Flight Lieutenant Joelene Buntain was on a mission to fix a panel on the International Space Station. Floating in zero gravity, she opened her toolbox and reached for the wrench. Instead, it spun out of her grasp and hit the panel, obliterating the ISS in the process.
“I said, let me have another go. And I did it again. I destroyed the entire space station twice.”
It’s not every day you get to destroy the most expensive thing humans have ever made, but it’s all part of the job for Joelene.
As the Space Research and Development Coordinator at Defence Space Command, Joelene meets with companies who offer products and services for the space domain. On this particular day, she was meeting with a company that builds training platforms in virtual reality. On other days, she might be organising events, working with the Defence Science and Technology Group’s RMS STaR Shot program, or showing foreign military dignitaries around Lot Fourteen.
“Every day is different,” Joelene says. “I can never predict what the next day is going to be like.”
Joelene grew up on a farm in Rockhampton in Central Queensland. At 16, she told her mum she wanted to learn how to fly a plane.
“Mum said okay, I’ll take you for a trial flight and we’ll see if you like it. And I was absolutely hooked.”
Joelene got her pilot’s licence 2 years later meaning she could fly a plane before she could legally drive a car. Later, she gained her night flying rating and completed a formation flying endorsement, and competed in flying competitions in Australia and New Zealand.
After finishing high school, Joelene went to CQUniversity – Australia’s largest regional university – to study physics. She then moved to Melbourne to do a PhD in astrophysics at Monash University.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the stars,” she says. “Living in the country, there’s no light at night so the sky is always lit up.”
Joining the Air Force had always been a dream for Joelene. Near the end of her PhD, she went to an information night for women in Defence. “I was like, I could really do this,” she says.
She applied to join, and then three weeks after submitting her PhD she got a call. “It was the Air Force saying, we’re willing to take you on. Officer training starts in three weeks. Can you be there?”
After completing her officer training, Joelene spent 10 months training to be an air traffic controller. “It was so hard,” she says. “I hadn’t really failed a lot in my life, and I failed a lot at air traffic control. I put so much pressure on myself because I felt like I didn’t have a plan B.”
But she made it through the course, and was posted to Perth for a while before being moved to Tindal in the Northern Territory. That was a great time, with lots of camping with friends in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. Another highlight was taking part in Exercise Pitch Black; a warfare simulation attended by militaries from all over the world.
Joelene also had a blast from the past one day when the plane she learned to fly in, a Cessna 172 with the registration VH-OZY, flew into Tindal.
“Ozzy we called it – I was doing air traffic and I was like, oh my god, that’s my plane!” she says.
After two years in air traffic control, Joelene needed a change. She was posted to Canberra to help with a research project in the History and Heritage Unit. But it wasn’t long before word got around about the flying astrophysicist.
She was asked to join the Surveillance of Space and Integration team, where she spent four months. “What I did there in four months was so eye-opening,” she says. She worked on a number of events, including UNSW Canberra’s M2 satellite launch, the Avalon Airshow and SpaceFest 2019.
Her mentor, then-Wing Commander Steve Henry, told her that if she wanted to keep working in space-related roles, she needed to become an air battle manager. She went to Newcastle for more training, this time passing with flying colours.
Not long after, she was posted to No. 1 Remote Sensor Unit (1RSU) in South Australia. This unit is responsible for several surveillance systems including the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), which can see beyond Australia’s borders. It also operates space surveillance systems that can monitor space assets and debris. Joelene spent 2 years there, managing a team of 40 operators.
Defence Space Command was established in January 2022, with Joelene coming on board in February. Her one condition was that she got to do the job from Adelaide. After living in every state except Tasmania, it was time to settle down.
And maybe one day, she’ll get back in the cockpit.
“I haven’t flown since 2017. I do miss flying. Maybe one day I'll take it up again."
“When I was 15 or 16 I had to get glasses. The optometrist told me my eyesight was no good and I’d never be a pilot. He was so mean! So don’t always listen to what other people say about what you should do in your career. Have confidence in your abilities.”
As a kid, Joelene used to lie on the trampoline at night and look at the stars through an old pair of binoculars. “When the moon is full, you can see the craters. It’s amazing how dark it is out there.”
- Joelene grew up on a farm in Rockhampton in Central Queensland.
- She started taking flight lessons at the age of 16, and got her private pilot’s licence at 18. She competed in flying competitions through her late teens and early 20s, and received a Young Pilot’s Award from a local organisation.
- After doing well in physics in high school, Joelene went to CQUniversity to study a Bachelor of Applied Physics.
- In 2009, she moved to Melbourne to complete a 6-month work placement as an astronomy research assistant at Monash University. She ended up staying on to complete her honours year there, and received first class honours.
- She then went straight into a PhD in astrophysics at Monash. Her research was on stellar nucleosynthesis (how elements are formed in stars through different types of nuclear reaction).
- Joelene then applied to join the Air Force. She started officer training 3 weeks after submitting her PhD.
- She then spent 10 months training to be an air traffic controller. Her first official post was in Perth, before moving to Tindal in the Northern Territory.
- After 2 years as an air traffic controller, Joelene spent a few months at the History and Heritage Branch in Canberra.
- She then joined the Surveillance of Space & Integration team for four months. During that time, she helped coordinate the M2 satellite launch with UNSW Canberra and worked on the Avalon Airshow and SpaceFest 2019.
- On the advice of her mentor, then-Wing Commander Steve Henry, Joelene went to Newcastle to train as an Air Battle Manager.
- Her next post was to No. 1 Remote Sensor Unit (1RSU) at RAAF Base Edinburgh, South Australia, as Acting Operations Flight Commander. Here, she managed a team of 40 people responsible for long-range surveillance of Australia’s land, air and space borders.
- In February 2022, Joelene joined Defence Space Command as Space Research & Development Coordinator.