A Space Education

Ruth McAvinia talks about her time on the Space Studies Program at the International Space University in Strasbourg in 2010

Ruth McAviniaAs a child I always watched space-related programmes on television – from Sir Patrick Moore narrating the Giotto mission to Halley’s Comet, to the sad losses of Challenger and Columbia, to science fiction – but space sciences had seemed to me as remote as Outer Space itself.

It all changed in summer 2010 when I spent two months studying at the International Space University in Strasbourg. I had only found out about the course by chance through a Tweet from Enterprise Ireland, but when I was subsequently given funding from the European Space Agency, it proved to be a very lucky break.

The Space Studies Program (previously known as the Summer Session Program) allows participants from diverse backgrounds to learn together and, often more importantly, to make new contacts and friendships within the space industry. As an Arts graduate, I was in a small minority – the majority of the class were engineers, followed by physicists – but ISU loves to bring in people from different disciplines and encourage them to explain and adapt their ways of thinking to work together.

There were 121 students from 29 different countries at SSP, and including faculty and teaching associates, 35 countries were represented. Lectures were held each morning (including some Saturdays!) for the first four weeks, broken up across different departments: Space Business & Management, Space Life Sciences, Space Physical Sciences, Space Policy & Law, Satellite Applications, Space & Society, Space Systems Engineering.

Experts from all over the world presented lectures, workshops and panel discussions. The pace was relentless but enthusiasm seemed to make up for lack of rest and students were always keen to lever in an extra experience to an already full programme – whether it was the group who organized a visit to CERN, or those who went into the Vosges mountains to view the Perseid meteor shower.

All students sat an examination after four weeks, as well as presenting an individual or small group project and taking part in one of three larger team projects. Since much of the material was new to me, I was glad that the lectures and assessments were carried out in English.

Although there was a lot to learn, many of the lectures were designed to be fun. Life sciences frequently lent itself to interesting demonstrations – such as that by an astronaut who had spent a significant time on the International Space Station showing how difficult it is to walk around corners after months of weightlessness (they have to stop, pivot, and then walk forward again or else they tend to walk into walls).

It’s not surprising that one of the rationales for continued human spaceflight is the public relations benefit of someone being able to answer the question, “What’s it like?” Seven astronauts visited the programme over the course of the summer – each with their own perspective on what it means to travel into space, and how it affected their lives on the ground. For some, a spaceflight of less than two weeks’ duration can define their whole lives.

By the end of two months, every student was thoroughly exhausted. Many were returning to jobs at the big space agencies like NASA, ESA or the Canadian Space Agency.

Some of the younger students were plotting their course to join them while others were planning a future in space tourism or space-based research. My idea of space science has changed from watching from afar, to being able to ask friends what they’re working on and how it will change life on Earth. Next year’s SSP will be held at Graz University of Technology in Austria, and I already envy those who will take part.

Enterprise Ireland and the European Space Agency (ESA) jointly offer scholarships for Irish postgraduate third-level science and engineering students to attend programmes at the Summer School Alpbach, Austria and the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France. Enterprise Ireland also supports students to participate in student internships programmes at ESA facilities across Europe. To find out, see the Enterprise Ireland Space Education Scholarship Programme or on Facebook.