The last couple of years I’ve had this deep niggling feeling inside me as I tried to reconcile my passions and work with what I deem most important and whom I aspire to be. It started off as that slight nagging feeling that we’ve all felt at some point, like a caught zip or sunglasses in long hair, but the zip didn’t free itself and the sunglasses became too entangled until it could no longer be ignored. There was only one solution: to change.
Since my coming of age as a teenager, standing on the foothills of my future, I decided that the collective pursuit of knowledge has got to be what I dedicate my career towards. So I flitted between studying astrophysics, which would catapult me to the forefront of our understanding of the universe where our past and future interchange in a greyish soup of confusion waiting to be deciphered, and aerospace engineering where I could directly and immediately contribute to the human exploration of outer space. In the end I chose aeronautical engineering, just like the Apollo astronauts, influenced by own desire to experience outer space and which aided my selection to be a candidate on BBC Astronauts.
In parallel with these academic and career decisions I found myself quite accidentally being thrust into a world of exploration. That journey over the last fifteen years has accumulated in over three years on expedition and travels in over thirty countries and has taken me to do things I never thought possible. I have explored new routes in the arctic, in temperatures down to -60C, solo climbed several high altitude mountains and experienced the largest gathering of people that has ever occurred. Those trips have brought me up close to the most extraordinarily beautiful places on Earth, to close encounters with some of the iconic wildlife both on land, and as a qualified rescue diver, underwater.
I’ve seen the world change tremendously over that time. Some of these changes have been to the benefit to the remote communities I cherish so much. Who could argue against medical clinics opening up offering cheap medicines that have markedly reduced the death rates from the simplest of diseases? But the march of progress has lead to higher levels of consumption that does not necessarily mean happiness, to cars where there otherwise were bicycles, to hour-long traffic jams where before there was peace. This happening the world over, using the same dirty technologies as we have been, has lead to the acceleration of greenhouse gas outputs that now threaten our very future.
I have known about human created climate change since being taught about it at school and the science has always been clear: “it is dangerous to the point of an existential threat and that we must do something soon”. That was years ago in the final throes of the last millennium, yet in the interim period whilst I have been pursuing advances in aviation and space technologies I have become increasingly shocked at the global community’s inaction. From the perspectives of an explorer (for want of a better word) I have given keynote speeches on the topic and created a short film in 2010 exploring the topic of climate change whilst in the arctic.
All that is well and good yet here we are, standing on the precipice. When we are we should ask ourselves, what should we do? Do we continue our blinkered approach, hoping that someone else will sort it out or do we take personal responsibility for it as citizens of the world. That is the dilemma that I have been facing and struggling with the last couple of years and one of the foremost skills that I gained from having spent 10 days in silent meditation in the himalayas is to always be honest with myself. With the remarkable awareness work that heroes such as Greta Thunberg, the Extinction Rebellion, George Monbiot and Chris Packham to name a few it has made me think more personally about the problem.
Then finally I found myself at a crossroads, much like globally we find ourselves now. Having finished a project that proves some of the technologies for high efficiency, low cost spaceflight I have decided I would dedicate the engineering skills that I’ve developed over the last decade to greening up our technologies to protect our planet, our future. I have recently joined Dyson Ltd. helping design their electric car. Whilst we generally have to reduce our car use and the journeys we make, we still need to have the ability to get around and the transportation of the future has to be electric.
That is not to say my passion for space exploration has diminished or the pursuit of exploration is pointless, we musn’t forget that it was our ability to launch earth observation satellites into space that has allowed us to understand the earth’s climate like never before. We should absolutely continue with the advances in these fields but between the existential threat that we are now facing on earth I believe our best minds are better placed dedicated to trying to find a better way. We owe it not only to ourselves but to our children.
I’ve taken a good look at myself and seen where my skill sets can contribute. I hope we all have the courage to do the same.