On Tuesday Chichester-born Tim Peake will make history when he becomes the first Briton to serve a six-month mission on the International Space Station. But 25 years ago Gosport Royal Navy medical officer Dr Gordon Brooks came within a whisker of being our first astronaut.
You could say it was written in the stars for Gordon Brooks.
As a boy he built a boat in his bedroom and at school there was a madcap escapade to launch a rocket.
Up it would go with the aid of balloons, which would fall away as motors kicked in to send it heavenward. It failed, but the seed was sown.
His dad, a headmaster, took his pupils to the same camp site each summer at St Helens on the Isle of Wight. Gordon went too.
‘Every year we would take a boat trip around Portsmouth Harbour to see all the warships,’ he recalls.
‘I was totally impressed by it all. Those massive hunks of steel, the guns on them. So I was smitten by the idea of going to sea at a very early age.’
So Gordon joined the Royal Navy and then became a trainee astronaut – as you do.
And, of course, with the latter came the inevitable ‘Flash’ prefix to his name.
Twenty-five years ago Gordon, of Monckton Road, Alverstoke, Gosport, came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the first Briton in space.
His face was over all the papers along with the three others who made it through to the final cut from 13,000 applicants. It was called Project Juno and all four were expected to spend a week on the Russian Mir space station.
But only one made it – Helen Sharman, who became Britain’s first astronaut to work on the International Space Station.Then the project collapsed and Gordon never got the chance to go into space.
No other Brit has, until next Tuesday, when former Chichester schoolboy Major Tim Peake, from Westbourne, near Emsworth ,is scheduled to blast off from Kazakhstan to spend six months working at the ISS.
Project Juno was a joint arrangement between the Soviet Union and Britain and had been devised, at least in part, to cement relations between then president Mikhail Gorbachev and prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Gordon says: ‘We four were to take turns carrying out increasingly complex scientific missions to Mir.
‘As part of the arrangement, British aerospace companies would be able to apply their technological expertise to space travel and the Russians would gain capital financial support for their robust but ageing delivery system.
‘Britain could once again become a nation with a space programme, despite Mrs Thatcher’s public lack of support for manned space flight.’
Gordon was a medical officer in the Royal Navy and, importantly, a deep sea diver who regularly dived to more than 1,000ft.
Diving suits which looked similar to those worn by spacemen, compression chambers, lack of oxygen, danger and adventure were part of his everyday life.
In July 1989, when he was stationed in Portsmouth Dockyard to gain further occupational medicine experience, he spotted an advert in The Times for the Juno mission: ‘Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary’.
‘I was immediately excited by the idea. The next day I rang the hotline, passed the initial interview and was sent an application from.’
The form asked about adventurous and scientific qualifications that might have made Gordon suitable. So, again, he turned to his childhood.
Gordon, 59, says: ‘I dug out the reply to a letter I’d written to the Ministry of Aviation when I was 10 asking to go into space, which had provided kindly advice about working hard and joining the forces.’
He adds: ‘By Juno, I had indeed joined the navy and been to war, but the childhood dream had faded. My chosen career path involved gently pushing at the physiological boundaries of what mankind could achieve. I had published a number of research papers in that area and been a hands-on RN physician working on testing new gear for surviving hazardous circumstances and the design of artificial intelligence support for remote circumstances.
‘For me, Juno appeared a natural opportunity for career progression. It wasn’t the thought of achieving some sort of celebrity status as the first Briton in space which attracted me. After all, the Russian Soyuz craft were the well worn and tested Morris Minors of space travel. As was jokingly remarked, you topped them up with cabbages and sent them on their way.’
He adds: ‘Despite the US Challenger disaster in 1986, the personal risk in travelling into space was quite low. I was more interested in the idea of furthering co-operation between Cold War enemies and helping draw together Britain’s advanced technology with Russia’s reliable delivery mechanism.
‘I’d taken part in large well-funded international deep diving projects as both researcher and subject and thought Juno might be similar, but more exciting, with a couple of interviews thrown in along the way… How wrong I was.’
The Ministry of Defence had banned serving personnel from taking part, but Gordon applied anyway. ‘I reckoned I wouldn’t last long on the selection process.’
But out of those 13,000 applicants Gordon reached the final 35. His details were released to the media and he recalls: ‘I didn’t know whether to hide or not when the first reporter from The News appeared at the house oddly asking to take a picture of me standing on my head.’
Then he was summoned before the Flag Officer Portsmouth for ‘the required verbal tongue-lashing’.
He adds: ‘I expressed my contrition, the admiral smiled and said in that war movie way: ‘‘Well done Brooks. I’ll see what can be done’’.’
When he made the final quartet he made his own Project Juno T-shirt complete with the word ‘Flash’ in Russian. But then corporate PR kicked in. There was an official uniform to be worn and publicity pictures to be taken by Lord Snowdon.
Is he envious of Tim Peake? Does he regret never having been Britain’s first man in space?
‘Yes, from time to time, but I don’t dwell on it. There was no backing from the government for manned space flight so there was no chance that another British person would fly after Helen.
‘But if I was offered the chance now to do what Tim is doing? Of course I would.’
‘THOSE OF USE WHO SURVIVED ATLANTIC CONVEYOR MISSILE ATTACK WERE LUCKY TO GET OFF’
Gordon Brooks still thinks there was less danger in being an astronaut than he experienced in the Royal Navy.
He says: ‘I thought there were more dangerous things in the navy such as the time I parachuted into the sea, the parachute got caught around my legs and sank taking me down with it and I had to cut it free.’
And then there was the Atlantic Conveyor during the Falklands War in 1982. ‘It was my first job in the navy,’ says Gordon, who was 25 at the time.
‘I was just completing a course at the Institute of Naval Medicine at Alverstoke. I hadn’t even been to Dartmouth. I wasn’t a proper officer, but I really wanted to go to war.’
He got his way. Atlantic Conveyor was a container ship requisitioned during that conflict. She was converted into a carrier for helicopters and Harriers.
On May 25, 1982, she was hit by two Argentine air-launched Exocet missiles. Twelve sailors died.
Gordon says: ‘Being on Conveyor changed my life. The two Exocets had been aimed at HMS Hermes [the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier] but thankfully deflected to us otherwise there would have been horrendous casualties. There were more people in Hermes than the population of the Falklands.’
Conveyor was full of combustible materials and munitions and the fires quickly spread out of control.
‘Those of us who survived were lucky to get off. My post was in the dark and smoke, with constant explosions from below, above the seat of the fire, and I had to move my team when our shoes started melting.
‘After finally getting off I almost drowned before struggling up the side of a frigate. I then joined the medical team on board to try to resuscitate others picked out of the water.
‘Everyone did their very best in the face of a catastrophic situation and the survivors were left utterly physically and mentally exhausted. I run a website for Conveyor folk and they check in from time to time. Most never talk about it.’