In 1927 Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis and claimed the $25,000 Orteig Prize in doing so. In 2004 the $10 million Ansari X Prize was claimed by Scaled Composites when SpaceShipOne became the first reusable privately owned spaceship when it flew into space twice within two weeks. Virgin Galactic is currently developing SpaceShipTwo to provide sub orbital flights for space tourists. I had been keeping a watch on a number of pioneering companies jostling for position in the emerging commercial space race including a company called XCOR.
In 2013 I saw a poster advertising The Lynx Space Academy competition which
would give people worldwide the chance to win flights into space on a reusable
spaceship being developed by XCOR. Only a few months earlier the world had been
transfixed when Felix Baumgartner skydived from a balloon 39 km (21 miles)
high. XCOR's Lynx spaceship was going to go much further than that. The Mark I
would reach 62 km and the Mark II would reach over 100 km which as everyone
knows is the Karman Line or the official recognised line that has to be crossed
to reach space and become an astronaut. To enter the competition you had to be
over 18 years old and of sound body and mind. I was over 18 so I entered.
The UK competition was split into three stages. The first stage was a
popularity contest and meant that I needed to get enough votes to be in the top
200 contestants in the UK. These top 200 would then progress to stage two which
was a televised event in London containing mental challenges, physical
challenges and an interview. Only 4 would make it through and join contestants
from around the world for astronaut training/tests in Florida and finally on
the basis of their performance only 1 UK contestant would be picked to go to
into space. I did some quick calculations on how many votes I needed and
decided that getting to the second stage was achievable.
I am a programmer so figuring out how to get enough votes to go through to
the second stage wasn't an issue but on the off chance that there would be a
phone vote during the televised London event I thought I better raise my
profile so I set up a Facebook page called Taffanaut (due to my inability to spell
and a severe case of fat finger syndrome). My excuses for not getting the
spelling right are as follows. The word doesn't exist yet so I blame the
spellchecker. It's the Welsh spelling. It sounds better with an 'a' instead of
an 'o'. Also if I couldn't spell a word that didn't exist then would anyone
With stage one pretty much in the bag I focused on stage two and the need to
finish in the top 4 out of the 200. I couldn't do anything to improve my
chances in the mental challenges but I could work on my fitness and practice my
interview technique. I did a lot of training in the gym and even gave up
alcohol, completely. This was serious. While I was stumbling along on the
treadmill I would imagine the questions that could be asked in the interview
and run through my possible responses. In my imagined interview I was brilliant
and they loved me. Hopefully ambition and ability would be equally matched. If
I could raise my fitness level to be about midway in the fitness challenges and
do well in the mental challenges then my interview could catapult me into the
top 4. Confidence was building along with Taffanaut's following.
Then it all changed.
A fellow weird geek said to me that they were really impressed that I had
entered the competition and that when they were younger they had also wanted to
go into space. She was unaware of the effect this conversation would have on me
(don't think you knew you were in this song). You know who you R. Someone else
asked me if I could do a talk at a school if I made it to space. This wasn't in
the post win plan. There was no post win plan. What had I done? I had been so
committed and focused on winning that I had lost sight of the bigger picture
and of the consequences of what would happen afterwards. Up until now I had
been safe hiding behind a fictional online character but at some point I would
have to reveal myself. I don't mind being the centre of attention but I don't
crave it and after a short time I am more than comfortable slipping back out of
sight into the shadows. If I won I might end up as a top Z list celebrity being
chauffeured around the country in Limo opening new supermarkets before
eventually my fame faded and (after six months) I would end up taking part in a
hard core porn film wearing goggles and a massive pair of waders or worse still end up on some shopping
channel. The flight into space was also begining to worry me. Four minutes to travel 100 km (64 miles) into space reaching 2200 mph in what appeared to be a fiberglass fuel filled Robin Reliant with wings. I still wasn't keen on heights.
This was the first time I really considered sabotaging my creation and
walking away. More time trundling along on the treadmill was needed to figure
out who I was, who Taffanaut was and what we were trying to achieve. No one
could have dreamed what was going on in my head. Slowly but surely an idea
started to emerge from the depths of my mind and I began to change. I started
to believe. Those people who know me will have seen a change. They may not have
been able to put their finger on exactly what it was but they could see
something was different. I kept quiet and revealed nothing. It was a self-feeding
process. For the first time people around me seemed to contemplate the fact
that I could win and as I saw them realise this then I believed more. This was
all unsaid and unwritten but I could feel it.
Losing was no longer an option.
We were ready.