We are at a real turning point in the space industry not only in terms of space technology and space-derived data but also in human spaceflight. There is renewed interest to go back to the Moon and onto Mars. But how will the people be prepared to go there?
Private companies are now leading the way in terms of innovation towards commercial vehicles capable of carrying future astronauts and space tourists. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is working towards the first commercial spaceplane with SpaceShipTwo. Many countries are also preparing for their own spaceports to transport cargo and humans to and from space. NASA is working closely with teams at Boeing and SpaceX to help ensure astronauts will be able to safely travel to and from the International Space Station aboard their respective spacecraft through its Commercial Crew Program.
One company in the UK – Blue Abyss – is planning a commercial astronaut training centre, the first of its kind in the world. Its aim is to “capitalise on the burgeoning human spaceflight market and welcome a new era of space exploration”. It also seeks to give the skills and training they need to access the science and technology internships and jobs of the future. We spoke to the CEO and Founder of Blue Abyss, John Vickers to find out more.
Briefly tell me a little about Blue Abyss and how it came about?
Blue Abyss has been in progress for some three and a half years now. It started in September 2014 where I had accepted a role in a completely different company, but that job fell through and it gave me the opportunity to reflect on what it was I wanted to do. I happen to be the Chairman of a voluntary organisation that helps service leaders and veterans learn to network. As part of this role I tend to give quite a bit of advice to those leaving the forces to say, ‘now is a time to make a fundamental choice about what you want to do with the rest of your life’. Most service people tend to have joined relatively young, or just after university, so they hadn’t really got to experience the much of life. The military is a fairly closed shop. It does things in a certain way and that tends to inform your thinking when you leave. To a greater, or lesser extent. I realised that when this role fell through – nothing to do with me but a set of circumstances – I too had a choice and a chance to do something I really wanted to do, rather than follow the path I thought I had to take.
I have started businesses before, so when I turned to my wife with an idea that I wanted to build a pool, she (very kindly) said “right….!”. Everybody in the world I think has the same reaction; “A pool?” But then I say “yeah, but a really big pool”. I grew up in the ‘70s in the Middle East and I remember seeing people wearing silver suits and all sorts of apparatus emerging out of the water one day at this particular beach (I didn’t know they were called scuba divers then). They fascinated me. All I saw were these people wearing what looked like space suits walking out of the water and I said to my father “who are they?” He replied they were ‘skin-divers’. They seemed to me completely otherworldly. They were explorers and they seemingly came from a different dimension, well almost! And it’s that synergy between our own water-surrounded planet, scuba diving and those early memories of early science fiction, space films and space people in silver suits that has resurfaced for me and here we are many years later.
How did your time in the army lead you to space?
In joining the army, I undertook some scuba diving courses and eventually got to the level of Advance Instructor in the British Sub Aqua Club, (the scheme the British Army is affiliated to). Towards the end of my time in the army I did some basic commercial diver training which then gave me some exposure to the world of commercial diving. When I left, although I was injured, I very briefly contemplated becoming a commercial diver. It is as quite far removed from recreational diving, almost as much as flying a plane is like being an astronaut going to the Moon. But there is the link – the water itself. And to do either end of that whole spectrum – scuba diver, or astronaut, you need to train and typically in a pool. Diving has always remained a fascinating experience for me. I love going diving and one day, perhaps, I’ll be lucky enough to also go in to space myself.
It struck me that water remains the synergy between our own planet and our future exploration of space. As a marine planet we are wholly reliant on water, but we still haven’t really explored our own planet. We are very good at exploiting it but we don’t really understand the long term effects we’re having. But as a link to space, water is the only medium on earth, that enables us, for longer periods of time, to create the three-dimensional effects of space. And as pointed out to me by a NASA astronaut, Scott Parazynski early on in our venture, who gave me an awful lot of support, he said if you want to create the psychological pressure of being in space don’t go into a warehouse or on the side of a volcano and pretend that you’re under pressure or that you’re living on a Martian landscape. Put yourself under water in a small habitat and if you want to go outside you must put on a suit and breathing apparatus. That’s much closer to being an astronaut and the real pressures they face.
Lots of people, I suspect, want to go into space. Lots of young people talk about “wow, I want to be an astronaut”. But what do we do when we get older? We lose that sense of curiosity, it’s beaten out of us or life suggests that you have to get on with a ‘real job’ – something (often) boring. But through diving you can reawaken that child-like sense of curiosity and absolutely become a pioneer explorer every time you duck beneath the waves. For me, that link has always been prominent in my mind. And so the only logical way for me to build a space business, I thought, was by building a giant pool.
