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 of 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.
**SPOILER ALERT** If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? Episode 3 on iPlayer first.
I remember a time when I was seven or eight and my brother nine or ten years old and we used to walk 400m away to a Scouts friend’s house to play on his computer console. He had a Nintendo Entertainment System and we used to marvel at how he used to navigate the two dimensional terrain of Mario Brothers and save Princess Peach with so much more finesse and speed than we could muster. We begged our parents to buy us one but finances and ideology left us disappointed. So the only times we got to play in these pixelated virtual worlds was at friends’ houses or when we were older, at the local video rental store that had an arcade: In the evenings and especially after the hour of prayer at the local mosque teenage boys crowded around the arcade waiting their turn on Street Fighter II. It was the ultimate fighting game, requiring unbelievable speed and muscle memory to enact the combination of moves required to beat your opponent. All I could do was stand on tiptoes trying to get a view and not be pushed out by the older kids. The few times that I did manage to get to the front and challenge the winner, my 20p was wasted in a matter of seconds.
What’s all of this got to do with the astronaut selection? The answer is that I wish I had played a few more video games and the reason for this will become apparent a little later on.
It’s now episode 3, and the tests are becoming more difficult. I couldn't imagine a more nerve wracking test. A three-time astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station (ISS) sitting next to you, telling you that within ten minutes you have to dock the Soyuz capsule onto the ISS. It was a dream come true and I was in awe of what we were asked to do.
Both the Soyuz and the ISS are pinnacles of human endeavours in space. The ISS is the multi-billion pound product of an incredible collaboration between fifteen countries and has been permanently inhabited since the year 2000. It is the largest space structure ever built and can easily be seen with the naked eye (there is an app for that) zooming across the night sky. It orbits Earth every 90 minutes making the inhabitants of the ISS the fastest humans in the world.
The Russian Soyuz is the most successful human transportation space vehicle ever created and since 2011 when the Space Shuttle retired it is the only crew transportation vehicle to the ISS. Devised in the 1960s and still flying today it has the longest operational history of any spacecraft and the safest. There is a Soyuz spacecraft permanently docked to the ISS at all times, serving as an emergency lift raft and if you see any cosmonauts or astronauts arriving or leaving the ISS it would be via a Soyuz.
Thus, docking a Soyuz onto the ISS is one of the most important training tasks an astronaut must become competent at. Failure to dock would mean that crucial supplies and a changeover of astronauts would not be able to happen. But that is not as bad as crashing into the ISS, as Chris Hadfield had put it, going too fast at docking could cause a rupture of the ISS killing everyone on board. But it doesn’t end just there, if the ISS breaks up upon a crash, a cascading amount of orbital debris travelling at 17,000mph could end up making that orbit completely unpassable.
Hence the deer in the headlights moment.
The German Aerospace Center in Cologne, Germany where the simulator was located is also where the European Astronauts Corp is located (right across the road). Both Chris Hadfield and Tim Peake have trained there, in fact Tim’s name was still on one of the rooms we were using. The simulator was the same as that which the astronauts train on and is a replica of the actual Soyuz spacecraft controls.
To dock successfully not only did we have to manoeuvre the Soyuz to the right spot in all three spatial dimensions but also be travelling at the right speed. Too slow and you’d bounce off, too fast, well, you would crash. It required a good level of spatial awareness, good hand eye coordination, speed and nerve. I was so close to docking, but my crosses were ever so slightly misaligned and so I backed up and the time ran out.
Interestingly, those that did well at this test were either a pilot or gamers. After this test and the Mars rover test I wish I had played more computer games. The right sort of games can help develop your 3D spatial awareness, memory and hand eye coordination. The right sort of game can help with strategy and tactics. Computer games are not just devilish past times that would lead to a lifetime of underachievement as I was brought up to believe but offer valuable skill sets that are becoming increasingly important. We are living in a technological revolution where human-machine interfaces are becoming commonplace and developing those skill sets are becoming important not just for astronauts but for all manner of jobs: Airline pilots can become qualified on a simulator alone, surgeons will soon be controlling small operating machines, drone camera operators are already in high demand.
Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? Episode 4 is on Sunday 10th September at 8pm BBC2.
I must admit, as soon as I hear that word, ‘astronaut’, my ears prick up and I’m searching around for whoever said it. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut and I’m in awe of those that have managed to leave the confines of our atmosphere and unshackled from the bonds of gravity float freely outside of this world.
So when I saw an advert from the BBC requesting participants to go through a psuedo-astronaut training and selection programme run by Chris Hadfield, a 20 year veteran of NASA, I jumped at the opportunity. It could be the closest I ever get to experience being an astronaut and here's why...
Quite literary and within the margins of error everyone that has attempted to be an astronaut fails. Not only do you have to be in top notch physical shape (in ways that you will have no idea about), but also must have developed over the preceding decade(s) skill sets that are at the forefront of your chosen field and be ones that are of core requirement for the astronaut corp (which may change!). That requires a lifetime of dedication, hard work and belief. And then, you have to hope that there will be a selection process during those years when you are at your prime!
The last ESA selection process was in 2007-8. During that selection process nearly 10,000 highly skilled applicants from across Europe vied for six places. The odds were pretty slim of making it into the final six and many exceptional candidates didn't. It is the hardest selection process that exists.
But imagine achieving that dream. It would be the ultimate adventure: Imagine seeing the Earth, the most incredible place in the known universe, from the vantage point of orbit. Just that thought leaves me breathless. And so, it’s always been a question I’ve asked myself, do I have what it takes to be an astronaut? Of course, I think I do, but do the experts? What actually do you have to have to be an astronaut?
