Katherine Bennell-Pegg

Katherine Bennell-Pegg is realising her childhood dream, graduating as an astronaut after 13-months of training.

The Australian Space Agency employee is the first person to ever be trained as an astronaut under the Australian flag.  In 2023, the 39-year-old made the giant leap towards achieving her life-long dream when she began training with the European Space Agency in Germany. 

‘When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut for the adventure, but after more than a decade working in space it’s now because I know the role it plays in tackling real-world problems,’ Katherine says. 

Katherine and her 5 fellow astronaut candidates from the European Space Agency (ESA) will graduate basic training on Monday, 22 April 2024. They will be qualified for assignment to the International Space Station. 

‘I’m excited – not just for me – but for what my training and experience can unlock for Australian scientists, engineers and operators, and all the value that can bring. The work and research involved in going to space prompts development of new knowledge that can benefit our society, environment and science.’

Watch the graduation live

Stream the graduation ceremony from 6pm AEST on 22 April via the ESA website

Read more about graduates

Find out all the details about the event in the ESA media release

Pursuing a dream

When asked by a teacher at her Sydney high school to write down three career options, Katherine only wrote ‘astronaut’. 

With the encouragement of her parents, Katherine researched what she would need to do to fulfill this goal. She worked hard at school, studying maths, English, chemistry, physics, and economics in her final year. She also did a range of extra-curricular activities aimed at a career in space: aerobatic flying lessons, amateur astronomy, sport and debating.

In 2007, Katherine graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) – Aeronautical Engineering (Space) and a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) – Physics from the University of Sydney. She kept busy during her studies, completing internships as a mechanical engineer, a physics researcher, and later, working as a computer programmer. She was also an Australian Army Reservist, a volunteer in the NSW SES and travelled to India with Engineers Without Borders.

‘The great thing about wanting to be an astronaut is that the backup careers are exciting. You can specialise in almost any STEM field: piloting, medicine, science and engineering are all good backgrounds for being an astronaut.’

Katherine worked across Europe on a range of space projects. This included human spaceflight missions and technologies, facilities for the International Space Station, debris removal concepts, Earth observation, and space exploration missions. 

During this time, Katherine had two daughters with her husband Campbell, who also works in space. The family returned to Australia in 2019, with Katherine and Campbell both joining the Australian Space Agency.

Inspiring others to reach for the stars

During her 13-months of training, Katherine has stayed connected with Australia. She has inspired audiences with virtual presentations and done dozens of media interviews.

‘I want to use this experience to open doors for Australian scientists and engineers to utilise space for their discoveries, to inspire the pursuit of STEM careers, and show all Australians that they too can reach for the stars.’

Upon graduation, Katherine also becomes Australia’s first female astronaut. 

‘I hope it paves the way for other young Australians who share my dream, particularly young girls. Only around one in ten astronauts are female, but the profile of an astronaut is evolving over time. The alpha-male stereotype is no longer what is being sought.’

Watch 'Into the Light' 

Into the Light showcases the power of a dream and the determination and hard work that goes into making that dream a reality. Australian astronaut-in-training Katherine Bennell-Pegg takes the audience on a journey from a childhood realisation of how vast our universe is, to the knowledge gained when we explore the unknown.

For me, I'd say being an astronaut is the culmination of a lifelong dream.

I grew up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, where the sky was very clear with stars, and I love looking up at the sky, and when I learned that, you know, stars weren't just pinpricks of light, but could be entire galaxies or planets, other worlds, that just expanded my, my whole scale of the universe in my child's mind. 

Being selected as Australia's first astronaut candidate I would consider to be my greatest career achievement - it's an absolute thrill. 

Part of the driving force is wanting to help create concrete steps forward in human knowledge and discovery. I think I was drawn to space for the adventure and the exploration, and that still really excites me, but as I've developed my career in the field, I've also learned to really enjoy it and value it for the scientific discoveries it creates. 

In space you have labs where you can do really ground-breaking medical research, or develop new materials, or processes that help us with sustainable systems. You know, space is an eye in the sky from which you can see all these phenomena around the world, and help contribute to global challenges like climate change. What originally motivated me was a sense of adventure and wanting to leave a legacy, and then as I grew up, it was about that contributing back through the use of space. 

Throughout my whole career, I've almost always been in the minority as a woman. It hasn't held me back at all. That being said, in space there is a diversity challenge, like there is in most STEM fields in 

Australia. Only 27 per cent of the STEM workforce today are women. Less than 10 per cent of astronauts globally to date have been women. And that's a problem beyond the individual level. It's a problem at the societal level, because in order to progress and achieve new breakthroughs as a nation, as a world, we need to have diverse thought and creativity, and that comes through having more representation. The exciting thing is that the landscape for having a space career in Australia is broadening rapidly. 

The other day we got our blue flight suits, and I had an Australian flag patch on mine, and it was quite emotional because, you know, even seeing that, and knowing that this opportunity could accelerate opportunities for other Australians to be involved in human spaceflight... I could retire happily. 

In space, astronauts feel the overview effect, which is where they look back at the Earth and realise we are one humanity. At night, they look into the light that bends around the horizon, a thin blue line of air within which all life as we know it has existed, all of humanity has developed, where all of life's events and problems and excitements are all happening right now, and they are overwhelmed by how fragile this world really is. Life feels fleeting, yet this perspective also fills them with a sense of boundless possibility. Astronauts return to Earth compelled to protect it, to understand it, to nurture it, and we - all of us - have our part to play in this.