Eyes on the Stars

ESO astronomer Suzanna Randall on what it’s like to train as an astronaut

27 April 2018
What you’ll discover in this blog post:
  • What the Astronautin programme is
  • The kind of training required to work on the International Space Station
  • How Suzanna Randall is managing to be both an astronomer and an astronaut candidate

Over the last 40 years, 12 German men have journeyed into space — but no German women. The initiative Astronautin wants to change that. The ambitious programme is currently training two competitively-selected candidates with the goal of sending one on a research mission to the International Space Station. One of these incredible women is Suzanna Randall, an ESO astronomer based at our headquarters in Munich, Germany. We chatted to her about this amazing opportunity.
Interview with:
Suzanna Randall
Tags:

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself! Where did you grow up? How did you end up at ESO?

A: I was born in Cologne, in the west of Germany. I grew up there and then I went to university in the UK, at University College London, and then I did my PhD in Montreal, Canada. I’ve actually been at ESO since right after finishing my PhD. I first came here on a fellowship in 2006. I was an ESO Fellow first for three years, then I had an unpaid associate position for one year working for quality control at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and now I’ve been working with ALMA for eight years, in the ALMA regional centre.

Q: What’s your role at ALMA?

A: Well, over the past eight years I’ve been doing very different things. At the moment I’m a so-called "sub-system scientist" for a piece of software that is used to assess the quality of ALMA’s data and to make sure that astronomers around the world get the data they requested from the observatory. I also do shifts as the duty astronomer at the telescope, up on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile, as well as general responding to user queries and helping them prepare their observations.

Then (in theory!) 20% of my time is spent doing science. I actually just got a referee report so I’m in a bit of a bad mood — it’s very long, filled with things to review and fix, not what you want to get on a Monday morning! The paper was based on VLT data using FORS, VIMOS and FLAMES. My work is essentially looking at very hot, compact stars and studying the way they pulsate. Recently, I’ve moved to looking at stars in globular clusters, specifically at their atmospheres. We’re trying work out how these stars formed and evolved — basically we don’t know where they came from. It’s a fascinating topic.

Q: And now alongside your research, you’re training to be an astronaut. What drove you to apply for the Astronautin program?

Everyone always asks “why did you apply?” and my answer is “why didn’t you apply?"

A: For me, there was no question, really. Everyone always asks "why did you apply?" and my answer is "why didn’t you apply?" I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, that’s been a childhood dream, but I was drawn to the Astronautin programme in particular because I like the fact that it’s inspiring German women and girls to go into areas where there aren’t many women. It just jumped out at me — I happened to see the advert online and I was like "okay, I have to go for this".

I also like the fact that it’s a short mission because I do want to keep doing astronomy and research at ESO, but the programme is just a couple of years in total, including the mission and training, and then that would be it. And, of course, the whole time being a role model for girls and women.

Q: Your training schedule must be hectic. Are you still continuing to work at ESO?

A: Yes I am — I’m very happy at ESO and luckily they are happy to continue paying me! I have reduced my working hours...I’ve gone down to 50% duties and 20% science, which means in theory 30% of my duties can now be used for the Astronautin programme. This includes both the outreach work, like giving interviews and going to events, and the training as well. I can manage that all for now, but once the training begins full-time I’ll have to take leave of absence for a year or two. But I plan to come back to ESO afterwards because I still want to work as an astronomer here.

The other issue that we are facing is that funding is still a bit precarious for the Astronautin programme. Though we’ve received lots of enthusiastic support, the programme isn’t funded by a state-run space agency, so we’re still looking for companies to support us with sponsorship contracts where they get media attention in return for their support. So from that perspective, it’s really great that for now, ESO is continuing to employ me and being really flexible to allow me to train. ESO’s Director General, Xavier Barcons, is extremely supportive and enthusiastic about it, and for now, I have this deal that I can spend a big portion of my working time on the Astronautin programme.

Q: So what exactly will your training involve?

A: There are multiple parts to our training. At the moment, as I said, we’re kind of limited by funding, because lots of the more exciting things are quite expensive. But I was lucky enough to do parabolic flights right at the beginning of my training, where I got to experience weightlessness, which was amazing.

For now, I’m focusing on getting my Private Pilot Licence (PPL), which I’m going to do around Munich. I’m looking for a school right now. I also need to read up loads — everyone thinks it’s all going to be exciting survival training, but actually, a lot of astronaut training is reading up on space exploration and the systems of the International Space Station — all the theory! Plus, I need to learn Russian. I’m planning to learn it by getting some basics here and then going to Russia for periods of a month or two and get intensive language tuition.

Once we know who we’ll be flying with up to the ISS, we’ll go to either the US or Moscow to train on the actual modules. They have replicas of all the ISS modules and components to do all the safety and practical training on. In total, the basic training is about a year to a year and a half, full-time.

Q: Aside from your research, what do you do in your spare time?

Everyone thinks it’s all going to be exciting survival training, but actually, a lot of astronaut training is reading

A: One thing I really enjoy is paragliding. I actually started paragliding in Chile! When I was an ESO Fellow, as part of my programme I had to spend a certain number of nights at the VLT every year, working as a support astronomer. After one of my shifts back in 2008, I visited Iquique in northern Chile, which is one of the best places in the world for paragliding, and that’s where I learned. I’ve done a lot of paragliding in Chile, because I’m often there for work, as well as of course in the mountains near Munich.

