High above Canada, Colombian teenager Ivanna Hernandez was briefly weightless, as a special aircraft ran through a parabolic arc – but for her, this was just the start of what she hopes will be an interplanetary journey.
Hernandez, 16, lives in Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, but the eyes of this aspiring astronaut have been firmly fixed on the stars ever since she caught Carl Sagan’s Cosmos program on television.
“The first time I saw Cosmos, I couldn’t help being fascinated with its beautiful images, explanations and stories about the universe and the people who have dedicated themselves to studying it,” she said, “It was like love at first sight, I was soon full of emotion every time the program started and then I was researching and reading books on my own about black holes, galaxies and about astronomy in general.”
It was that passion which landed her the opportunity in October 2019 to experience microgravity on a parabolic flight of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) Falcon-20 aircraft, as part of the PoSSUM microgravity challenge. She took two student space experiments from Colombia with her: her own and one from students in La Guajira, Colombia.
“I am very proud to be the winner of the first PoSSUM 13 International Microgravity Flight Challenge and to be part of the first team made up only of women in the history of the microgravity challange of Project Possum,” she said, “Floating in microgravity feels exactly like falling into a vacuum and when you’ve been floating for a few seconds it’s like being in the water, but without the resistance it gives you.”
So far, Hernandez says, she’s also had the opportunity to participate in space camps, global competitions, scientific experiments , seminars and congresses – but it has not been an easy run for a young woman originally from La Guajira, an underdeveloped rural part of Colombia.
“In my country there is not much visibility of the role of women in science or of people with initiatives in STEAM, there is not much support and incentives – The main role models in our society are singers, soccer players, models, actresses, etc.”
She says although more and more Colombian are studying STEAM subjects (Science, Technologies, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) there is not enough support from the government to disseminate the great achievements and advances of Colombian scientists.
“Because of this, my goal is to be able to inspire more young people to enter the STEAM world through each of my experiences and achievements –if you want to fly high, you must dream big!”, she said,
“Another difficulty that I still find today is the lack of support from institutions and the government to provide resources to programs that educate children and communities in STEAM and can participate in events both nationally and international.”
My goal is to be the first Latin American woman to be an astronaut and go to Mars, and be able to share my adventures and experiences with more children and people all around the world.
Hernandez is not the only teen from Colombia’s northern coast with eyes on the stars.
On 20 June 2019, a NASA sounding rocket blasted off from Wallops Island off the coast of Virginia, USA, carrying student science experiments, including a solar cell science project from Nestor Epinayu, 16, and his fellow students from a Wayuu indigenous community in La Guajira, on the border with Venezuela.
“This is a new feat for the country, for my department [state], La Guajira and for the Wayuu, since they are one of the most vulnerable communities in Colombia,” Hernandez said.
She said this is an example of efforts made by Colombian professionals can make a difference in the daily lives of communities where there are no basic services, such as drinking water, electricity and food security.
“It is these opportunities that mark us and motivate us to continue putting our effort to continue researching and doing science,” she said.