Astronaut Wanted, No Experience Necessary - Leeds International Festival

Astronaut Wanted, No Experience Necessary

Leeds International Festival 18 5 May 2018

Taking a close look at space travel past, present and future, the “Astronauts Wanted, No Experience Necessary” event saw past experience meet future innovation, to pose the big questions about space travel, and our quest for extra-stellar knowledge, with some of the biggest names in interstellar travel.

The first Briton in space, Helen Sharman CMG OBE, sat in discussion with Bas Landorp, CEO and Co-Founder of the MarsONE mission (with its aim to permanently settle people on Mars within twenty years), and Dallas Campbell, BBC presenter and author of Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet. With their broad knowledge base, they were perfectly positioned to pose the how, why and when questions of future space missions.

Exploring ‘the final frontier’ has been an endeavour for many countries across many continents over the last fifty years. But looking skywards for answers has a history much greater than that, stretching back to the astronomers of Classical times, when figures such as Ptolemy, Aristotle, Copernicus and Galileo began to postulate, and theorise, about the shape of our solar system and universe, over two millennia ago.

But are we making leaps and bounds in our understanding of space, or has our thirst for knowledge and exploration plateaued? And what do we as a nation (and our government) need to do to press on, further broadening and deepening our knowledge of the rest of our vast solar system, and the infinite universe beyond it? How to we educate the next generation to this end, and how do we direct always limited funding towards finding the answers that will help us most?

Credit: Cosmonaut Helen Sharman, OBE
Cosmonaut Helen Sharman, OBE

Helen Sharman wasn’t meant to be an astronaut.  Helen was a food chemist from Sheffield, who happened to apply to a job advertisement she heard on the radio. This job offer consisted of the following message: “Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary”.

Enthusiastic and fascinated, she applied. As did 13,000 other enthusiastic applicants, who fancied the Russian project to train up a complete novice, and send them to outerspace. But Helen Sharman pipped 13,000 others to the post. And it was no matter of chance; Helen won the opportunity due to her aptitude for foreign languages, her scientific background, and her physical fitness, as well as undergoing psychological testing. She was selected above all these others, as one of only two applicants who would then undertake full-time astronaut training in Moscow.

She won the experience of a lifetime – and began a rigorous and intensive training process, which lasted over a year, at Star City, in Soviet Union-era Russia. Phonecalls to the UK had to be booked in advance, and a rough line could mean booking another call days later. Helen was there for the scheme, named Project Juno, which offered this unique opportunity – for an amateur to go to space. Project Juno was a collaboration between the Soviet Union and private companies from the UK. The goal? To foster UK-Soviet relations. Helen Sharman was the pawn in this relationship; the British astronaut hosted on Russia’s “Mir” space station; a figurehead of international unity and outer space exploration.

She was propelled into space on May 18th, 1991.  Project Juno lasted eight days, a time Helen spent focussing on biological experiments, as well as in conversation with British schoolchildren back on earth, via radio. And thus Helen became both the first Briton to go to space, and the first woman to visit Mir.

Credit: Dallas Campbell at Leeds International Festival 18
Dallas Campbell at Leeds International Festival 18

Looking to the future of space travel was Bas Lansdorp. The Dutch entrepreneur always had a passion for big projects, so it’s hardly surprising that he ended up tackling this behemoth, possibly the biggest of our lifetime; a one-way trip to Mars, to instigate a permanent colony of human life on the red planet. Manning a mission to settle the first human colony on Mars by 2032 is MarsONE’s ultimate aim.

The first (unmanned) mission will send craft to Mars in 2022, designed to create habitable conditions on this inhospitable planet a decade before the human participants undertake their ground-breaking, one-way trip.

Of course, funding is key to all space travel – and is a not insignificant hurdle for the Mars One mission. Helen and Bas discussed the huge costs versus the benefits of space travel, with Mars One as a real, tangible example of what it necessary to gain ‘lift off’.

Mars One started selecting potential candidates for its one-way trip back in 2013. Out of four selection rounds, two have now been completed – one hundred candidates remain, going into round three. Up to six groups of four applicants will become full-time employees of Mars One, and begin training for their mission. Whole teams might prove themselves not up to the task, as they explore scenarios that mimic the Martian experience in Earth-based simulations.

But that’s not the end; new selection programmes will roll on, creating new generations of aspiring Mars settlers.

Helen Sharman and Bas Lansdorp spent “Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary” discussing the how and why of space exploration and Mars settlement, broaching the big topics: how do you find a crew willing to undertake a one-way trip of this magnitude? How do you prepare them, psychologically and physically? How do you finance such a mission? Bas discussed the complexities of finding a set of people ready to leave all of their friends, family, and ultimately, Planet Earth, behind them.