Time out with Beth Jens: an astronaut in the making

Tuesday 17 July 2012

By Edwina Hall
Kairos Catholic Journal

BETH Jens has space in her sights. The 27-year-old former Sacred Heart College Geelong student, who hails from Torquay on Victoria’s Surf Coast, has wanted to be an astronaut for as long as she can remember; a yearning she suspects was sparked after hearing an Apollo astronaut speak in Geelong about his experience of the moon.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history as the first men to land on the moon on 20 July 1969; Beth hopes to be the first Australian woman to make it to space. She spoke to Kairos Catholic Journal’s Edwina Hall about her journey to get there.

Why do you want to be an astronaut?
I always find this question really tough. It is what I have always wanted to do and what I feel I am meant to do. I could say that I am motivated by the challenge of getting there, or the desire to have an amazing adventure; I could also say that I love the research that is being done on the international space station, or that I love the thought of being a kind of ambassador for the world in exploring space and helping to break down international barriers. It could also be that I feel that it is a part of my human nature to take risks and explore.
I think it is a little bit of all of the above. I have just been really lucky in that what started as a crazy dream when I was young has so far remained the right path for me and I’m still just as excited by it as I was when I was 10.

What is it about space and astrophysics that interests you?
The challenge of the unknown, the thrill of exploring undiscovered worlds, the thought that with each discovery we are contributing to mankind’s body of knowledge and the hope that the understanding we gain might help us become better custodians of our own planet.

How does one become an astronaut? What stage are you at on your path to get there?
There are many different paths to get to space. I have decided that, like previous Australian astronauts, I would like to get there as a NASA astronaut. There are two types of astronauts: the pilots and the mission specialists. I wish to apply to be a mission specialist. NASA selects mission specialists from a wide range of fields, such as education, medicine, engineering and science. Most applicants have a PhD, which I am in the early stages of completing in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. I recently passed my qualifying exams at Stanford and had news that the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory will fund the next few years of my study.

Once I finish the PhD I will try to work for NASA and will need to become a US citizen before I can apply to become an astronaut. In terms of health requirements, I try to remain active and healthy and just hope that when the time comes, I am one of the lucky people who meet the physical requirements to become an astronaut.

Tell me about your life and studies.
I am currently studying under the joint guidance of Professor Brian Cantwell and Professor Scott Hubbard. The PhD program in the United States requires that I complete coursework, so I continue to enrol in some subjects as well as complete research. The courses vary a lot; most are theoretical and involve a lot of maths and physics but some are very hands-on and involve physically getting into the machine shop. My favourite class to date was a series of three courses where we designed, built and tested a rocket. We are actually planning to do our final rounds of tests for this rocket in the next week or so.

How do you feel your education has helped to mould you into the person you are today?
Sacred Heart College was very good at supporting its students, encouraging us to be individuals and to pursue our interests, whatever they might have been. At Sacred Heart I developed a love of science and mathematics that I attribute to the amazing teachers at the school. The time I spent in the Sacred Heart rowing squad also played a huge part in making me the person that I am today. Through rowing and the fabulous coaches, specifically Leisa and Stuart Wilson, I learned the importance of hard work, perseverance and working in a team.

The time I spent at Newman College were some of the best years of my life so far. I met so many talented and inspiring people at college, many of whom I still count as some of my closest friends. Aside from just being a lot of fun, the time I spent at Newman also helped me to develop an appreciation for academic pursuits and research, and my time on the general committee gave me an appreciation of the challenges of leadership.

How has growing up in a Catholic family shaped you?
My family has always been an enormous source of support. My parents and siblings have been incredible in motivating me to pursue my dream and have often reminded me that with enough determination it is possible to achieve whatever I set my mind to. I grew up in a very large extended Catholic family, with about 70 first cousins. The hardest part about studying in the States is having to spend such a long time away from all of these people I care about. However, I am fortunate in that I know that I have that large support base waiting for me at home.

What words of wisdom would you offer to others who are trying to follow their dreams?
I would tell them to never give up, no matter how insurmountable the obstacles may appear to be. I think that with some luck and plenty of determination every dream is achievable. I would also advise people to enjoy the experience. I have loved every step that I have made towards space so far, so I know that I will have no regrets even if I am ultimately unsuccessful in my plans to get to space.

How much harder is it for a woman to make it to space, and particularly an Australian woman?
I have not felt that being a female has hindered me in my plans to become an astronaut but I definitely feel challenged as an Australian trying to get to space. Typically, astronauts are funded by their country of citizenship. However, the Australian Government has not directly funded anyone to go to space, and so previous Australian astronauts have become US citizens.

Trying to work in the United States’ aerospace industry as a foreign national, which is the first step towards a green card and citizenship, is made extremely challenging because of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations). Almost all NASA centres and industry will not accept resumes from foreigners because of these regulations. I have been very fortunate in the support that I have received from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in negotiating contracts so that I can work with them whilst adhering to ITAR.

What do you imagine it will be like flying to space?
I imagine that it will be both peaceful and awe-inspiring. I went skydiving a couple of years ago and was amazed by how peaceful I found that experience. I have spent my entire life working towards space, and thus can scarcely imagine how much more fulfilling it will be to get there. I also imagine that if I am successful in becoming an astronaut I will feel a huge sense of responsibility and be focused on making the most of the rare opportunity.

In 2008 Beth completed a Bachelor of
Engineering (Mechanical) and a Bachelor
of Science (Physics) at the University of
Melbourne. In 2009 she took her first step
towards realising her dreams, spending
two months at the NASA Ames Research
Centre and completing the International
Space University’s Space Studies Program.
Since then, Beth has completed a Master
of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford
University supported by the Australian
Fulbright Scholarship in Science and
Engineering, and a Rotary Ambassadorial
Scholarship. She is undertaking a PhD as
an Amelia Earhart Fellow and as a JPL
SURP Graduate Fellow. On semester break
at the time of writing, Beth is completing
her second internship at NASA.

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