10 August 2023

From the Gong to space, via Antarctica - Meganne's 'extraordinary' life

| Eileen Mulligan
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Dr Meganne Christian pictured at a presentation.

Dr Meganne Christian, one of the European Space Agency’s reserve astronauts, will speak on 21 August at The Illawarra Grammar School. Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg.

When Meganne Christian was a fresh-faced Kindy kid at The Illawarra Grammar School, she never dreamed she would become Australia’s first female astronaut.

Thirty years later, Meganne is a reserve astronaut for the European Space Agency, has wintered in Antarctica, lives in the UK and has met royalty.

Meganne has returned to Australia for a series of talks in Sydney, Canberra and her old school, TIGS, about all things space.

Meganne is a citizen of the world. Her parents are from New Zealand, she was born in the UK and the family came to Australia when she was five.

Looking back at her five-year-old self, Meganne said she never expected life to turn out this way despite plenty of encouragement from her parents and teachers.

“At various times I wanted to be an artist, an actor, a marine biologist, an architect, and a diplomat,” Meganne said.

“While I always thought that being an astronaut would be the coolest job in the world, I don’t think I ever seriously considered it as a career path.

“One of the best things about my experience at TIGS was the opportunity to do a wide range of extracurricular activities. In particular, I participated in the Future Problem Solving Program, which taught me a new way of thinking, how to work in a team and support others, and to believe in myself.”

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Meganne’s breathtaking career includes a PhD in materials science from the University of NSW which led to her working at the National Research Council in Italy.

From there she wintered in Antarctica in 2019 as part of a crew of 13 at the French-Italian base, Concordia, in the centre of Antarctica, a place so inhospitable it is called “white Mars”. Meganne worked outside every day in temperatures as low as -104 degrees Celsius to carry out research in atmospheric physics and meteorology.

“But the emotional challenge was tougher,” Meganne said. “One hundred days without seeing the sun took a toll on sleep patterns and amplified any emotions, whether positive or negative. That meant it was easy to become irritable and we had to learn when to let issues slide and when to confront them. Fortunately, our team got along pretty well.”

During her time in Antarctica, Meganne was taught, using a simulator, to dock the International Space Station with the Russian Soyuz capsule. So it seemed natural her next giant step from “white Mars” would be outer space.

After a gruelling selection process, Meganne was chosen last year from 22,500 applicants to join the European Space Agency’s astronaut class of 17 as a reserve astronaut – the first recruitment since 2008.

Meganne has recently moved from Italy to the UK to take a position at the UK Space Agency.

“People assume that I spend all my time training to go to space, but as a member of the European Space Agency astronaut reserve, I continue with my regular job until a mission opportunity arises. Only then will I drop everything and dive into intensive training,” she said.

Her regular job is to evaluate the future of space exploration in an increasingly commercialised industry, and to inspire the next generation of scientists and space enthusiasts.

In June, Meganne was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet King Charles for the launch of his Astra Carta, an initiative to promote space sustainability.

“It was an honour to meet (King Charles) and he was interested to learn that I represent three Commonwealth countries.”

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Meganne also rubbed shoulders at that event with rock royalty – Brian May, astrophysicist and lead guitarist with a crazy little band called Queen.

“I’m a huge fan of Queen, so needless to say I was excited to meet him,” Meganne said. “I was struck by how humble he is, despite his incredible achievements in both music and astrophysics.”

Meanwhile, back to Earth, Meganne’s visit to Australia this month is hosted and sponsored by the University of NSW and the Powerhouse Museum.

We mere mortals can see her on ABC TV’s Q&A program on Monday 14 August as part of Science Week and, of course, she will make time to visit her old school on 21 August.

“I hope to inspire them to follow their dreams but at the same time look out for any interesting opportunities that might come their way, even if they’re not on their traditional career path, because these are the things that will enrich their lives and broaden their perspectives,” she said.

“I hope to show that I am not an extraordinary person but that I have had the chance to do some extraordinary things.”

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