Ten years ago – just as I was turning 30 – I decided that I wanted to get to space, and I set myself the challenge of doing so before I was 40.
At the time, there was huge excitement about the dawn of commercial spaceflight, companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, XCOR and Blue Origin promised to change access to space – be it orbital or sub-orbital.
Getting myself to space was always going to be a huge challenge – nigh on impossible – but that had never stopped me before. Technically it seemed improbable, but not truly impossible.
I had a hare-brained scheme involving stories, luck, outreach and Richard Branson. Oh, and MILLIONS of Virgin airmiles. I’d even got the film in mind – where I narrowly missed out on getting enough airmiles by the deadline, and then Branson got to play the hero and put me on a flight anyway.
At the time, my friends were getting married, having children, getting promoted, putting deposits on their first homes – you know - growing up. I on the other hand had basically regressed to the childish optimism of a seven year-old, announcing that I wanted to be an astronaut.
So here we are – a decade later and I’ve just turned forty – did I complete my challenge and get to space? Well… no.
Does that mean mission failure? I’ll let you decide, but here are a (just a few) highlights of the past decade:
- I had lunch with an astronaut.
- I saw a space shuttle launch – STS-133 – the final flight of space shuttle Discovery.
- I made friends with the most wonderful group of space fans during the 115 day delay to the launch of Discovery – and accidentally swapped a 10 day trip to the US to a four month “SpaceNomad” adventure.
- Thanks to a chance encounter with the (then) NASA Administrator, I got to see Discovery land for the final time. Pinch me.
- I went to the Mojave desert on a NASA Spaceward Bound trip with astrobiologist Dr Chris McKay (admittedly this was slightly prior to bringing my @SpaceKate alter-ego to life).
- I saw my first rocket launch in person – a SpaceX Falcon9 with the Dragon capsule – and a wheel of cheese.
- I visited Kennedy Space Center, NASA Ames, Johnson Space Center and NASA HQ.
- I’ve made friends with rockets scientists, mission controllers, flight surgeons, astronauts and cosmonauts!
- I’ve attended multiple NASA social events and the first ever ESA ‘Social Space’ event.
- I’ve visited the astronaut training centre in Cologne and the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston.
- I’ve made friends with two of the crew members of the Mars500 experiment – and done a road trip across America with one of them (despite not being able to drive!).
- I attended the International Space University Space Studies Programme and got to walk underneath a space shuttle in the orbiter processing facility at KSC.
- I’ve watched as friends from the STS-133 tweet-up family got jobs in the space industry (I’m so proud of you!).
- I’ve written for the UK Space Agency magazine.
- I got to see Mars Curiosity land on Mars – from JPL!
- I was given the Canadian Space Agency pin by the head of the agency – he took it off his jacket for me!
- I saw the ATV dock with the space station from the control centre in Toulouse – and then talked about it on BBC radio.
- I watched space shuttle Endeavour roll out to the pad for the final time – the enormity of the crawler is hard to describe.
- I went to “Endless BBQs”, drunk ‘von Braun brown ale” at the Cocoa Beach Brewing Company, and been made to feel part of the family.
- I’ve written papers and presented them at international space conferences.
- I’ve spoken about women in space at the Royal Aeronautical Society.
- I saw the final shuttle launch, and landing, (and got eaten by mosquitoes in the procoess).
- I joined the British Interplanetary Society and have written for their magazine – Spaceflight.
- I made friends with Chris Hadfield and can confirm that his suggestion to have coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans is a “must do”- I was on his ‘friends and family’ list when he was in space and got to email him while he was Commander. (I also missed a phone call from the ISS – but have the BEST voicemail message ever).
- I made friends with cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov – who became the talk of Saltdean when he passed his greetings to my grandmother, who then enjoyed telling people “I’m nearly 90, and I’ve got a friend in space”.
- I went to SpaceUp San Diego at the invite of the organiser, then SpaceUP:EU, and finally made SpaceUP:UK happen for the first time.
- I sat in a Soyuz capsule – and separately, was told by the head of the cosmonaut office, that I was a good size for the Soyuz.
- I visited SpaceX – so shiny!
- I met Buzz Aldrin – and over-excitedly exclaimed “You walked on the Moon”.
- I made friends with Charlie Duke – 10th man to walk on the Moon.
- I got fashion advice from space.
- I worked for a company that was aiming for the Moon.
- I learned that there is a lot of “hot-air” and over-optimistic talk in the new-space industry.
- I went to watch aurora and walked on a frozen river.
