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When Britain had a small astronaut corps

Jonathan Amos | 16:35 UK time, Friday, 19 March 2010

For Richard Farrimond, it was a case of the "right stuff" but at the "wrong time".

Richard Farrimond's Nasa photoRichard was one of four UK nationals who joined Nasa in 1984 to act as "payload specialists" on the space shuttle.

Their task was to assist in the deployment from the orbiter of what were to be Britain's new military telecommunications satellites - Skynet 4A and Skynet 4B.

This was back in the days when the shuttle was going to launch every month and make the expendable rocket market redundant.

The idea was never very realistic and it stalled completely on 28 January, 1986, when the Challenger shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after launching from the Kennedy Space Center.

A lot changed that day.

For the small British astronaut corps it meant packing their bags and heading home. Their opportunity to go into space was withdrawn. The Skynet satellites, too, never got their shuttle experience. One was sent to South America to be launched by Ariane; the other went up on a US Titan rocket.

But twenty-four years on, Richard still speaks effusively about his time at Nasa and the friends he made - and lost.

Last week, he retired from the space business, stepping down as the UK military marketing manager at Europe's biggest space company, EADS Astrium.

And it was an opportunity to talk over old times.

He was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding a Signal Squadron in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, when the call came to join the space elite.

US President Ronald Regan had made an offer to his great friend, the British PM Margaret Thatcher, to host UK citizens aboard the shuttle.

Richard told me:

"I'd done at least 18 months of a two-year tour in Londonderry when I got a call from the postings branch to ask me, 'was I interested in going to the Moon?', in those words. The chap probably knew less about space than I did, but it was soon made clear to us what we really had to do."

The three services each supplied an astronaut candidate to the Skynet 4 shuttle programme. A civil servant was also selected from the MoD. Their job would entail looking after the satellites on orbit and carrying out general crew duties.

Richard Farrimond with a model of Skynet 5They would also get to take a box of British microgravity experiments into space.

Squadron Leader Nigel Wood (RAF) was assigned to the Skynet 4A mission with Richard Farrimond as his back-up. Commander Peter Longhurst (Royal Navy) was assigned to the Skynet 4B flight with Christopher Holmes, the Whitehall civil servant, acting as his back-up.

Their first year of training was largely spent getting to grips with satellites. Richard freely admits he knew next to nothing about space or space systems at that stage. It was then off to Houston and a period of astronaut training.

They trained alongside the Challenger crew and became good friends. Had the accident not happened, the Skynet 4A mission would probably have launched a few months later.

Richard recalls going to Barbara Morgan's launch. Morgan had been the back-up to Challenger's "teacher in space" Christa McAuliffe, and she didn't fly herself until 2007.

"Nasa had invited all the teachers who'd applied for the programme to attend Barbara's launch. And when the shuttle passed 'go at throttle up' and carried on sailing, you could feel the emotion that day. It was amazing."

The space bug had bitten Richard. He went back to army duties on his return from Nasa but soon took a job at BAe Space Systems in Bristol as a general manager.

His involvement in Skynet continued also, and recently played a prominent role in getting the Skynet 5 programme off the ground.

If you follow this blog, you'll know that the latest generation of Skynet is very different to its previous incarnations. It is now a commercial service that is sold to the MoD and to "friendly forces". Richard helped develop the overseas market, selling spare capacity on the new satellites to Nato countries, including the US.

He's passionate about space, and leaves the business hoping that government will grasp the recommendations in a recent report that laid out a strategy to grow the industry.

"As I look back right now, I have to say I don't think we've had a particularly successful last few years as a joined up national space operation, in the widest sense - from business to exciting young people. We now have an opportunity in the Innovation and Growth Strategy. I totally support the number one recommendation which is that we need to have a National Space Policy."

Tim PeakeIn the media, we like the phrase "Britain's first official astronaut". We're still waiting for one.

All those Brits who've gone into space so far have done so as private individuals (Richard Garriott) or on private programmes (Helen Sharman), or with Nasa after having taken out US citizenship (Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick, etc).

The "Skynet four" were certainly "official" - they had the Union flag on the shoulder as Richard's publicity shot on this page testifies. But they never flew.

Now, the "burden" of being the UK's official number one has been passed to Tim Peake, the rookie recruited last year into the European Space Agency's (Esa) astronaut team.

Richard was thrilled to see this former Army Air Corps helicopter pilot get selected.

