The Diary: Gillian gets set to reach for the stars

Gillian Finnerty, astrophysicist: with her space dress and a Sheffield University astronomical model
Gillian Finnerty, astrophysicist: with her space dress and a Sheffield University astronomical model
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HOUSTON, she had a problem - but now Gillian Finnerty is quite literally reaching for the stars...

The Sheffield student looks set to become one of just 22 amateur astronauts sent into space for a stratospheric adventure. She blasted away more than 87,000 wannabe Buzz Aldrins to be short listed for the single UK place on board the mission.

She will spend a day next month being put through her space paces before one person from the 250 nominees is picked to go all Helen Sharman.

But the 21-year-old, of Crookesmoor, only won her place on the elite list after taking umbrage with deodorant giant Lynx, the company behind the out-of-this-world competition.

The firm advertised their mission - which will blast off in 2015 - as a way for lads to impress girls. “Leave a man, come back a hero,” ran its tagline (although a better one would surely have been ‘In space, no-one can smell you sweat’).

“I thought it was so sexist,” says Gillian, who studies astrophysics at Sheffield University. “Loads of girls were on Twitter saying ‘I’d love to try for this but I can’t’ - but it’s not just men who can be astronauts, so I went for it.

“I tweeted Lynx and said ‘I’ll be leaving a woman, not a man, if that’s okay’.”

And so - hold on to your helmets - she may very well end up doing just that.

She won some 1,200 online votes in the initial round of the competition, which ensured she made it through to the final 250. Now, on July 13, she will head to London - with astrogrrl determination in full hyperdrive - to face those mental and physical tests. Indeed, in the end, after she supported a campaign to show girls could get involved, she’s one of 45 women who make up the shortlist.

“My ambition is to become an astronaut with the European Space Agency so this would be like ideal work experience,” says Gillian, who is also a member of the Sheffield Astronomical Society. “I just love space. Being an astronaut is the most worthwhile thing I can think of to do with my life. I’m fascinated by the universe and I want to help human understanding of the big questions - it’s important.”

Indeed, a trip on board the Lynx Apollo, as it is called, would be but a warm up for her over-riding ambition: to be an astronaut on board the first mission to Mars. She plans to apply to work for the ESA or NASA after six years at university, and has already been in touch with the Mars One programme to put her name forward for the mission. That is scheduled to lift off in 2023 at the earliest.

And even the fact it may well be a one way mission doesn’t put her off.

“To me, sacrificing your life to science and furthering human knowledge is the best thing you could do,” says the youngster who is originally from North Yorkshire. “There’s nothing more important than that. The risks are huge but to help science is worth it.”

For now, however, the youngster - who’s talent stretches to winning medals in 14 different sports and regularly helping to organise, and lecture at, national science conferences - is concentrating on becoming one of those 22 aboard the deodorant shuttle.

“It’s a long shot but I’ll do my best,” she says. For Gillian, it seems, not even the sky is the limit.