- I embarrassed myself by asking Apollo 13′s Jim Lovell about the “dark” side of the Moon, and having been corrected – “you mean far side” – will never make that mistake again.
- I explained on live radio that there isn’t a place where you can “turn off gravity” to train for spaceflight, and that even in orbit you are subject to the force of gravity – you’re just falling fast enough to keep missing the ground.
- I’ve collected space patches, autographs, stickers and a cuddly Rosetta – and always try to have something that I can pass on to an excited kid (big or small) to make space “real” for them.
- I’ve ended up with more followers on my @SpaceKate Twitter than my original @RadioKate account!
- I’ve been able to talk about space on Sky News and on the BBC World Service programme “Digital Planet”, among others.
- I’ve fought against sexism in space and worked hard to make space more accessible for people from different backgrounds.
- I’ve been on the Zero-G plane twice – but never when it’s taken off!
- I’ve visited Goonhilly Earth station and bounced my voice off the Moon!
- I’ve discovered new music, art and craft – all related to space.
- I learned that fireworks are illegal in parts of Florida – but firing Estes rockets is totally fine(!!)
- I’ve walked with cosmonauts, had dinner with astronauts – even been advised on the best way to tackle a large multi-course Italian meal by Cady Coleman!
- I’ve met both British astronauts and attempted to be the third.
- I’ve been part of the Space Generation Advisory Council – was UK point of contact for them – and I’m on the advisory board of For All Moonkind.
- I’ve campaigned to replace non-inclusive/troubling language such as “manned” and “colonise”.
- I’ve won the NASA International Space Apps Challenge – twice in London, and once internationally!
- I’ve frequently thought about doing a PhD or training as a space lawyer or policy advisor – and wished that astrobiology had been an option when I did my undergrad degree.
- I’ve done my best to share – to “make it real” – to bring people along on my adventures – and encourage more people to consider the space sector as a place to work.
- I reported on the first human space launch from the US since the end of the shuttle programme.
That’s just a taste of the most unbelievably, unexpectedly awesome, decade of space adventures that I’ve had.
But what about the options for getting to space? When I started out, the space shuttle was retiring, Soyuz going strong, and I had a bet with a friend about when SpaceX (or any American organisation) would next fly people to space from the US (I won).
Virgin Galactic had a disaster which cost the life of one of their test pilots, but in 2019 managed a test-flight that took their Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses to space as well as the test pilots. The COVID pandemic has been given as the reason for moving commercial passenger flights – including one for Branson himself – to next year. In other words – even if my mad plan had got off the ground, I would not have. (And yes – I did once offer myself as “ballast” for a test flight.)
XCOR with their Lynx spacecraft are sadly no more.
SpaceX just managed to squeeze a crewed flight to the ISS in just before my birthday, but once again that was a demo flight, to open the door for NASA flights to the ISS to go ahead. There would have be no way as a commercial customer to make it on to that flight.
Boeing has been having some issues with Starliner, so it will be a while before they carry humans to space, and Blue Origin, who are quietly squirreling away in the background are probably doing some exciting stuff, but there’s no chance of getting to space with them just yet either.
That means the only options for getting to space in the last decade were:
- paying MILLIONS and going on Soyuz – not easy, not technically impossible for someone, definitely impossible for me
- somehow persuading the Chinese to have sent me on one of their three crewed missions since 2010 (2012, 2013 and 2016) – definitely impossible for me
- becoming an ESA astronaut and getting assigned to a mission – impossible, since there hasn’t been an ESA astronaut selection call in that time
- marry an American, apply to be an astronaut, get trained, get selected for a mission – um…
So have I been to space? Physically, no. But… my photo and voice have been on the ISS, my voice has been to the Moon and back, and my signature sent to Mars.
Would it have been possible for me to get to space in the past decade? Without multi-millions to hand – no.
The friends I’ve made, the places I’ve seen, the adventures I’ve had… the kindness and encouragement that people have shown me, and the doors they have opened – special shout-out to Charlie Bolden – I have been so lucky. I’ll never forget, and never stop sharing as much as I can to others who haven’t been as lucky, or had the opportunities that I have.
Was commercial spaceflight hyped too much a decade ago? Perhaps. My mission seemed “improbable”, but not “impossible” when I first set out – but as you can see, “impossible” turned out to be the case really. I do hope that sometime within in my lifetime there will be a chance for ‘normal’ people like me to experience spaceflight – and maybe I will try to get on a Zero-G flight before I’m fifty at least. (Hint hint!)
It’s an exciting sector, there are more stories to be told, and there are some great people in the space family. Getting to be a part of it has been the honour of it life. Ad astra my friends.