I first became interested in space after watching the first moon landing on the television,’ says Dr Nicholas Patrick, the fourth British astronaut to enter space. ‘I wrote to Alan Shepard, a Mercury and Apollo astronaut, and he sent me a signed photo,’ he continues.
At the time, five-year-old Nicholas was at his home near Kirkby, and although his decision to pursue a career as an astronaut came much later – once he had exhausted his boyhood interests in dinosaurs, architecture and sailing the world – it would be the a life-long dream for Nicholas, who was born in Saltburn.
Nicholas’ father was an industrial engineer, working at ICI in Middlesbrough, before he moved to America to attend business school. ‘We returned from America and although we lived in London, we spent a lot of time returning to visit my father’s parents and friends in North Yorkshire,’ Nicholas explains.
Nicholas decided not to follow a direct path into space but instead expanded his interest into flying and engineering. ‘They’re an ideal combination for becoming an astronaut,’ Nicholas explains. ‘But I studied engineering because it fascinated me, which is probably the best reason.’
An undergraduate degree in Engineering at Cambridge accomplished, alongside learning to fly as a member of the Royal Air Force’s Cambridge University Air Squadron, Nicholas knew his dream career could only be possible in America. He initially focused on a more attainable goal taking a job designing jet engines, and made the move to Massachusetts, before a Masters and Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led him to a role in engineering commercial aircraft.
In 1998, he was selected by NASA to become a member of their Astronaut Corps. ‘I’d been gifted with a good education, the right passions and interests and good enough health to make it,’ Nicholas admits. And, it was his time in Astronaut Training which equipped him with the skills he needed to make his voyage into space.
‘Your first two years as an astronaut is basic training,’ Nicholas explains. Learning how to use the space shuttle systems and procedures in the classroom is the first step, before you move onto shuttle simulators.
‘Once you’ve graduated, you move onto advanced training,’ he continues. This is a more hands-on experience which involves learning to dock the shuttle with the International Space Station and practising space walking skills in NASA’s giant pool, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
‘Once you have been assigned to a mission, mission-specific training begins,’ Nicholas explains. For him, this began after being assigned to Discovery, NASA’S 117th shuttle flight, which launched in December 2006. The mission was set to carry supplies to the International Space Station, reconfigure the station’s electrical power system and deliver a third crew member.
For this, Nicholas carried out more than a year of further mission-specific training. ‘All-in-all it’s around four to five years of fascinating but very challenging training,’ he says.
Nicholas admits that it’s hard to recall his first experience in space, as there were so many. But, one thing he does remember is the moment after MECO – main engine cut off. ‘We were all suddenly weightless for the first time,’ he says. ‘I was still strapped to my seat, but had taken off my space-suit gloves and tethered them to my knee-bar with a long cord.’ At that moment, his gloves floated up in front of his face. ‘It was a clear sign that the dream I had worked towards for so long had finally come true,’ Nicholas says.
Launching in February 2010, Nicholas’ second mission, Endeavour, continued construction and maintenance on the International Space Station, attaching a multi-windowed observation chamber, known as a cupola, to the space station to give astronauts their first 360-degree window on the world. Bringing the $100 billion construction of the International Space Station to a close, Endeavour was one of NASA’s last shuttle missions.
During his time on Discovery and Endeavour, Nicholas clocked 26 days, 14 hours and 52 minutes in space. During that time, he reveals that one of his favourite experiences was seeing his birth place from such a unique vantage point. A colleague called him up to Discovery’s flight deck, which had 10 large windows, just as they were approaching the UK from the Atlantic. ‘It was night, and as I looked down I could see the entire UK, from Southampton to northern Scotland,’ he explains. ‘The well-lit cities were either directly visible or had thin enough cloud cover that their lights shone through, so I could make out London, Manchester, Edinburgh, and – most importantly to me – the North Sea coastline and the darker areas of the moors just south of Newcastle and Middlesbrough.’
Despite his roots being now firmly planted in America, Nicholas admits he misses the countryside and – surprisingly – the weather he grew up with around Saltburn, and returns home whenever he can to visit, along with his children. ‘We visited a few years ago and walked on the moors to Captain Cook’s monument (a favourite place from my childhood), ate fish and chips next to Saltburn Pier, and stayed in the house I first lived in near Ingleby Greenhow,’ he says.
The quest to explore space has long been dominated by the USA. Kennedy’s Cold-War influenced goal of putting a ‘Man on the Moon’ (after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space) has resulted in space becoming, ‘an integral part of America’s national identity,’ Nicholas says. But, growing up in Britain didn’t hold him back, and likewise it shouldn’t hold back those considering pursuing a career in space.
‘The future of space travel is in international collaboration,’ he admits. ‘There should be room for everyone who is passionate.’ With exploration projects only looking to get bigger as their goals reach out further into the solar system, it is only so long before collaboration in space exploration will become vital.
Since stepping down from NASA in 2012, Nicholas has been working on human integration for space start-up, Blue Origin. Figuring out how humans can be carried most safely to space and back. ‘We’re working on a sub-orbital human-rated spacecraft named Shepard, after Alan Shepard,’ he says – which is something five-year-old Nicholas could have only dreamed about.