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:
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:
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.
The 50th anniversary of the first human footsteps on the Moon seemed like a good thing to celebrate, and without the time/budget to make it to the US, I needed to find a celebration a little closer to home. What better place than Goonhilly Earth Station down in Cornwall for a day of space, music, author talks beer and even a quiz?
Surrounded by large dishes, some in the process of being restored and upgraded to become ground stations (potentially for future Moon missions), we had a fabulous day. It’s amazing to think that when Ian Jones and his small team decided to rescue the Goonhilly site and bring it back to life as a commercial ground station there were trees growing through some of the dishes! It was great to see what they’ve got up and running already and hear plans for the future – and then there was Public Service Broadcasting, banging out some of their excellent space-based tunes from the Race to Space album. What more could you want?
Well it was a sunny day – so how about a pint of “One Giant Leap” beer? Described as an IPA – Inter-Planetary Ale – it was brewed specially for the event by Sharp’s (a well-known Cornish brewery) and even used space-themed ingredients such as planet malt, and aurora and galaxy hops! They’d done an excellent job of designing the beer tap markers too.
With the Radiophonic Workshop playing bits from Hitchhiker’s Guide and the Doctor Who theme compilation it was a geeky paradise!
The pièce de résistance was yet to come though – a live Moon bounce (where you transmit a signal to the Moon and literally use the surface of the Moon as a giant reflector and pick it up again two seconds later) showed off what the Goonhilly facility is capable of. A chap even proposed to his girlfriend in front of the crowds, but the most wonderful bit for me was when they sent up clips of Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped off the ladder and on to the Moon back in 1969. This allowed us to hear his original iconic words, from the Moon, and that was a bit special. You can check out the video of that on my Instagram page!
Seven years ago, half way through my #SpaceNomad adventure waiting for STS-133 to launch, I found myself in a bar in Portland, Oregon.
With me, a good friend – and fellow space fan – James. James and I first met in the Netherlands at a new media conference, cemented a friendship in London, and then a promotion at work saw him heading back to the US to live in California. Home for James though, was Oregon, and here I was, unexpectedly in his town, meeting him for a glass of wine.
As we discussed the ending of the Space Shuttle programme I expressed the view that it would take quite some time for the US to be able to send astronauts back to space on their own hardware, but James was much more optimistic about companies like SpaceX filling the gap that shuttle would leave.
My network seemed to think it would be at least seven years before the US would fly their own astronauts, so I plumped for that as a reasonable estimate. James put his faith in the innovative spirit of Elon Musk and said they’d be flying before that. There was only one thing for it – a bet! (I mean, if it’s good enough for Stephen Hawking…)
I said the US wouldn’t have the capability to put people into space before 1st December 2017, and James took the opposing view. Having shaken on the deal – agreeing that whichever one lost the bet would have to cook the meal of the other’s choice, in the location of their choice (choosing between our two home towns) – I realised that much of my intel had been collected at the start of 2010. Had I made a mistake agreeing to December? It could be a close one! I took solace in the fact that at least I was betting on something that I’d be happy to see happen sooner, so even losing the bet would be positive.
Over the years we’ve sent emails back and forth, taunting each other with leaps in progress, or technical setbacks and delays. Each year my phone has reminded me on this day that the best was still running, but today I realise it’s over – I won!
Other than looking forward to conjuring up a tasty meal for James to cook – and wondering if he’ll really fly me to San Francisco so I can enjoy it! – I don’t feel much joy at having been right. This feels like a bet that I should have lost, and would have been happy to have lost, but space is hard and when it comes to human safety you don’t want to rush things.
I don’t like to think of myself as a cynic, I’m honestly an optimist at heart, but I also have a realistic view not only about what’s possible, but what is “likely” – and the too can sometimes be very different beasts.
Ad astra friends – and James… I’ll be in touch!