The crescent Moon had already set behind the decaying wharves and warehouses around Birmingham's
Gas Street Basin on that evening in the last summer of the
1960s. My parents had retired to their cramped bed in the rented narrow-boat on which we were cruising around the canals of the English Midlands. But my ear was
glued to my tiny and tinny transistor radio. Because the
voices in the loudspeaker were coming from the Moon...
It was the night of 20-21 July 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just landed in the Sea of Tranquillity, and were about to take humankind's first step on
an alien world.
Little did I ever think, then, that I would have a chance to fly into space myself, as I will in a couple of years from now.
Back in the 1960s, astronauts were American and cosmonauts were Russian. Despite the wonderfully patriotic science fiction of the time, such as Dan Dare in the Eagle
comic, real spacefarers in the then foreseeable future
were patently not going to be British. While others journeyed into the near Universe I became a radio astronomer at the University of Cambridge, studying the farthest
denizens of the Cosmos, radio galaxies and quasars.
Like space exploration, radio astronomy was at the cutting edge of technology in the 1960s. But the big difference was cost. While the world's leading radio telescopes
were based in the UK, the Netherlands and Australia,
none of these countries was in the "space league". The exploration of space requires a marriage of top technology with raw power, a dangerous combination that can be
tamed only at considerable expense.
It's a frustrating equation. Space is not that far away. When I'm driving to another part of the country, on business or holiday, I often recall the words of the great
astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle: "Space is only an hour's
drive away - if your car could go vertically upwards."
If distance was all that mattered, then we could all be experienced space travellers by now.
But, unfortunately, gravity comes into the equation. And that means
an awful lot of energy is needed.
The Soviet Union wasn't too worried by this challenge. To send their massive nuclear warheads halfway round the world, Russia's chief rocket scientist, Sergei Korolev, had
designed the world's most powerful rocket, the R-7.
He persuaded Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that it would be a propaganda coup if they used the R-7 to launch the first satellite.
The success of Sputnik 1, "beeping"
its way round Earth in 1957, shocked the Americans
and galvanised them into building bigger and more powerful launchers. Wernher von Braun devised the mighty Saturn V that took astronauts to the Moon.
By the 1970s it had
become a byword that you could join the Space Club
only if you had huge muscle. Countries like France, Japan, China and, finally, Britain, built rockets that lofted unmanned satellites. But only the two Superpowers had the
super-budgets that were needed to send astronauts
Like many "space cadets" of
my generation I watched every twist and turn of
the long-running struggle: first as an interested amateur, then after leaving Cambridge, as a journalist and television producer.
It was a struggle not just between the
United States and the USSR: it was between
humankind and the forces of Nature. Sometimes the humans lost.
In January 1967 I had a vivid nightmare. I was racing to the launch of a manned rocket, but was held up
by security gate after security gate. By the
time I reached the rocket it was a twisted mass of burnt metal. As children do I drew a picture of the scene, in black charcoal for the twisted girders, and three organic-looking
pink blobs. Two weeks later, the crew of
Apollo 1 died during ground tests when fire broke out in the pure oxygen atmosphere of their capsule.
During the next few years four Soviet cosmonauts died. In one case
the parachute failed to operate properly. Later
a crew of three perished when their capsule depressurised in orbit. Strictly speaking, the three cosmonauts on Soyuz 11 were the only people to have died in space; all other
fatalities have occurred in the atmosphere,
either ascending or descending. I'm ashamed to say these deaths didn't touch me as much. In those times we were accustomed to think the Russians had inferior technology to
the Americans, so they were bound to suffer accidents.
To put that in the clear light of hindsight, no Russian cosmonaut has died on a mission in the past 39 years, while 14 American crew have been killed in the same period.
When the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed
on take off in January 1986 I was travelling to TV studios in London to check out the latest results from the Voyager 2 space probe which had just sped past Uranus. Unaware of
the tragedy unfolding in Florida I was chatting
to the taxi driver about premonitions and, unusually for me, spoke to him of my Apollo 1 dream. I arrived at the studio to see shots of smoke trails above the Kennedy Space Center.
