The Average Brit Flying to Work at 18,000mph

So what is my local car rental manager doing, parading in NASA coveralls in London’s Queen Mary University Theatre in late November 2006?

No, wait: it must be Gary Lineker, guest speaker of the British Interplanetary Society, with a 8’-by-5’ poster of Saturn and the secret aim of taking chips and sweets from the noisy local student contingent.

Or…is that a bird? Is that a plane? No, it’s Piers J. Sellers, Ph.D., former Global Warming researcher and now Space Shuttle crew member and quasi-UK Astronaut Extraordinaire (“quasi” as UK persons need opt for a different citizenship to work in Earth orbit).

Sellers, born in Sussex in 1955 but now an American citizen, is following up his July STS-121 mission with a UK trip that has generated good-natured interest in the press, and even some air time on BBC Radio4’s Today.

Luckily (for Sellers) and blissfully (for all of us), Sellers’ Shuttle trip companion astronaut Lisa M. Nowak hasn’t yet destroyed her career by wearing nappies for a 1,000-mile drive to pepper-spray a love rival in February 2007.

And so instead of a sex scandal, the talk is about the less risky enterprise called space travel, as told by a bloke so average in appearance and so relaxed about himself to make taciturn Neil Armstrong a veritable space alien.

Aliens won’t invade us, because [on streets like Mile End Road] they can’t find where to park”: Sellers is definitely no warplane pilot turned moonwalker spiritualist. He’s “simply” a space walker, slightly “disoriented” only by the first sight of the white-and-blue jewel called Earth.

His description of the piling up of task upon task may sound familiar to office workers the world over. Still, very few of those usually validate if their cubicles will destroy during atmospheric re-entry, as Sellers and the rest of the STS-121 crew did after the Columbia tragedy of February 2003 and the half-botched first “return-to-flight” mission of STS-114 in July 2005.

A NASA video hints at the peculiarities of working in space. First of all there is nobody within a 3-mile radius of a ready-to-start Space Shuttle: and for good reason, as the bunch of aviation and navy pilots, space commanders and Ph.D’s collectively called “astronauts” are literally sitting on top of a giant bomb hoping it will explode in a controlled manner, pushing them upwards and forwards rather than into smithereens..

There is lots of sound and bouncing at lift-off. Somebody touches a control button, but Sellers reassures “We were just pretending to work. The launch [really] blew me away.” Orbital life is a piece of cake in comparison, with a couple of days of procedures to proceed and checklists to check, before approaching the International Space Station at the snail-like pace of 1m/sec (a little more than 2 miles an hour).

The video recording moves on to Lisa Nowak working with a large boom, at the time not to threaten a love rival but to move cargo to the Station with fellow astronaut-ess Stephanie Wilson, and then finally on mission day five maneuvering Sellers and colleague Michael Fossum locked on top of a 100-foot pole.

Sellers recounts a few funny details. For example, even in the most comfortable spacesuit one better gets used to spending up to ten hours without luxuries such as toilet breaks and nose scratching. And so a big deal of one’s resting time is spent cleaning up bodily odours and outpours from the spacesuit (no mention of any solution to the nose itching problem).

Furthermore, gloves for orbital work are more apt for a The Thing impersonation from the Fantastic Four, and so one handles multi-million-dollar wrenches knowing some will drop on their own sidereal orbit. Last but not least, one gets occasionally stuck in a phone-boot-like airlock for more than one hour.

Back inside the spaceship, in-between risky zero-g adventures with M&M’s of all things, one can look forward to a “shower” of damp cloths, a dinner of bland food and a night chained to a bed (kinky orbital fun, anybody?). Ah, and the toilet has a noisy fan and too thin a door really.

After some four days of that, it’s time to pull the jet brakes on the Shuttle (“feeling like on a truck slowing down”, Sellers remembers) to start the “unforgiving landing sequence”, after gulping in a disgusting salty drink designed to help the body readjust to Earthly life.

Outside the vehicle, “cherry-red windows” show the same tongues of fire that consumed the unfortunate Columbia astronauts a mere three-and-a-half years earlier. Falling almost helplessly, the Space Shuttle is somehow guided without engines to a hard touchdown, at the end of which gravity is felt like having “brick on the shoulders”.

Still Sellers opines, “The real dangerous bit is the lift-off.” No need to remind anybody of the crew of six that died on the 1986 Challenger accident, during the ascent phase.

Has Sellers got any chance of going back to the Space Station? “Sure. There is plenty of work available,” he answers. “Perhaps there will be 15 missions with 7 astronauts each between now and 2010.” Such chances are presumably slightly larger now than Ms. Nowak has been removed from NASA’s roster.

Before a strange, nostalgically catchy set of photographs of Seller’s mission is shown to the tune of Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound”, the evening fades away in a torrent of questions about medical facilities (“We can’t do heart transplants in space as yet”); rubbish management (“Thrown overboard”); launch delays (“Frustrating”); the justification for space budgets (“The money is spent on Earth”); and Orion, the Space Shuttle replacement (“Safer and cheaper and brings us back to the Moon”).

There! Has anybody else caught the tiny sparkle in Sellers’ voice when mentioning future manned Lunar exploration? Who knows, by 2025 the UK government may have found the negligible additional resources to fund a trip to the Moon for a couple of lucky British passport holders.

For the time being, I better check if my local car rental manager has moved to Houston.