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Close encounter (Nonesuch spring 2016)

Nonesuch Spring 2016

Nigel Wood CBE (BSc 1971) NASA

Nonesuch Spring 2016

Training in Houston NASA

Nonesuch Spring 2016

13 May 2016

Major Tim Peake has captured the public’s imagination with his adventures aboard the International Space Station. But for one Bristol graduate, following Peake’s preparations felt like déjà vu. Air Commodore Nigel Wood CBE (BSc 1971) explains how, 30 years ago, he very nearly became Britain’s first astronaut.

In 1981, my young family and I watched the first Space Shuttle land on Earth. As we watched history being made, the shuttle gliding gracefully out of the sky in front of us, I had no idea that two years later I’d get a call asking me to join the first group of British astronauts. I thought it was a spoof.

I was a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot at the time. I’d followed in my father’s footsteps and had a pilot’s licence before I could even drive a car. I never dreamt of being an astronaut. The Apollo 11 mission (Neil Armstrong’s moon landing) happened while I was at Bristol and I was just as in awe as everyone else. It was the pinnacle of aerospace engineering – and adventure – at the time, but too far removed from life as a student for me to imagine myself there.

I never saw myself as academic. But when I left school in 1967, I was accepted onto the RAF graduate scheme, on the condition I went to university. I got an open scholarship on Bristol’s Aeronautical Engineering course. It was the era of student protest, sit-ins, student marches and heated debates: a baptism of social and political engagement that was as much a part of my education as my lectures in the Queen’s Building.

I was lucky to have Dr David Birdsall as my tutor. He encouraged us to look beyond the confines of the syllabus, and the limitations of our work. Unbeknown to me at the time, that work would lead me into test flying and research – and, in 1986, to within an inch of going into space.

After being posted to Germany, and then the Edwards Air Force Base in California, Houston was an exciting place to work. In 1984, the Space Shuttle was still new. I’ve never seen such focused engineering talent: these guys could literally fly you to the moon. My daughters were saying: ‘Daddy is going to be an astronaut.’ Television crews were setting up in our back garden.

There were four of us on the team: myself, Commander Peter Longhurst RN, Major Richard Farrimond R Signals and Chris Holmes. The Ministry of Defence had ordered a new generation of communication satellites, Skynet 4, and we were to launch the first two on separate Space Shuttle missions.

I was selected for the first Skynet mission, and had 12 months to train and prepare. It only took about 17 weeks to learn how to live and work on the shuttle – the best fun was our zero gravity training, experiencing how to work in weightlessness. I spent the rest of my time preparing secondary experiments from UK research establishments. They covered everything from human physiology and the use of adhesives in space to the effects of cosmic rays on equipment.

The launch was scheduled for 24 June 1986, but fate had other ideas. On 28 January, five months before I was due to blast into space, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded a minute after take-off. We lost friends and colleagues.

We carried on preparing, but our mission was put on hold and eventually cancelled. The satellite was later launched on a Titan rocket. With the shuttle programme grounded, I went back to my day job of test flying, and later became the RAF’s Chief Test Pilot. I retired from flying in 2003 and now work as a freelance photographer.

Space flight is still in its infancy: it’s uncertain and hazardous. People will look back and say: ‘Wow, they flew in those old things!’ We were carrying the flag for Britain in space in 1986 but were sadly halted by the Challenger disaster.

The story picked up again five years later, when Helen Sharman joined the Russian Mir Space Station to become the first Briton in space in 1991, but that was without UK government backing. Now Major Tim Peake has finally got there – but it’s taken 30 years. I couldn’t be more thrilled for him. Good luck to him and his successors!

Listen to the audio version (mp3)

Further information

The Department of Aerospace Engineering celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and will open its doors to alumni as part of the Best of Bristol Alumni Weekend on Saturday 9 July. 

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