New Program with NASA Aims to Launch First Indigenous Australian Astronaut

New Program with NASA Aims to Launch First Indigenous Australian Astronaut

Joel Steele, an Indigenous Palawa man, recently completed a transformative 14-week internship at NASA as part of the National Indigenous Space Academy (NISA) pilot program. The program, launched by Monash University in partnership with NASA and the Australian Space Agency, aims to expand career pathways and increase participation in science by First Nations people. The ultimate goal is to see the first-ever Indigenous Australian astronaut.


Joel Steele standing in front of a space shuttle statue at NASA headquarters.

Joel Steele spent 14 weeks as an intern at NASA.(Credit: Monash University)


During his time at NASA, Dr Steele worked on a range of projects outside his subject area of space biology, including operating the flight simulator used to train astronauts and pilots. He said being at NASA made even the most routine work thrilling and that it changed his perspective on where his career could go. Even mundane science became amazing when he realized it was going to go into space.


The NISA program includes an internship preparation program or "space boot camp" where Indigenous STEM students learn more about key topics related to space exploration such as aerodynamics, astrophysics, and computer sciences. Students also learn about current and former NASA space exploration missions. Their field of study back at home plays a significant role in their day-to-day work at NASA. Students are treated just like NASA employees and get to participate in real missions. The next cohort of students will spend 10 weeks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.


Five people stand behind a lectern.

NASA deputy administrator Pamela Melroy (second from left) and NASA administrator Bill Nelson (centre) attended NISA's launch in Adelaide.(Credit: Monash University)


Dr Steele hopes that the NISA program will not only expand the participants' horizons individually but also lead to increased investment in science programs for Indigenous students. He believes that diverse voices are essential in places where scientists make important decisions, and it's a disservice to not have those opinions included when they are available. "We may have different perspectives, but those perspectives are just as important," he said.


Increased funding and investment in programs such as NISA are "important next steps for Aboriginal students," Dr Steele added. These programs have the potential to "drag people up," providing Indigenous students with new opportunities, expanding their horizons and helping to create a brighter future for Indigenous science.


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