Fortunately I have had the opportunity to find out. Filming this BBC series putting us through a similar selection process to a real astronaut selection process has been one of the most intense periods of my life. The other candidates are amazing. The stress you see is real and Chris Hadfield and his team made sure it was as realistic as possible.
Episode 1 of ‘Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?’ airs BBC 2 at 9pm on Sunday 20th August.
Why are we still flying?
This seems like a question not worth bothering to answer. The reasons, as we all know, are endless, convincing and, to that end, not worth repeating. But the reasons against are not ignorable either– flying along with meat production is the greatest producer of green-house gasses, the greatest contributor to climate change.
My interest in this topic is even more intimate than for the typical left-leaning, vegan-becoming, globetrotting dinky (*Double Income No Kids). I design aircraft for a living. You could say I am in bed with the enemy and indeed I occasionally get accused of this. “Ah, should you be designing the monsters that are destroying our planet?” I’m asked. To which I reply, “No that would be parents.” For without people flying there would not be any need for aircraft and I would be out of a job. For all the failures of western capitalism and the free market at least that much is true. And the demand is huge. Airbus, the company who I am designing for at the moment, has a backlog of over 6,000 aircraft. Boeing undoubtedly has a similar number and the growth of newly flying citizens in the emerging markets is phenomenal.
But how wrong that accusation is goes even further: We’re the good guys. The very nature of the industry and market with legislation and cost competitiveness means that each generation of aircraft we design are more efficient and less polluting. We go to extreme levels to achieve these goals and as a structural designer it would not be uncommon for me to spend a month doing a calculation to save a few grams of an aircraft part. The A350, Airbus’s new flagship aircraft, which I am working on now, is the greenest civilian airliner to fly.
Having said all that, the facts remain the same. Flying is completely at odds with the environmental movement. The greenness of new aircraft compared to old ones is measured in single percentage points and, without being overly accurate with my figures here, you generate a smaller carbon footprint by half if you’re driving alone than by flying. This difference would be even more remarkable if you are a couple or a family travelling in one car, where the carbon footprint per person goes down, than a similar number flying (multiplication).
So maybe I should rephrase the question: Why am I still flying?
It is for the reasons that we so all know. It is cheap, amazingly quick and acceptable. It is because everyone else is doing it. It is because these reasons are more important to us individually than the collective good that limiting climate change would have. It is not because we don’t care, it’s because we don’t care enough.
“I take the train.” I say to those doubters. “When it’s only mildly less convenient than flying.” I am forced to add. The trouble is it’s often three times more expensive and takes twice as long. “...and I avoid flying just for weekends.” I finish off with legitimising my green credentials, which tends to mean that for things I ‘shouldn’t’ miss I extend the trip to a week to fit that profile. As for the heralded city breaks to show off our glamorous life styles on Facebook, those I definitely do not do. I much prefer camping in Cornwall anyway.
But that’s not good enough and I think I’m more conscious of the impact than most people. If I can’t do it (won’t do it), how can anyone else can? The answer, sadly, is that in our affluent, globalised, self-gratifying world we are not going to opt for wilful restraint. That also includes not voting in a government that will make these choices less wilful. Are we thus screwed?
Yes and no.
Yes that all this proves that we are as a species, without beating much about the bush, a little crap. It proves that collective activism is sporadic and there is no formula to ignite the fire of our collective hearts and minds. This is compounded by the fact that this is a global problem and requires global action. The larger the number of people affected, the hotter the pot needs to boil before a shift in societal values – this pot is seven billion people strong.
So what do we do whilst this pot is boiling away? Maybe the answer really does lie in the very reason we are in this mess in the first place: Innovation.
The early aeronauts in the latter part of 19th century were a disparate bunch of scientists and engineers. They didn’t receive much funding and in fact a lot of the establishment were dismissive of the folly of flight. But look at what a giant step forward we have made when we did give this technology the attention and importance it deserved. The A380 can transport over 550 people half way across the world at close to the speed of sound and scram jets are flying at 24 times faster!
Despite this lesson in history there is a sense of déjà vu. The greatest innovation in the green revolution in technology is happening on the fringes of the economy. Small technology companies, with small budgets, showing to the world what might be possible if we only look in the right direction.
There is no greater example than the phenomenal Solar Impulse 2 project with their attempt, happening right now, to fly a manned plane around the world powered only by solar energy, quoting directly from their website, the mission statement of the small Swiss company is “to prove that pioneering spirit and innovation can really change the world.”
Yet it’s a tiny company. Why is the only noteworthy thing to say about the big players in this game their notable absence? The sceptic would whisper, ‘it’s because it won’t make any money’. That is true. It is the equivalent of a fishermen sailing out into the North Sea to show the rich canal boat operators that travelling across the sea is possible. Despite how utterly brilliant this achievement is, we are not going to all be flying around in solar powered aircraft for a very long time, or maybe never if there isn’t the massive investment of capital into green technologies it deserves.
That’s where government policy comes in. Companies aren’t going to invest in new technology unless it’s a) a proven winner, b) they have to (legislation) or c) it’s funded from elsewhere (government funds). The ‘Proven Winner’ category is pretty much where we are now, edging forward at a boring snail pace. We require the b’s and c’s. We require legislation forcing companies to adopt greener pathways: The aircraft noise reduction legislation across Europe has already forced manufacturers to change their designs. Or we require massive government investment, which is a dirty word to some, but if we think of it as a massive crowd funding exercise it seems a little cooler.
Putting all this in perspective, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could travel the world without the cloud of guilt hanging over us, or shrouding ourselves in ignorance to avoid confrontation with our ethics, or asking ourselves the question ‘Why are we flying?’
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to travel in an aircraft like this?