The receptionist said, "The Space Shuttle's
"Don't joke about things like that," I retorted, but, of course, it was true.
That mission carried the school teacher Christa McAuliffe, selected by NASA to be the first civilian in space, though
she wasn't the first non-career astronaut on the
Shuttle. Others had already pulled strings to grab a seat, including the Saudi prince Salman al Saud and US Senator Jake Garn, who achieved fame - or notoriety - as the most
space-sick astronaut in history.
At the time
of the Challenger disaster I was often asked if the fate of that mission would put me off travelling into space. Despite never expecting this to be a serious issue I thought
long and hard. "No," was my considered response. Nothing
in life is entirely safe. And if you set out to do something that's unusually rewarding then it's probably going to entail unusual risks.
That was proven in February
2003. I returned home to find the voicemail clogged with
messages. Space Shuttle Columbia had not returned to Earth. This disaster touched me and my friend and colleague, Heather Couper, in a way the earlier Shuttle tragedy had
not. By 2003 we had met and worked with many astronauts.
This disaster felt personal and as its extent became clear we channelled our distress into trying to understand what had gone wrong, simultaneously fielding questions from
a shocked press.
By then our independent TV
company, Pioneer Productions, had made several documentaries on space, including the in-depth "Space Shuttle Discovery", a Shuttle flight where the astronauts had filmed
70 hours of footage on board for us. (For this programme
I also secured a unique interview on how astronauts use the space toilet!)
We pushed for a quick turn-around television documentary, which was aired within four weeks
and reached the same conclusion as the official
government investigation published several months later in the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board report found at http://caib.nasa.gov/news/report/pdf/
From the beginning Heather and I had focused on a piece of insulating foam that was filmed soon after take off
falling from the External Tank onto Columbia's wing. We were convinced that the foam must have damaged
the wing's leading edge, to the extent that superheated gases streamed into the wing on re-entry and destroyed the Orbiter.
Initially NASA downplayed the importance of the apparently lightweight foam. Their official line
didn't change until July, four months after our programme was aired, when an independent team at the Southwest Research Institute shot
pieces of foam at a Shuttle wing mock-up and did indeed blast a hole in the leading edge.
Much to our dismay the UK broadcaster wanted to call our programme Space Shuttle: Human Time Bomb. Their own legal department insisted they tone
it down to Space Shuttle: Human Time Bomb?
Again, how safe is space? And how safe are space launchers? First I must sound off against people who use phrases like "the Space Shuttle exploded on
take off in 1986...the Space Shuttle exploded on landing in 2003".
The sophisticated, costly and immensly complex Space Shuttle Orbiter itself is a very safe vehicle. The fatal accidents were caused, ironically, by the much
simpler and cheaper items that bolt onto the Orbiter to propel
it to space: Challenger fell victim to a badly designed joint in a Solid Rocket Booster, while Columbia was destroyed by loose insulation falling from the
fuel-containing External Tank.
Yes I would ride the Space Shuttle now. The faults that led to the previous disasters have been corrected, and the Space Shuttle system is safer than ever. In reality
it's being retired next year, so the chance will never arise.
But as the Shuttle opportunity closes others open. If you have the odd $30 million to spend you can book a ride with a Russian crew to spend a week on the International
Space Station, blasting off on the Soyuz launcher -
a souped up version of the original reliable old R-7 rocket.
Now, with hindsight, I'd argue that the R-7 and the subsequent Space Race took human spaceflight in the wrong direction. Big rockets packed full of explosive fuel and
oxygen are expensive and inherently dangerous.
In the 1950s the US Air Force built a series of X-planes, intended to fly faster and higher then ever before. They were carried aloft by a bomber, to give them a big
leg-up, in both altitude and speed. The X-1 broke the sound barrier.
The X-15 flew not only faster, but higher. In 1963, X-15 pilot Joe Walker flew into space.