Science, People & Politics

Science, People and Politics, volume ii, Volume II, 1st November, 2010.

Virgin flight badge for astronauts

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 into space.


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 exploded."

"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


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.


Which begs the question: where does space begin? It's a bit arbitrary, because the Earth's atmosphere doesn't suddenly stop at some particular altitude. But the international coordinating body, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, defines space as starting 100 km above the Earth. And that's how high Walker was propelled in his rocket-plane.

Parabolic flight illustration by Helen Gavaghan
Parabolic flight, an illustration
by Helen Gavaghan.

To be confusing, though, the US Air Force defines space as starting 50 miles (80 km) up, and they credit seven other X-15 pilots as astronauts for having reached that altitude.

Bigger and better spaceplanes would have been the natural way to develop spaceflight. But they didn't have the immediate whoomph to speed into orbit around the Earth and certainly couldn't have reached the Moon. So in the 1960s the Americans ditched them in favour of rockets.

Fast forward thirty years and maverick American plane designer Burt Rutan looked into the idea again. He'd already made history with his lightweight plane, Voyager, which had flown all the way round the world without landing or refuelling. Funded by Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, he constructed SpaceShipOne, a small rocket plane that was launched from a high flying mothership.

In 2004 pilot Mike Melvill flew SpaceShipOne to 100 km altitude. The spaceplane reached the same altitude again within two weeks, to win the $10 million dollar Ansari X-prize for the first private reusable space launcher. The prize didn't cover the development cost, but it did catch the imagination of British entrepreneur and adventurer Sir Richard Branson and led to Virgin Galactic - my "ticket" to space.

Virgin Galactic is an extension of Branson's Virgin brand. He saw a viable business in flying passengers into space in a larger version of SpaceShipOne, one with enough room for space tourists to float around in weightlessness for several minutes, as well as looking through supersized portholes to see the curved Earth underneath and the black sky of space above.

For me Virgin Galactic was no more real at first than flights to the Space Station. But all that changed when I was in a position to sell my shares in Pioneer Productions. I couldn't take the money with me when I went, but I could use it as my ticket to space.

And it's really just a matter of buying online. Go to the Virgin Galactic website (, fill in a few questions, and you're there - just about. On my first attempt I was bemused because there wasn't a page where I could just transfer money, as if I were buying a book from Amazon or music from iTunes. I sat and waited. Nothing happened. Eventually I began to wonder if I'd shot myself in the foot. After filling in my phone number, I'd added, "I'd prefer you not to phone me." My girlfriend, Kirsten, got fed up with waiting, and - unknown to me - resubmitted my details, without this off putting phrase. The next day I had a call from Dave at Virgin Galactic and transferred the money.

I was a bona fide astronaut!


Along with a welcome letter from Richard Branson I received a silver lapel badge of the Virgin Galactic logo, a BIG book of photographs - half my own height! - and a letter informing me I had been allocated Pioneer reservation number 149. The Pioneers follow on from the first 100 Founder astronauts, so I'm number 249 in the queue for space.

By now (November 2010) Virgin Galactic has tested the mothership which carries the spaceplane, SpaceShipTwo, to an altitude of 15,000 metres (50,000 feet). The ship is called Eve, after Branson's own mother. And they've dropped SpaceShipTwo from Eve and tested its glide down to a safe landing.

After SpaceShipTwo has its engine lit for the first time there'll be several dozen test flights before passengers board. The first routine mission is scheduled to include Branson and members of his family, among them his mother who is now in her 80s.

Virgin Galactic flights will take off from Spaceport America, a purpose-built airport complex in New Mexico near the White Sands Missile Range, where many of America's early rockets were tested. The astronauts' friends and relatives can relax in a hotel and resort complex, and even fly in the mothership to watch the spaceplane drop away and fire its rocket engine as it blasts off to space.

