Who is Australia’s First Astronaut?

Who is Australia’s First Astronaut?

Australia has a rich history in space. From the development of necessary solar panels that make interstellar study possible, to the part our brightest minds play in the operation of space programs, such as the Parkes Radio Telescope (if you haven’t, you should watch The Dish), our nation plays a crucial part in space exploration. But the name of our first astronaut might be lost on you. Americans like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin get all the fame, but who was the first person from Down Under to go to space?

It’s complicated. Recent headlines have suggested that Katherine Bennell-Pegg is the first Australian astronaut. While Katherine is amazing, and I’m looking forward to her first mission, there are some technicalities to that distinction. Allow me to explain.

Who was Australia’s first Astronaut?

Technically speaking, Australia has a couple of ‘first’ astronauts. As noted by the Australian Space Agency’s director of communications Keegan Buzza, Katherine Bennell-Pegg is the first certified Aussie astronaut. When she goes to space, she will be the first to do so under the Australian flag. She was recently certified by the European Space Agency.

“Having her under the Australian flag opens up opportunities for our industry that otherwise wouldn’t be there,” Buzza said on ABC Radio.

Certification is obviously no small feat – intense zero-g, survival, and scuba diving training are among the intense procedures that Bennell-Pegg had to undergo for a year to get certified for the International Space Station, and missions beyond.

Buzza noted that there were, however, two other Aussies that have been to space in the past. As explained on ABC Radio, the first was Aussie-born Paul Scully-Power, who went to space as part of a NASA mission (with an American flag and U.S. citizenship), back in the 1980s. He was also the first astronaut to launch with a beard.

Doctor Andrew Thomas was also an Australian-born astronaut who went to space with NASA in the late 90s and early 2000s. Like Scully-Power, he did so with an American flag on his sleeve.

But obviously, none of this takes away from the magnitude of what Katherine Bennell-Pegg is about to accomplish here. She’s the first female Aussie astronaut. She is the front-running Aussie to go to space next, and is likely to be the first Aussie astronaut to embark on an Australia-led mission. That’s to be celebrated.

Congratulations, Bernell Pegg!

Image: Katherine Bernell-Pegg, The Department of Industry, Science and Resources

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