Astrophysicist plans ambitious life challenge to reach for the stars

Gillian Finnerty, astrophysicist: at Sheffield University's observatory
Gillian Finnerty, astrophysicist: at Sheffield University's observatory

The first woman in space, Sheffield’s Helen Sharman, was selected for her space mission in 1991 thanks to her scientific and educational background.

“She’s awesome,” said 20-year-old Sheffield University astrophysicist Gillian Finnerty, whose own path to the stars looks less straightforward.

Gillian has relied on Twitter and Astrogrrl power in her first attempt at space travel, courtesy of a competition run by Lynx deodorant.

“The competition video ended with the phrase: ‘Leave a man, come back a hero’,” Gillian said.

So she tweeted back to the organisers: ‘I’ll be leaving a woman, not a man, if that’s OK.’ A fellow Astrogrrl followed up with: ‘I’m not sure which man to leave.’

As Major Tim Peake prepares to be Britain’s first official astronaut, living and working on the International Space Station for six months, Gillian is coming to the end of the third year of her physics and astrophysics course in Sheffield.

She has won medals in 14 sports, she has organised and contributed to national science conferences and lectures, and in the summer works for the STEM project in York to promote science and technology to schools and colleges.

But despite all the above, not everyone sees her as prime astronaut material.

Gillian remembers an older woman hearing of her ambition to become an astronaut while chatting on holiday. “She said: ‘Oh haha, well of course... maybe you could marry one instead.’ I was speechless.” So when she heard about the deodorant-fuelled project to send a group of competition winners into a shallow orbit space flight, she signed up, despite the clear implication that advertisers were anticipating young men keen on buxom space vixens rather than astrophysicists pushing the boundaries of science.

Gillian and other female entrants also found that in some countries women entrants were actually excluded, so Gillian helped set up the ‘Astrogrrls’ Facebook and Twitter groups, which quickly encouraged Lynx owners Unilever to change text that discounted female entrants, and to ask countries excluding women to rethink.

“I know it’s Lynx, but it’s not just men who are astronauts,” said Gillian. “We can’t have kids growing up thinking I can’t be an astronaut because I’m a girl.”

After the Astrogrrls campaign, 45 women (including Gillian) eventually got through, along with about 200 men, to the second stage of the competition in London in July, and Gillian will be training hard to make it to the real astronaut training at the international final in Orlando, which will select 22 people to go on the space flight in 2014.

“I know it’s only a slim chance, but I want to do well now to prove something to girls. I want to see how far I can get.”

In the long term, Gillian is considering work in research for the European Space Agency. She’s also been in touch with the international Mars One programme, and will be applying shortly to become a candidate for a one way ticket to start a colony on Mars, with the first flight projected to set off to the red planet ten years from now.

The existing technology practicalities of the project rest on there being no return flight, but that’s less important to Gillian than the chance to go down in history as one of the first humans on Mars.

“To me, that would be the most important thing anyone could ever do with their life. To help science and technology improve as much as possible, and be an inspiration to children.”

What better than to spend your life on Mars, she observed, unless of course, you were to die before you get there. “There are risks, but if you never do anything risky, you might as well just be lying at home in bed, doing nothing.”

Courage, athleticism, astrophysics, and a desire to further the cause of human understanding - Gillian Finnerty seems to have the right stuff to be an astronaut, despite, as she puts it, “the lazy thinking” of certain advertisers.

Hopefully, a young girl growing up now would not have to embark on an Astrogrrl campaign when the next generation is ready for space flight. There should be nothing stopping her, Gillian said.

“By then there will be more women in space, and there will be Martians.”