State control to Major Tim

The final frontier to UK space exploration is political but exhilarating nevertheless, says Kevin Fong

May 30, 2013

Last week we learned that Tim Peake, the UK’s first European Space Agency astronaut, finally had a ticket to ride. He will fly to the International Space Station in the winter of 2015.

 

On the evening of the announcement, I went to a drinks reception at the Houses of Parliament - held in honour of Major Tim, a former army helicopter pilot, and hosted by David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

Even though it isn’t me who will soon blast into space, I am still hooked by the dream of being an astronaut. For that I have my parents to blame.

Mum and Dad arrived in England in the early 1960s with precious few qualifications. Dad talks about working as a shop assistant in a hardware store alongside a guy called Blake - a skinhead whom he describes as being like Alf Garnett’s character in Till Death Us Do Part, but without the warmth or the comedy.

He decided the way out of that mess was through education. He took O levels by correspondence course and, when I was starting school, managed to get a place at a polytechnic to study for a degree in business.

To the five-year-old me, the message was clear: if people were capable of flying in space and returning to Earth, anything within the realms of one’s imagination must surely be possible

The grant didn’t quite make ends meet so he worked as a labourer at weekends and spent evenings peeling potatoes in a fish and chip shop. Equipped with English language skills that might have got him into trouble at London Metropolitan University today, he scraped through and later went to work for the Inland Revenue. Discrimination was never very far away but it was (he thought) better to do battle there than to scrap it out in a hardware shop with the likes of Blake.

My parents wanted, as far as possible, to find a way to protect my brother and me from that. This, they decided, depended on making us understand that education was a virtue and on encouraging us to aspire to something better.

They hunted around for ideas that were big enough for us to talk about around the dinner table. These were grabbed from whatever there was to hand: newspapers, magazines or the television. They woke me up one night in the summer of 1975 to watch the dying throes of Project Apollo. I remember fuzzy black and white images of astronauts floating through airlocks, shaking hands and swapping flags.

My parents must take the lion’s share of the credit for driving my fascination with science. But they used the astronauts, rockets and the other big ideas as hooks upon which ambition could be hung. To the five- year-old me, the message was clear: if people were capable of flying in space and returning to Earth, anything within the realms of one’s imagination must surely be possible.

In the 1980s, the UK’s astronautical ambitions were dashed. The axe fell on them, along with much of what was considered to be “blue-skies” science.

Dreams, the government of the time told us, should be about the material rather than the ethereal. But by the time I was finishing medical school in 1998, the British National Space Centre was starting to re-evaluate that position.

When the government agency asked me to help review the case for the UK’s re-engagement with human space exploration, I naively thought that British astronauts would soon be reaching for the stars.

On one occasion, I found myself preparing to present a paper at a meeting of the agency’s review panel. As a junior doctor at the time and one not well versed in the art of politics, I asked the professor of oncology for whom I worked for some advice. I explained my quest to re-engage the UK in human space flight and to secure a British astronaut. He put a hand on my shoulder and pulled me to a sharp stop in the corridor: “I can’t help you. I’m just trying to find a cure for cancer here; you’re talking about attempting to change government policy!”

I’m not sure whether I got the joke at the time, but there’s little doubt I was the butt of it later. Over the next decade I took part in review after review. Dozens of independent voices contributed from across the spectrum of science, engineering, education and industry. Each time the conclusions were the same: the costs of human space flight were outweighed by the myriad benefits. Re-engagement in the great adventure was recommended (albeit with characteristically British reserve and caution).

These reports were received by successive science ministers and gently swept under the carpet, forming a dusty collection of inconvenient truths.

On one occasion, the government’s response to the longest, most in-depth review of the question was to commission a review of the review. I developed a kind of nihilism about the process. But it turned out that the key to success lay not in astronomy or biology but in the science of geology: in the end, all it took was pressure and time.

The key motivation for Major Tim’s forthcoming flight is political. I suspect elements of the government hope that in 2015 - the year of the next general election - our British astronaut will get something of the Olympic spirit going and help sweep them to victory.

But the motivations for exploration are never pure. Certainly the astronauts that I watched in 1975 were propelled more by geopolitics than science. Yet they drove me to a love of the latter and everything I’ve been lucky enough to do with it since.

And in 2015, after a reversal of long-standing government policy - proof positive that anything is possible - Major Tim will get a chance to fly in space and inspire a new generation.

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