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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 Their opportunity to go into space was withdrawn.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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