As somebody with a lifelong fascination with space travel and a deep personal interest in its development, I love learning from people who have, quite literally, been there, seen it and done it. Who better than Major Tim Peake, the British astronaut who recently returned to Earth after six months living in space?
Virgin Galactic invited many of our wonderful future astronaut community to join us at the Science Museum in London for an evening of discussion with yours truly and Tim. It was thrilling walking past the museum's many historic space artefacts, from rockets to probes, satellites to landers, before taking to the stage.
Once there, we were fortunate to be sitting in front of the Soyuz TMA-19M descent module, which took Tim Peake up to the International Space Station and brought him back home safely. I got a close look at the capsule, and its scorch marks from re-entry are quite something (you can see it for yourself at the Science Museum until September 11th). Tim said it was quite an uncomfortable vessel for his journey, and it reaffirmed our commitment to doing things differently with Virgin Galactic and our own unique flight system.
We compared the capsule with my own time in balloon capsules on round-the-world adventures, and agreed it is helpful if you like the people you are cosied up inside with! Tim's insights into his experiences in space, from space walks to running the Virgin Money London Marathon, from Friday night down-time onboard the ISS to plans for his next journey, were enthralling.
As well as serious scientific study, it was great to hear about the lighter moments up in space. I laughed when seeing Tim's tuxedo t-shirt, which he took to space on the off chance he would need it as an English gentleman, and ended up wearing to present Adele with a BRIT Award from space.
Stephen Attenborough, our commercial director, was a little apprehensive interviewing Britain’s most famous astronaut along with yours truly – apparently I have a reputation for going a little off-piste in these situations – but did a great job with his parents watching on.
Earlier in the day I had a delightful catch up with Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space explorer, who was integral to the development of the XPRIZE, which in turn led to the creation of Virgin Galactic. Seeing Anousheh listening to our talk, I invited her onstage to share her views on space travel too. She offered some intriguing opinions on the overview effect, and Tim agreed how everyone who ventures to space returns to Earth with renewed purpose to make it a better place. That's certainly something everybody at Virgin Galactic cares deeply about supporting.
We also share a passion for encouraging more young people to pursue their dreams, whether in the space industry, the wider STEM sector, or beyond. A 14-year-old girl asked us for advice on her future, and it was interesting hearing how Tim left school at 18 and didn't get a degree for 33 years. We agreed that there are many routes to achieving your goals, and passing exams isn't the be-all and end-all. Having said that, I was impressed that Tim managed to pass his Russian-speaking tests for his mission!
Aside from a sense of adventure, we definitely share a strong belief in the value of family. When Tim talked about discussing accepting his space mission with his family, I thought back to Sam clinging onto my leg before a ballooning adventure when he was very young. We both acknowledged the risks inherent in any adventure, but agreed they are usually worth it.
Of course, we talked about the future, and I was humbled to hear how Tim views commercial space travel as an integral part of the future of space exploration. It also excited my imagination hearing his views about potential manned bases on the moon, and even space hotels. But that is for another day. For now, the hard work will go on at our space companies Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company, and Tim will continue spreading the word about space exploration, and preparing for his next mission.