A dream to explore the unknown… and beyond

Words by:
Kate Chapman
Featured in:
October 2014

We’re all encouraged to shoot for the stars and there’s no better example than the story of astronaut Michael Foale, whose yearnings for space travel began when he was just a schoolboy.
Inspired by comics about space adventure and the televised moon landings, it wasn’t long before he was hooked on trying it out for himself.

After graduating, Louth-born Dr Foale secured a place at America’s prestigious NASA agency (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), where he enjoyed an illustrious career, also becoming the most experienced British born astronaut in the history of human spaceflight.

During his twenty-six years with the space corps he completed six flights, accumulating 374 days in orbit – at one time a record for the most hours spent in space by a US citizen – as well as undertaking tours of the Mir and International space stations, the latter of which he commanded in 2003.

Despite retiring from NASA last year, Dr Foale, who lives in Texas, has not ruled out returning to space on a commercial flight; although he’s currently turned his attention to aviation technology, working on a project to develop an electric aircraft.

“It had been my dream to be an astronaut for most of my life. I think I first became aware of spacecraft and adventure through comics like Dan Dare. Then while visiting my grandma in America, where they had these great science fairs, I saw John Glenn’s capsule, and I just thought ‘wow, I’d like to do that’,” he recalled.

“But it was after watching the moon landings, when I was about eleven or twelve that I really set my sights on becoming an astronaut – and I went through all the options of how I could make that happen.”

Educated in Canterbury, Kent, Dr Foale gained his astrophysics PhD from Cambridge. He originally planned to follow in the footsteps of his father Colin, by training as an RAF pilot to help progress his dream of going into space, but a previously undetected eye problem meant he was refused entry.

“They discovered I had a muscular problem with my eyes, which actually went away with exercise,” he explained.

“I was surprised as I’d already qualified as a glider pilot. I talked to my father, who was very pragmatic, and he simply said ‘there are other things in life’. At that point I really thought that door was closed to me.

“But a while later I saw that another space shuttle was going to be launched where two of the crew were pilots, the rest were scientists, and that gave me new hope.”

Shortly afterwards he left the UK to pursue his ambition of joining NASA. This required him to become a US citizen and complete the agency’s lengthy application process involving interviews, physical and mental tests as well as a written essay, which he undertook three times before finally being accepted in 1987.

“I had many low moments along the way, but I believe if you have a setback you don’t just give up,” he said.

“It was five more years before I made my first flight in 1992; I was thirty-five years old and my daughter had just been born. It was an amazing experience. I had all my family there with me in Florida on that bright sunny day in March.

“We launched with a force of 3G, the equivalent of three people sitting on your chest – I’d had the training so I knew what to expect, and after about eight minutes your hands fly up, as there’s no gravity anymore once you’re in orbit.

“I went across to the window as it was my job to take a picture. I couldn’t see any stars as it was all just black – and then I saw the earth. That was a really big moment.

“Then, we were over Canada; it only takes ten minutes from Florida to reach Greenland and I saw this big crater, about 50km across. I had no idea the first thing I’d recognise would be that!

“The higher we got the more ball-like the earth looked, and we started to go into darkness. We were experiencing a sunrise every ninety minutes. The further east we went it was getting towards sunset. It just goes all black as the sun sets behind you, and then the stars, which look white from earth, make all these wonderful rainbow colours.

“At night the earth looks very black, it’s only really the cities you can see. The deserts are all brown and there’s green near the coastlines. It certainly gives you a different perspective on human deprivation – where people live and how much money they have got.”

Dr Foale’s first flight was a ten-day mission aboard Atlantis – the first shuttle flight devoted to the environment. The seven-strong crew conducted tests of the earth’s atmosphere, and in particular the ozone layer.

Further flights followed every couple of years, including a rather eventful tour on Russia’s Mir space platform in 1997, which has been immortalised in the book Waystation to the Stars, by his father Colin.

“A cargo ship was being tested to see if it could be flown without radar and it crashed into the space station – obviously it couldn’t be done!” Dr Foale recalled.

“The crash caused a large leak, and almost resulted in us abandoning it, but we did stay.

“We had to secure the leak, and cut off the section that had a hole in it, while the crash had destroyed one third of the whole of the electrical power supply.

“It was a very difficult time for the space station, and it made it really hard for the remaining three months.”

As well as living on Mir, Dr Foale also spent time servicing the Hubble telescope – NASA’s space telescope – and stays on the ISS, a habitable artificial satellite in low Earth orbit.

After six voyages, the veteran astronaut decided the time was right to retire and concentrate on other projects, including his own company Foale Aerospace.

“It was all down to a combination of factors, but the time felt right and I also had my own idea regarding electric flight,” he explained.

“Our dependence on hydrocarbon fuels isn’t sustainable – the time has come for us to be getting our energy from the environment, so we’re trying to build an electric plane.

“I’m actively working on a couple of projects to advance this – we’re starting with a small aircraft with a couple of seats and building up to an air carrier transport plane.”

Nevertheless, Dr Foale has not ruled out a return to orbit, should the commercial flight industry take off.

“Going into space is dangerous, there’s no doubt about it. But for me it’s all about seeing what else is out there and exploring the unknown.

“It’s a big universe; you can’t get much closer, or be more aware of it than when in space.”

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