"I was Army and I was back-up. Helen Sharman's back-up was Army, and finally the Army has won through with Tim. I'm really pleased. You know, I can talk about space to someone and when they realise that I once trained as an astronaut - there is suddenly this extraordinary spark of interest. We're right to dabble in human spaceflight. We don't want to be investing big bucks, but we're right to dabble. We owe it to our young people to excite them. If Tim does nothing else, he will have succeeded."

Major Tim - as everybody seems to call him now - has finished his Russian classes and has started full-on basic astronaut training at Esa.

Speaking with European Space Agency officials recently, it was clear that they would quite like to get one of their rookies into space as soon as possible.

The first available opportunity is likely to come in 2014 with a European seat on a Soyuz bound for the space station.

All six of Esa's newbies - including Tim - will have completed the necessary preparation by then and will be eager to fill that seat.

Watch this space.


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  • 1. At 2:30pm on 21 Mar 2010, Mike Mullen wrote:

    An interesting story and one can only imagine what might have been if NASA had just decided to wait for warmer weather and delayed the Challenger launch.

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  • 2. At 3:32pm on 21 Mar 2010, Tourmaline wrote:

    Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick, etc

    By "etc", I assume you mean Piers Sellers, Mission Specialist on Atlantis' final scheduled mission, STS-132, in May this year?

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  • 3. At 7:19pm on 21 Mar 2010, Jonathan Amos wrote:

    Fear not @Tourmaline, we will make a fuss over over Piers just as we do over Nicholas Patrick, and just as we have always done over Michael Foale. Wiki has a good summary of all the "space Brits", whatever their connection.

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  • 4. At 7:33pm on 21 Mar 2010, callisto wrote:

    I worked under Richard Farrimond at the Bristol facility until 1993. He always struck me as a very capable, honest and dependable individual. I wish him well in his retirement.
    I am glad that he agrees with the only bits of the IGS with any iota of credibility - the inauguration of a UK space agency with dedicated funding and non-partisan political strength and a National space policy. This policy should ensure all UK effort in space goes through UK-run business for the benefit of the UK, not foreign-owned flags of convenience.

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  • 5. At 8:48pm on 21 Mar 2010, JT0475 wrote:

    Richard was my Commanding Officer for a while whilst I was also in the Royal Signals. I actually have a signed certifate from him on my office wall! I remember him giving a talk about his time in NASA and the space shuttle programme during 'downtime' on exercise in Germany (we weren't allowed to maneouvre at weekends to avoid disturbing the locals any more than necessary), and he was a very enthusiastic proponent of manned space exploration if I recall correctly, even though he was sanguine about losing the chance to fly himself.
    I wish him all the best now that he's retired from one ex bleep to another!

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  • 6. At 10:44pm on 21 Mar 2010, Mike Plunkett wrote:

    Somewhere I have a photograph of these four would be intrepid astronauts, signed by Cdr Peter Longhurst. It was given to me as a kid by my godfather, a Royal Navy Commander himself at the time, who new of my interest in all things space related. It's a tantalising glimpse of what could have been...

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  • 7. At 07:49am on 22 Mar 2010, sportingmac wrote:

    Happy reirement Richard. See you in May.


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  • 8. At 5:25pm on 23 Mar 2010, Stephen Ashworth wrote:

    Virgin Galactic have just announced the successful completion of the first captive carry flight of their commercial passenger spacecraft yesterday. The flight lasted about three hours and went up to an altitude of 13.7 km.

    I look forward to the day when "astronauts", "cosmonauts" and other "-nauts" are a rarity among space travellers. If they really want to grow the UK space industry, personal space exploration is the way to go.


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  • 9. At 4:07pm on 10 Dec 2010, U14717710 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 10. At 10:39am on 08 Jan 2011, vkolotilov wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 11. At 11:20am on 09 Jan 2011, vkolotilov wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 12. At 7:58pm on 23 Jan 2011, U14762147 wrote:

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  • 13. At 3:15pm on 27 Jan 2011, Eliran Yonani wrote:

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  • 14. At 11:16am on 03 Feb 2011, jocuri gratis wrote:

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  • 15. At 11:19am on 03 Feb 2011, jocuri gratis wrote:

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  • 16. At 3:17pm on 24 Feb 2011, TothZ wrote:

    This should feel amazing for Richard. His dreams were broken for a lot of years and he probably even gave up on them - but now he got the second chance. I bet he is excited at least to say.
    Toth | cna training class

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