The Society for Failed Astronauts 

Attempting to reacclimatise after a whole week  incommunicado one of the first things I noticed was the newly published New Year’s Honours List.

Among those receiving an honour this time round is Helen Sharman who has been made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (whatever that is). 

Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut in 1991 when she took a turn in the Mir space station as a result of Project Juno.

I’m not a fan of the honours system (to say the least), but Helen Sharman’s achievement is well worth celebrating, so heartiest congratulations to her! 

I remember being asked to chair a public talk by Helen Sharman many years ago at which I absent-mindedly introduced her as Helen Shapiro. I wanted the ground to swallow me up after that gaffe but she was very charming about it and took it in good spirit.

Anyway, the selection of potential astronauts for Project Juno began in 1989, with newspaper and radio adverts. About 13,000 people applied. In fact, to let you all in on a secret, I was one.

A keen long-distance runner in those days, I was physically fit enough to be in contention. I could also provide evidence of an ability to learn languages, chiefly through a knowledge of Latin and French from O-level. I passed the initial selection but, predictably, was later rejected after failing the psychological tests.

I noticed that Helen Sharman and I were born just a few days apart (in 1963) and it occurred to me that there must be quite a few people out there, of a similar vintage, perhaps some of them readers of this blog, who were among the 13,000 who, like myself, failed to become astronauts. 

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who applied to Project Juno to find out what they ended up doing. I know one or two university professors after being rejected by Project Juno, but there must be some among the 13,000 who did something useful with their lives! Please let me know through the comments box.

Perhaps we could form a (not very exclusive) club? How about the Rejected Astronaut Society? No. the initials ‘RAS’ are taken…

I know. The Society for Failed Astronauts! 

12 Responses to “The Society for Failed Astronauts ”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Wikipedia claims that Keith Mason, former Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, was a candidate astronaut. Incidentally, his successor, the current Chief Executive, received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours.

    Another space related New Year Honour was Michele Dougherty of Imperial College (CBE).

  2. I think, though my memory is hazy, that the 1970s call was for astronauts as part of the ESA manned spaceflight effort. The UK did not in the end contribute to this so no UK candidates would have gone forward. And it didn’t really happen anyway. Keith would be more likely to remember, if he reads this blog.

    • Alan Penny Says:

      No, this was for a Spacelab flight, so UK people were eligible. I got as far as the UK tests and interviews round. Of the 25 of us, 5 went forward to the next round in Paris. Keith was one of these 5, I was not. Of the (I think) 50 in that round 3 were selected for flight. To give an idea of the standard, one of those 3 was a space engineer at ESTEC who was also a professional DC-9 pilot.

  3. I never applied, but I certainly thought about becoming an astronaut as a child. This was sparked by my early interest in science (from, at the latest, 4 years old, though it probably started even earlier; I distinctly remember the emphasis shifting to astronomy in the autumn of 1973, when I was almost 9). I’m not exactly sure where that early interest came from, but it was certainly reinforced by a scientifically orientated preschool at a local museum. (I dropped by a few years ago and noticed that one of my old teachers was still there, now a curator.)

    Before I was born, my mother had worked as secretary to Wernher von Braun’s “civilian deputy”, Ed Riddick (his “scientific deputy” was A HREF=””Eberhard Rees). (Then and for somewhat longer, my father worked in static testing of rocket engines at Chrysler, which like many companies was a subcontractor to NASA.) She used to go back to visit from time to time, sometimes taking me along. I distinctly remember looking out the window and drawing a rocket on von Braun’s blackboard (I was probably 3 or 4 at the time). My mother thus knew many of the first-generation American astronauts.

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