Nfld. & Labrador

Long odds for a long journey: St. John's student takes next step in astronaut dream

At just 22 years of age, Bethany Downer hopes she can become Newfoundland and Labrador's first astronaut.
Bethany Downer answered the Canadian Space Agencies open call for astronauts. (Submitted)

At just 22 years of age, Bethany Downer hopes to be Newfoundland and Labrador's first astronaut.

The St. John's native and recent Memorial University graduate is one of 46 prospective space cadets from the province, having answered the Canadian Space Agencies open call for astronauts.

It's the first time since 2008 the agency has appealed to the public and opened its doors for applicants to submit a resume and cover letter.

"It's something you have to put everything into," Downer said of the application. "It's hard to sell yourself for a job title like that. Just all of the qualities they are looking for, it's a pretty tasking employment."

Despite her young age, Downer's resume is stacked with requisites. She attended a pre-college astrophysics program at the Ivy League's Brown University, holds a bachelor's degree in science and has been accepted to start a master's degree at the International Space University in the fall.

The elite school, stationed in Strasbourg, France, boasts Buzz Aldrin as its chancellor.

Swimming skills are an asset

On top of her education, Downer was also a national-stream synchronized swimmer. Since the easiest way to simulate a lack of gravity on Earth is in the water, swimming skills are an important trait for astronauts-in-training.

Another major requirement is to be curious — something Downer believes is one of her strongest assets.

"I think it's been something I've had ever since I was a kid. Whenever I'm taught something, I always question it or always want to know why that is or why we don't know something. I think that's why I've been drawn to the space industry. There's so much we don't know."

At her age, Downer knows she is a long shot. The CSA will select two candidates from a pool which already has close to 4,000 applicants and grows every day. Still, she's excited to see how far into the process she can make it this time around.

Lifelong dream

Downer can't remember a time when she didn't want to be an astronaut. She's attended a launch with her family in Florida, and even had a one-on-one with former International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield in 2014.

I think that's why I've been drawn to the space industry. There's so much we don't know- Bethany Downer

His advice to her: build your resume in a way nobody else has. A tall order, but one she tackled by founding One Step Shoe Recycling — a non-profit, redistributing shoes to 17 countries worldwide.

"It grew really, really big, really fast," she said. "I think this was something that not only helped me with my managerial skills, but also cooperatively as well and help me develop some of the competencies that are necessary for the teamwork that's required from the Canadian Space Agency."

When she heard about the CSA's open call, she "didn't even second-guess it. Not even a question." 

Even if things don't work out this time, Downer will head to France to continue her education. While most people give up on their childhood dreams, she doesn't plan on settling for an earthly job any time soon.

"Everyone reminds me of the unrealistic nature of this type of work and the industry itself. I think it's things like that that motivate me more. The fact it should have faded away long ago was a strong hint to me that it's something I should pursue professionally."


Ryan Cooke is a journalist in St. John's.