A new book on Europe’s influence on space exploration was a labour of love for Cork author John O’Sullivan. He even applied to be an astronaut, he tells Noel Baker.
Have you got ‘The Right Stuff’? Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction tome on those onboard the first manned spaceflight by the United States — and the subsequent Oscar-winning film biopic — paint a vivid picture of just what skills are required to soar past the atmosphere and into space.
If you can forgive your correspondent for an entirely personal reverie, I’ve also seen the right stuff in action.
One of my oldest friends has astronaut Dan Tani as a brother-in-law, and having seen him fully engaged in post-Christmas festivities, all the while looking like he could easily perform brain surgery as the rest of us spilled our drinks in our laps, it seemed immediately obvious to me that the men and women who take part in the Space race are a breed apart.
John O’Sullivan, author of a new book entitled In the Footsteps of Columbus: European Missions to the International Space Station, knows exactly what I mean.
The Cork-born qualified electrical engineer once harboured hopes of getting into space himself, and in the course of researching his book, he received a rare insight into just what makes astronauts the unique characters they are.
“These guys are special, as are their American and Russian counterparts,” he says, adding that he once met the aforementioned Tani at Cork’s Blackrock Castle.
I’m also amazed at the success and achievements of the astronauts.
Apart from their qualifications and experiences before joining ESA (the European Space Agency), they have all gone on to great things afterwards.
Umberto Guidoni became an Italian MEP, Claudie Hagniere became a French government minister, Thomas Reiter headed the German space agency and is now Head of ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations, effectively in charge of all ESA’s ISS activities as well as unmanned missions.
"Christer Fuglesang is a professor of particle physics at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology.”
John hasn’t done too badly himself. A past pupil of the North Monastery secondary school and then University College Cork, his string of postgraduate qualifications includes having a Certificate in Astronomy and Planetary Science, from the Open University.
He also earned his Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) in 2003, an achievement firmly in line with his youthful grá for the skies and beyond.
“I’ve been fascinated by aviation and space since I was a child,” he says.
“For as long as I can remember I’ve been reading about aviation and space. When I left school, I applied to Aer Lingus pilot training and got to the last round of interviews. As I was not selected, I went on to study engineering and later fulfilled my ambition to fly by getting my PPL and owning a share in a plane.”
He might well have been the first Irish-born astronaut, had his application in 2008 to European Space Agency (ESA) been successful.
“I was qualified in that I had an engineering degree and a pilot’s licence and the associated medical certificate but ultimately the successful candidates were qualified academically to a PhD level or had vast military/civilian jet pilot experience,” he says.
“It was a good experience for me as I got to understand what’s involved in the application process.”
John says the pace of progress during the glory years of the Space Race was driven by the Cold War and once men landed on the Moon, the budgets were slashed “almost immediately”.
Now funding is, relatively speaking, “down to a trickle”.
On the plus side, even with the reigniting of old tensions between the US and Russia, there is no Cold War in space.
The ISS, occasionally visible as a bright dot streaking across the night sky, is truly an international effort.
“Even at the height of difficulties between the States and the Russians recently, the Americans still have to break their own laws to allow Americans to travel on Russian space craft,”John explains.
“Americans and Europeans are flying on Russian capsules and that’s funding the Russian space programme.”
The ISS has also enjoyed increased profile through social media and the plethora of ‘Earth at night’ photographs beamed down to us from the cosmos by the likes of Chris Hadfield.
The more recent adventures of British astronaut Tim Peake has also kept space in the public eye.
“Tim Peake and before him Chris Hadfield have done a great job in engaging with the public over social media and regular media too,” John says.
“Any publicity like that has to be good news. Encouraging science and technology as subjects for young people is vital to the economy.
"There is a good point that is not made often enough about the space economy: Millions/Billions are spent on space, but the money is not launched into orbit, it is spent here on earth on wages and in taxes, benefiting people here.
"Tim Peake is responsible for a lot. Until his selection, in a process open to all ESA member citizens, the UK government was very much against funding human spaceflight and in particular the ISS.
"That has all changed now. There is a new UK Space Agency and funding has begun for the ISS.”
All this and more is the focus of his book, evidently a labour of love from a man who as a boy used to dream of the vastness of space.
Many of the American space heroes have strong Irish connections.
The first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, spoke with pride of his Ulster heritage, while the astronaut who kept their Apollo 11 Command Module in orbit while they explored the surface of the moon, Michael Collins, had ancestors from Cork.
It seems that dealing with the more quotidian elements of how astronauts make it all the way up there has not dimmed O’Sullivan’s enthusiasm.
“Some [chapters] focus on the training the astronauts undergo, others focus on the assembly and construction work carried out on the station and more focus on the science carried out on board.
"The most interesting, though, is the personal experiences of these men and women living in space.
"There are physical problems with space sickness due to inner-ear imbalance, they have to exercise daily to prevent dangerous levels of bone and muscle mass loss, they have a very tight schedule to maintain and weightlessness provides its own special issues with lost pens, notebooks and equipment. Velcro is very important to these guys,” he says.
He goes through a typical week aboard the ISS and it does sound exhausting: working 10 hours a day five days a week, with a half-day Saturday and one full day off.
Many astronauts have their own charities or media requirements that take up much of their spare time and live in a “very rigid” structure where even their waste is weighed and analysed.
The journey up there might only take as long as two days but once on board, the astronauts are not putting their zero gravity feet up.
According to John, there work on the ISS focuses on areas such as human physiology, the effects of micro gravity on the immune and blood system, and experimenting with radiation.
“Everything is focused to longer term missions and Mars.”
The Red Planet is still the star that dazzles brightest.
It takes nine months to get there, another nine to come back, and any future mission will have to contend with issues such as being able to grow food on board for the crew, and the effects of radiation.
The ISS is still within Earth’s magnetic field, meaning those on board are protected from radiation, but that would not be the case for anyone stretching out into our solar system.
Anyone anticipating launch date will have a wait, however; “I don’t think there’s political will for a Mars mission in any country,” John says, adding that unless the Chinese take an interest, Mars travel will probably fall to the private sector.
More practically, he believes that given the increasingly shaky state of our own planet, we should be turning more of a focus upwards at the universe around us.
“I think the perilous state of our planet means we need to devote more efforts to space exploration,” he says.
“Apart from man-made problems affecting the planet, we could lose our entire species due to a natural disaster, gamma ray burst, asteroid impact etc.”
In the Footsteps of Columbus: European Missions to the International Space Station, by John O’Sullivan, published by Springer-Praxis is available now to download from Amazon.
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