Making history: meet Australia’s first female astronaut

Swinburne University space lecturer Kim Ellis will become Australia’s first female astronaut when she blasts off into space in 2023.

Kim Ellis can’t wait to zip up her spacesuit and embark on her first suborbital mission in 2023, travelling more than 80 kilometres from Earth.

Part of the training, though, is not for the faint hearted or the full stomached: it resembles a scene from ‘Top Gun’.

Along with using a spaceflight simulator to learn how to cope with high G-forces and prevent blackout while cruising at 317 kilometres per hour, Kim will strap in for a parabolic flight where an aircraft steeply climbs before entering a 40-second dive. This rollercoaster motion will occur about 25 times mid-flight to get Kim used to the feeling of zero gravity!

Post training, when she eventually blasts off, Kim’s presence on the mission will serve an altruistic purpose: she’ll carry out atmospheric tests that could help provide clues to combat climate change.

While such research experiments are usually performed on the International Space Station orbiting Earth, the waiting list is long and the cost high. By contrast, suborbital missions such as the one Kim will be on are much less expensive, opening the path for small Australian research companies to play a role in human-tended research in space.

That’s pertinent as in 2021 our state launched its Space Industries Snapshot at the 71st International Astronautical Congress in Dubai showing how more than 250 Victorian businesses are generating about $400 million a year in space-related revenue.

To earn her Astronaut Wings, Kim has carved out an extraordinary CV.

As well as teaching STEM at Swinburne, she’s an Australian international lawyer (admitted to the NSW Supreme Court and the International Institute for Space Law) and has put her aerospace research background in metals, mining and mineral processing to use at BHP-Billiton, Rio Tinto and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.

Kim also heads up Australian company International Earth & Space Technology Pty Ltd, collaborating with NASA and other aerospace organisations on space law workshops collectively valued at over $35 million.

Q&A: Kim Ellis 

You’re about to make history as Australia’s first female astronaut. How did that come about? 

Photo of Kim EllisI was selected to train as a PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) Scientist-Astronaut in 2020. It’s a non-profit US research and education program run by the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS) that prepares students to become citizen-scientist astronauts. Unfortunately, flight and spacesuit training was rescheduled multiple times although I completed the academic portion of our astronaut training remotely via Zoom during 2020. I was selected as a 2021 Global Ambassador for PoSSUM 13 – this is a team of female scientist-astronaut candidates.

Why did you want to be involved?

I spend a lot of time sharing my knowledge and expertise with school and university students in Australia. And I wanted to extend my reach and show Aussies have a lot of expertise to share.

We know space benefits our everyday lives in everything from satellite-enabled GPS to mobile phones. But tell us more: why is it a good idea for Victoria to invest in the space industry?

Space infrastructure supports modern day life from banking, weather, agriculture applications to national security applications. Being able to influence policy and infrastructure and services allocation for Victorians is critical to future state economic growth and development. And it’s also critical to ensure that Victorians have access to space services, now and in the future.

How do you work with the Victorian Government?

I deliver next level consulting support for Australian space companies seeking to join the global space supply chain through trade missions and education.

By teaching space technology and law, you’re playing your part in boosting space access for young people. Can you elaborate?

My role in advancing the next generation’s access to space is simple: to provide equitable, democratised access to new concepts and facilitate industry connection for students and educators. By training for suborbital spaceflight, I’m demonstrating the idea that anybody can play a role in the space industry. All you have to do is to decide that is what you want!

You’re also working to encourage more young people, particularly women, into STEM careers. How?

I have a number of online STEM engagement programs currently being developed. These resources are a follow-on for the early career mentorship program which I established in 2019. Sharing such resources will help Victoria reach ongoing jobs capability and upskilling growth targets for space.

Why do you love space?

Space is vast and mostly unexplored by humans; I’m fascinated by the universe and the secrets it holds. I want to find the key which unlocks the door to a greater knowledge about that universe, for all of us.

Victoria’s space industry

By 2040, the global space industry is forecast to be worth more than $1 trillion.

This presents a massive opportunity for Victoria’s burgeoning technology ecosystem specialising in the likes of cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, quantum computing plus data augmentation and virtual reality.

It’s also why the Victorian Government has announced to the international space community that our state is open for business.

In October 2021, the Victorian Government launched its inaugural Space Industries Snapshot at the International Astronautical Conference in Dubai, which details our state’s strengths as a space industry leader, capable of delivering on Australia’s space goals.

From manufacturing custom cables for Airbus (Europe’s largest space company) to Nova Rover developing the next generation of Mars rovers, Victoria’s space economy is ready for blast off.

Find out more at Victorian Space Industries.