What makes Blue Abyss different to existing space businesses?
Space businesses we read about currently tend to be focused predominantly about two things – either the infrastructure (locations) to launch rockets from, or else the things we intend to send into space. But fewer people seem to be about filling the gap of preparing the humans, and robots, to actually undertake these trips.
We talk a lot about spaceports and a lot are being built around the world. The US has 10 licensed spaceports and in the UK, we are also looking closely into this. Every nation with some coastline that is fairly remote e.g. Australia or India, has the opportunity to build a spaceport. Alternatively you hear about companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic planning to send people into space for some form of experience, however, that’s akin to building airports and the planes themselves. It’s fascinating but who is preparing the actual passengers and the crews? Ask any astronaut about going into space and the one common reply is that you need to be prepared. Who is doing this preparation? It isn’t one day and a few talks, it is a series of experiences that will enable everyday people to really get the most of that once in a lifetime opportunity.
People must have heard the Sputnik satellite and thought wow! But a few minutes of it beeping and I’m sure many thought ‘oh, that’s monotonous and boring’. People get excited about people. It’s all very well to send a probe to another planet but when are we going? Who’s going to go? How will they prepare? That’s what we’re trying to do – fill that gap.
In terms of the technical facilities at Blue Abyss, what makes it different to an astronaut training facility?
There are two things. Firstly, we are not just about space. We are deliberately focused on both ends of the spectrum – marine-to-space. What can we do on this planet better in terms of offshore energy support, for example? Both human and robotic. What can we do more efficiently and effectively, so we can continue to utilise the world’s resources within our oceans, without the reckless exploitation we have had up until now? Secondly this is a brand new facility we are building. Many of the space agency pools are old. Many were built for the shuttle era missions and later centred on the ISS. Most of the pools are also relatively small. The Russian, European and Chinese pools are about 3,500 cubic metres. NASA’s pool at Johnson is the ‘daddy’ of them all at 24,000 cubic metres. The plan for Blue Abyss is 42,000 cubic metres and 50 metres deep. That order of size change is about enabling lots of different things to happen concurrently, even across completely different industrial sectors. We are also utilising modern technology such as virtual mixed and augmented reality and plan to include that in the facility whether it’s in the water or the surrounding training environment.
We can teach you to free dive, scuba dive or put you in a submersible. If you are going to go into space, we will educate, prepare and train you. We can help integrate the robots which work in our oceans to get ready to support our efforts in space. And we can help with the research programmes that link human activities in extreme environments with everyday life here on Earth. Regarding space though, we’re mindful that, in future, it’s not going to be just government’s training astronauts, but it will eventually be commercial companies like ours.
Will your target be anyone from the public to train them up as space tourists?
Yes. We believe that anyone should be able to experience some, if not all, of the training and preparation it takes to become an astronaut. It will take two years to build the facility. So we’re still looking towards the middle of 2020 to be open commercially – that’s our intention. Yet it is also our aim to motivate people to engage their curiosity here on earth. That curiosity should start here on our own planet with our oceans. Thankfully people are becoming more aware of the plastics’ issue and that we should stop littering. So much plastic is already in our oceans, but oceans are part of our lifeblood! You wouldn’t keep littering like that in your own home, but that is exactly what we have been doing. We need to take ownership of our home planet. That education approach is key for us. Space tourism, and soon jobs in space is inevitable to a degree. We want to help create the structure around how the training is delivered and what it consists of. Whilst recognising that people won’t want a training program that takes 18 months for a one-week stay in a space hotel! Whilst it was a war that drove the step change in the development of commercial flight and the aircraft themselves, we hopefully won’t go down that route as a species again for space! Hopefully, our expansion into living, and working, in space can come from the perspective of human curiosity and the betterment of our species. I do think it will start with high net-worth people, but rapidly, like commercial flight, spread to allow each of us the chance to leave the planet, even for only a few minutes, or hours, so that we can look back and realise how beautiful Earth is.
What have been the biggest challenges in starting Blue Abyss?
Well, in one respect it’s a very low level technical idea. It’s a pool. I can even give you the dimensions! What has taken a long time, I think, is overcoming a degree of cynicism in the UK – not necessarily globally – that we don’t have a priority on the human bit. But it’s humans that make it inevitable. Nobody is going to build a habitat on the Moon for no one to go to it. We talk about going and exploiting resources on asteroids with robots but there will be people – it’s inevitable. If the robots keep breaking down, you send all that equipment all that way and it fails then who or what will go and repair it. Eventually we will send people. For me, that’s key and is the most exciting part.