All the astronauts have to undertake a thorough medical and be tested in a centrifuge. During the mission we'll be experiencing 3 to 4 gs on the ascent and, perhaps, 6 gs for a short time on the way down. The good news is that Virgin Galactic has already checked out the first 100 Founder astronauts and 95 passed. The oldest was 88-year-old James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis for the Earth, who reportedly came out of the centrifuge with a broad smile. So the public perception of the 1960s, born of images of fit young fighter pilots, that astronauts must be "the right stuff" no longer reflects the reality of what is needed from all those who fly into space.


My best guess is that my own flight is about two years away. People think that I must be impatient. Actually I'm not. It's the experience of a lifetime to look forward to: I'm sure I'll be euphoric immediately after the flight, but I expect a feeling of anticlimax to kick in later.

I'm also asked aren't I scared? Well, of course before I fly I want to see the system fully shaken down. After the test flights I should be on around the 40th passenger mission, so the system will be pretty well tested by then.

In fact SpacePlaneTwo is a safer design than the Space Shuttle. While the Shuttle is dangerously close to a vast tank of hydrogen when it's launched, the Virgin spaceplane is dropped from a high-flying aircraft with a minimum of fuel on board. And the solid fuel - based on rubber - isn't intrinsically explosive. The rocket is a hybrid design, where a stream of oxidiser gas (nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas) blasts along the central cavity of the hollow cylinder of solid fuel. This makes it safer than the Shuttle's Solid Rocket Boosters. While you can't switch off a solid-fuelled rocket once you've lit the blue touch paper, you can shut down a hybrid engine by just turning off the gas. Still, I can't forget that a prototype of this engine exploded on a test-stand in 2007, killing three technicians.

The landing is also safer than the Space Shuttle, because the spaceplane isn't travelling at the breakneck speed needed for orbit. Nor will we experience the temperatures of 1500 degrees plus that destroyed Columbia, whose heat shield had been damaged on launch.

So, yes, I am 95 per cent excited and only 5 per cent apprehensive about my forthcoming trip to Spaceport America, and then up into space.

Virgin Galactic is only just the beginning. Burt Rutan's spectacular coup in winning the Ansari X-Prize has inspired other private companies. NASA has traditionally been jealous about its monopoly on reaching space, but within the past few weeks President Obama has signed a new Space Act requiring NASA to support private companies planning to send people to Earth-orbit, while the federal agency itself focuses on targets beyond.


Virgin Atlantic badge

Virgin Galactic Astronaut's badge

And now another entrepreneur - Elon Musk, who founded PayPal - plans to leapfrog Virgin with his Falcon rocket, which will blast the Dragon capsule to Earth-orbit.

Even while space enthusiasts wait for a private launch system to take us to orbit our destination is already there. After making a fortune through Budget Suites of America, Robert Bigelow has already built and launched the first private accommodation in space. Genesis I and Genesis II, currently orbiting the Earth, are inflatable modules, prototypes of future space infrastructure that could be linked together to build a full-scale space hotel.

My scheduled flight will make me among the first 1000 people to leave planet Earth. But that's just the beginning. All the entrepreneurs in the space business are intent on bringing the price down. In maybe 20 to 30 years a trip to space should cost no more than a luxury cruise today.

Then the idea of travelling into space shouldn't provoke the mixture of incredulity and admiration that I'm meeting now. It's something that everyone could aspire to, just as they might think of going to Borneo or Antarctica today.

As the great Russian pioneer of rocket flight, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, wrote a century ago, "the Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever".

Nigel Henbest, photograph supplied by Nigel Henbest
Nigel Henbest, an astronaut in waiting.
Nigel writes here for the first time of his forthcoming trip into space.

Commissioned and edited by Helen Gavaghan.
Layout, design and production: Helen Gavaghan.
Editorial advisor: Martin Redfern, senior producer BBC World Service.
Editor-in-chief: Fred Pearce.


GavaghanCommunications Science, People & Politics©. All rights reserved.