Saturday, January 27, 2007

The 23,000 Mile High Club

When I was a kid growing up in rural Australia, there was nothing I wanted more in life than to be an American astronaut.

Sure, we had a launch base (Woomera), and even a nuclear testing site (the Outback), but Woomera was really just about giant firecrackers. Then, at around nine years old, I got my first set of glasses. I knew from reading about the astronaut program that the gig was up - back then, you couldn’t be an astronaut without 20-20 vision, a Corvette, and the ability to hold your breath for roughly ten minutes. I knew I’d have to “go private”.

My first attempt at this was a rocket made out of an irrigation pipe that me and my best friend Mark Mclean strapped to the side of my father’s wheat silo and filled with diesel fuel and gunpowder - made the old-fashioned way from ground-up saltpeter, sulphur and crushed charcoal, painstakingly ground and baked tinder-dry in my mother’s electric oven.

Unfortunately, fifteen minutes from lift-off, a farm-hand (Mark’s father) discovered the wheat silo was on its way to the moon and informed “the authorities”. The rocket was dismantled and the irrigation pipe carted back to the field. We were not allowed to explode the gunpowder.

My next attempt at getting some of my DNA into space was more successful. After realizing that normal people could get into the space business courtesy of a chance meeting with STAR TV engineer Phil Braden in Hong Kong (Phil is the co-founder of Authentium and just moved back to Hong Kong after a 12 year absense), I ended up several years later as the CEO of a genuine space company - WorldSpace Asia - with responsibility for launching a geo-stationary satellite into orbit.

Part of the reason that satellites cost tens of millions of dollars is that they undergo an enormously complex manufacturing process (casual Microsoft Project users take note: there were over 32,000 dependencies in our project). Because Alcatel was our prime contractor, most of this manufacturing took place deep underground in the French city of Toulouse in a dark lair filled with white-jacketed men and women driving electric golf carts. Upon entering, dressed myself in a white lab coat, hair net and gloves, I determined that this was a place that even the most discerning James Bond villain could love.

We were ushered onto carts and shown the place. The highlight of the tour was seeing “our” satellite - AsiaStar - being readied for launch outside the vibrator that would test its resilience pre-launch. I was asked to say a few words. Keeping my hairnet on, I nonetheless took off one white glove and placed a fingerprint on the outside of the satellite. “I have been waiting thirty years to get into space” I said. “I guess a fingerprint will have to do”.

My colleagues laughed, the French rocket scientists shrugged, then we all went off and welcomed in the new Beaujolais over a lunch of mussels - at midday. You have to love France.

And that is how, courtesy of a successful Ariane 4 launch of AsiaStar from Devil’s Island by the European Space Agency several months later, my DNA (albeit in fingerprint form) joined that of a select group of a handful of Apollo astronauts and Russian Soyez cosmonauts in outer space.

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