Clara woman part of shuttle flight history

CLARA woman Michelle McKeon-Bennett headed up the research centre for the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) project which was carried aboard the final shuttle mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida last Friday.

CLARA woman Michelle McKeon-Bennett headed up the research centre for the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) project which was carried aboard the final shuttle mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida last Friday.

Staff and students at LIT were glued to live tv feeds at 11.26am EST as Gerard Newsham’s space life science project research was carried on the historic STS-135 Atlantis mission to the International Space Station - the final Space Shuttle mission for the 30 year programme.

Michelle, who was herself a research fellow at the Space Life Science Laboratory in NASA in 2003, commented, “The success in placing this experiment on the Atlantis flight embodies and showcases the level of expertise and skill of all Science graduates from LIT and what we are doing in this area.”

She added, “We have placed Science interns in Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) since my return in 2004. The new interns represent the continuation of a long and respected relationship between LIT and Kennedy Space Centre and we are proud and honoured to be the only third level educational body to boast such a relationship in Ireland.

Michelle, who is Head of Department of Applied Science at LIT, enthused, “The overall success of this of course is the establishment of a new niche area of research in Ireland which can be utilized by many industrial sectors including Food, Medical, Agricultural, Horticultural and Aeronautical.”

Gerard, originally from Corbally, Co Clare, is working on a project entitled Symbiotic Nodulation in a Reduced Gravity Environment (SyNRGE), to learn how plants and bacteria work together in space.

He began his studies at LIT’s Department of Applied Science in Higher Certificate in Applied Biology in 2004. Taking LIT’s ‘Ladder System’ approach through the Biology Stream within the Applied Science Department, he graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Bioanalysis and Biotechnology.

In 2008 he was selected for an internship in the Nationally Sponsored Discover Science Challenge Programme. This internship placed him in the Space Life Science Lab at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida from October 2008 until April 2009.

Gerard is still working at Kennedy Space Centre as a member of their space flight research group and carrying out his postgraduate research, in which he hopes to complete his Masters in the near future.

Speaking from the Kennedy Space Centre, Gerard said that it is an honour beyond his wildest dreams to be associated with such a historic moment in space exploration.

“I still pinch myself every day I’m here. The Space Shuttle has been such a monumental programme over the past 30 years, one of the most ground breaking space programmes we will probably witness in our lifetimes. To be associated with the final mission is an honour that I am humbled by.”

The Atlantis launch marked the end of an era for the Space Shuttle Programmme and will close out the 30-year shuttle programme as NASA and the space industry go in other directions.

Atlantis is scheduled to return for touchdown July 20, the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed humans on the Earth’s moon for the first time.