Q: Will this experience with an extreme sport help in the Astronautin programme?

A: I think it came in handy in the application process because they were looking for someone who is a little bit adventurous, who is used to taking risks in a calculated way. As part of my training now, I have to get my PPL, so my paragliding experience might come in handy there, but officially a paragliding license is not something that you need to be an astronaut.

Q: What about your work as an astronomer at ESO — do you think that will help?

A: Well, astronauts are often people with a scientific background, so my experience in astrophysics was definitely a bonus. I’ve spent a lot of my time at both ESO and other telescopes, working under stress with international teams in a very isolated environment, doing other people’s experiments...that’s definitely going to come in handy on the ISS. I mean, of course, it will be in space rather than at ALMA (even though ALMA is quite close to space anyway!) but it’s a similar kind of work.

Q: What was it like to meet so many other extraordinary women during the selection process?

A: It was great! During the first phase of the psychological and cognitive tests, I met half the remaining applicants — 45 women from all areas of science. There were doctors, pilots, physicists, engineers... It was actually amazing to be in a room full of so many women who were highly-qualified and also just really nice and interesting people to get to know. One of the most important qualities of an astronaut is the ability to communicate, meaning that you can’t just be a brilliant scientist who’s stuck in their office and can’t speak to others — that wouldn’t really be that useful in this job.

So the other applicants were all fantastic, and what I took away from the experience is that this myth of intense female competition is just that — a myth! The environment was really supportive the whole time, and now we have a big network of previous candidates who are always keen to know what’s happening.

Q: You’ll be competing against meteorologist Insa Thiele-Eich for a single place on a space mission. Are you on good terms with her?

A: Well it is a competition, but also it’s always done this way: every mission has a prime crew and a backup crew, and each astronaut has a one-to-one backup in case anything happens. The thing with astronauts is that even if you get a cold a few days before the mission, that’s it — you’re out, and your backup flies. The idea is that they’ll train both of us right to the very end, and then at some point several months before the mission, it’ll be decided who is the prime and who is the backup. Then the prime will fly, unless something unexpected happens.

Insa and I are actually on really good terms. Right now our main mission is one that requires teamwork: to get the mission off the ground and to get funding to make sure that one of us can fly. That’s by far the most important thing right now. I’d much rather see Insa go into space than have the project fail completely due to lack of funding.

Of course, at some point there will be an element of competition — we both want to be the prime candidate — but we’re friends and are very supportive towards each other. I’m often asking how she’s getting on with getting her pilot’s licence because she’s been on the programme for longer than me, so at the moment she’s a bit ahead.

Q: What will you do if you miss out on the spot?

A: I’m seeing the training as an opportunity. Even if I don’t get to fly it won’t be wasted time. I mean, getting my PPL and doing parabolic flights are cool experiences anyway, whether it goes anywhere or not. Of course I want to be chosen and go up to the ISS, but if not then I’ll have learnt a lot and maybe there’ll also be future opportunities. Once you’ve got the astronaut training, if they’re looking for more astronauts you’ve obviously got an advantage.

I’m seeing the training as an opportunity. Even if I don’t get to fly it won’t be wasted time.

I’m very lucky that I can do this training with essentially zero risk, since ESO have said that even if I take a year off I can still come back.

Q: What excites you most about being part of the Astronautin programme?

A: What — apart from the actual flight? Obviously, the "going to space" thing is one of the big attractions! Aside from that, it’s getting to be a role model and having the opportunity to do completely new things that motivates me. For example, next week I’m meant to be giving a motivational speech, which I’ve never done before. I’ve done scientific presentations and even outreach presentations, but the opportunity to interact in that way with the public has been very interesting. Very challenging, but also very exciting.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers, particularly to young women who are interested in STEM?

A: I would say: if you want to do something, do it. Even if you think that you can’t, just do it.

For me, I always wanted to be an astronaut but thought it wasn’t realistic. Everyone always told me: "whatever, you’re never going to be an astronaut". So my backup was astronomy — I read about the ESO telescopes when I was a kid. Chile was amazingly exotic at that time for me, and I thought, "I want to visit those telescopes" and made plans with my friend to go. I never thought I’d actually end up working at ESO! I mean, I’m from a small town in Germany near Cologne, and I was never that great at school in maths or physics. So I didn’t think I’d ever work for ESO, first of all, and now, potentially becoming an astronaut...I never thought that could be a possibility!

I guess what I want to say is that even if you think it isn’t possible to make your dreams into a reality, don’t give up — you never know when you're going to get a lucky break.

Numbers in this article

0

The number of German women who have been to space (as of April 2018).

12

The number of German men who have been to space (as of April 2018).

30 Suzanna can spend 30% of her working time on the Astronautin programme.

2008

The year Suzanna learned to paraglide.

Biography Suzanna Randall

Suzanna Randall is an astrophysicist based at ESO Headquarters in Garching, near Munich in Germany. Born in Cologne, she studied astrophysics in the UK before graduating from the University of Montreal in Canada with a PhD in astrophysics. Randall began her ESO career as an ESO Fellow and is now involved with the ALMA project, a global partnership that operates the world's largest radio telescope in the Chilean Atacama desert. Randall also studies the evolution of pulsating, blue, subdwarf stars. In 2018 she was selected as one of two final candidates in the Astronautin programme.