

She then moved to Italy to work with the Graphene Flagship, a pan-European research collaboration focused on developing applications for a unique form of carbon consisting of one-atom-thick layers arranged in a lattice. But space also intrigued her. Christian recalls being fascinated by black holes from a young age, and starstruck by an astronaut who visited her primary school.

Her passion was supercharged in high school when Christian took part in a Future Problem Solving Program in the United States. It included a tour of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That experience lit the spark, but she resigned herself to the assumption that space travel was an impossible dream. “I didn’t think that it was something that I could do, because Australia didn’t have a space agency, let alone a human spaceflight program.”

So she did the next best thing and went to work on “White Mars”, the French–Italian Concordia research facility in Antarctica that is so remote that residents are completely cut off from outside help for nine months of the year. Christian did two stints there as a scientist in charge of atmospheric physics and meteorology.

It’s as close to being on the International Space Station as you can get without leaving the ground – so much so that the European Space Agency uses it as a testing ground for the effects of isolation on the human body and mind. “They taught us to use a simulator to dock the Soyuz on the International Space Station,” Christian says. “We had to do that every month and see whether we got better or worse, to understand how the astronauts’ brains might work over the course of a long-term mission.”

Being so isolated, and having to work as part of a team – including running each other’s scientific experiments – might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Christian loved it. “I decided, ‘Okay, this is what I really want to do, and this is what astronauts do on the International Space Station’,” she says. “That’s when it crystallised for me.”

Christian’s work on graphene also brought her into the realm of space science. Graphene’s unique structure gives it incredible properties: it’s extremely thin, light, strong, flexible, and very good at conducting electricity and heat. Among other things, she’s been exploring how to create three-dimensional graphene structures – a sort of graphene foam – that can be used to improve the efficiency of cooling devices on satellites.

Given its application in satellites, Christian had to test her graphene material in the closest thing to the low-gravity environment of Earth’s orbit: parabolic flights. These are stomach-churning rides in which a specially equipped plane flies up and down at 45-degree angles, sweeping passengers up for about 20 seconds of microgravity at the top of the parabola, and crushing them with about 2Gs at the bottom. A single flight might repeat this cycle about 30 times.

Christian did these flights twice, conducting her experiments in the frantic burst of microgravity at the apex of each cycle. “You can’t really describe what weightlessness feels like,” she says. “It’s not exactly what you feel on a roller-coaster, simply because it lasts for so much longer.” The first time was a breeze. The second time she was violently ill, which is apparently par for the course even for experienced astronauts on parabolic flights.

It was during this time that the European Space Agency issued its call for astronaut candidates, and Christian answered. It took more than six months before she heard that she was one of the 1400 or so people – out of more than 22,000 applicants – who made it through to the next round.

That round involved firstly some cognitive, motor and personality tests, similar to those used for commercial pilots. Then Christian underwent intense questioning by psychologists, both by herself and within groups. “They’re trying to get an idea for how well you work in a team; that’s probably one of the most important things,” she says. “They’re trying to get an idea whether you can be both a leader and a follower, whether you can handle the pressure, whether you’re in it for the fame, and also, at the same time, whether you can handle the fame.”

That stage winnowed the group down to about 100 people, who went into a week of medical testing. Those who made it through then faced a panel interview with people from the European Space Agency, including former astronauts. “They were really putting you under pressure to try and see how you would react in situations with journalists, with politicians, with kids, whether you can be a good ambassador for the agency,” she says. There were lots of hypothetical situations, including operational ones. This was the hardest stage for Christian, “because they really, really pushed you a lot”. Finally, there was a “relaxed” interview with the director general of the agency, Josef Aschbacher.

But at no point did Christian feel confident about her chances. “The impostor syndrome runs very high,” she says. “I was nervous in every stage.”

She was riding her bike home from work when her mobile rang, and she saw the prefix was +33, the international calling code for France. “I was very careful to make sure I got off my bike before I answered,” she laughs. It was the director general, inviting her to Paris to be part of the 2022 astronaut class.

Being an astronaut-in-reserve means Christian isn’t scheduled for a mission yet, but she is in waiting for an assignment that will kick off her intensive training. In the meantime, she continues her work as a materials science researcher at the National Research Council of Italy, while also contributing to outreach as an ambassador for the European Space Agency.

There will be basic training each year, “to get everybody on to a minimum level across all sorts of different disciplines,” she says. The reserve crew will also be required to go through the medical certification process each year. Then it’s a waiting game.

While Christian waits to be listed for a mission, another Australian woman – Kim Ellis Hayes – could pip her to be the first Australian woman in space, as Ellis is scheduled for a suborbital scientific mission with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences in 2023.

“So yeah, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster,” Christian says. “But I’m really happy, I’m really excited for what the future holds.”

And despite impostor syndrome and nerves, Christian is fuelled by a clear sense of purpose, of what makes her who she is and what she wants out of life. “I have this desire to challenge myself and to explore and to be adventurous and to always be curious, which I think is what a scientist is, and also what an astronaut is.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "Meganne’s moonshot".

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