Andrea Boyd has arguably one of the coolest jobs in the world… well, at least for those of us who are still on the ground. Boyd is the ‘EUROCOM’ flight controller at the European Space Agency (ESA), meaning she’s the person who gets to talk to the astronauts on the ISS.
“The more interesting days is when they have questions. Astronauts are very smart people, so if they have a question, it’s a good question,” says Boyd.
“I’m listening to the question from the astronauts, I’m listening to the details from the scientists at the same time, and I’m processing both of them. And then I’ll give a really short, succinct, astronaut-relevant answer.”
Talking to me from her office in the European Astronaut Centre, near Cologne in Germany – which she notes is right down the hall from the astronauts’ offices – Boyd speaks fast and talks with her hands.
Although she can speak Italian fluently, and other European languages like Russian and German quite well, her Australian accent makes her stand out to both the astronauts and the rest of the ESA team. In fact, she’s the only Australian in the world working at the ISS Flight Control Team.
“Usually, the astronauts have to look up on the roster who’s talking to them, because some of the accents are quite similar … but nobody has to look it up when I when I talk, because, I’m the only one that sounds like me,” says Boyd.
“I try and throw in a few ‘mates’ and ‘good as golds’ and other random things while I’m on space-to-ground with the astronauts.”
Her job isn’t just being the Australian accent on the phone to space though. As the deputy lead of astronaut operations, she also looks after the astronauts before they leave and after they return to Earth.
During our interview, she was running the day for Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, helping her get acclimatised to life back on Earth. During our interview she had on an N95 mask on her neck, as astronauts have lowered immune systems after they return from space, and crew aren’t allowed to spend time with her without one.
When asked how astronauts are to work with, she says in the past astronauts might have been more egotistical but, she says, every astronaut she’s worked with in the last 11 years has been ‘delightful’.
“If you were short duration shuttle, then it didn’t really matter if you had a nice personality or not – people only had to deal with you for a few days.
Now, “the selection is very much focused on astronauts who are really good at teamwork. Who have adaptability, resilience, and the ability to work well with others over long durations, and people from lots of different countries.”
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It might be a little easier to be an astronaut in 2022 too. For Cristoforetti’s mission, Boyd helped to develop five new Italian meals to get to enjoy on the ISS.
“They’re outstanding – like, genuinely they taste good, even on Earth. You could serve them on a plate and you’d think it was amazing regular food,” says Boyd.
Apart from her accent, there’s another dead giveaway that she grew up Down Under – she excitedly showed me a poster she has up behind her desk of the Australian classic movie ‘The Dish’. She’s carried it with her since she worked at a movie theatre in the early 2000s.
Growing up in Adelaide, Boyd loved Star Trek, and decided early on she wanted to be an engineer working as close to space as possible. At university, she studied mechatronic engineering, and did as much volunteering with space-adjacent organisations as she could.
“In first year university, we had a speaker who was working at the European Space Agency and described how it was multinational and multilingual. They worked on the space station as well,” says Boyd.
“That was all the pieces coming together for me. I realised that’s where I wanted to work.”
She then did everything within her power to make it happen, finally ending up at the ESA in 2012. In an interesting full circle moment, Boyd has also helped space research back home. She lobbied academics, business people and the government to open a space agency within Australia, and ended up playing a key role in the establishment of the Australian Space Agency, now based in Adelaide.