At the point I decided to book my ticket to visit NASA in Houston I had a little think about how I could potentially meet some more astronauts. No luck via NASA’s public affairs office at that point, I started to think a little more creatively. That’s when it hit me – the slightly unfathomable fact that an astronaut had started following me on Twitter some months ago. Before I was even following him. I immediately rectified that and expressed my amazement that he’d chosen to follow me. He replied that I “seemed interesting” and that he liked my hat. I grinned. When an astronaut tells you you seem interesting, I think that you’re allowed a little grin. Or a big one.
Anyway, scroll forward, I was sure that he would have realised that my random tweets about radio, insomnia and the International Space Station were not worth his time, but lo and behold, @astrodude a.k.a. Leroy Chiao was still following me. Amazing. A quick message to say I was going to be in Houston and then fingers firmly crossed for a reply. Miracle upon miracle, he got back in touch, but sadly wasn’t going to be in Houston when I arrived. He was however passing through London in just a few days time. “Could we meet there instead?” I enquired, “how about lunch?” came the reply. Incredible.
Of course I panicked and spent the rest of the weekend reading up on manned space flight and the entirety on Monday morning wondering what on Earth (no pun intended) was suitable attire for meeting an astronaut. Not any old astronaut either. Leroy Chiao is a veteran of not one, but three shuttle missions, sat on the Augustine Committee (which advised President Obama on the future of human spaceflight), spent over six months living on the International Space Station and now works for a commercial space company. Wow.
I lucked out with a quick search of Leroy’s latest tweets – he mentioned looking for a humidor – which could mean only one thing. Cigars. I just so happened to have a decent Cuban cigar that I could take as a token of my gratitude – I paired it with a Mars bar, which seemed faintly appropriate.
The nerves set in, but I did my best to hold my head up and grasp this amazing opportunity with both hands. My biggest worry was that I would waste his time, I really didn’t want him to wonder why he’d agreed to meet me in the first place.
We met at his hotel and stayed there for lunch. What a treat. He brought me a Fisher Space pen as a gift. Not any old space pen, this one had a lovely gold shuttle mounted on it. Beautiful.
We chatted, shared a bottle of wine, and swapped stories. I learnt how to cut your finger nails in space (do it near the air filter and use a strip of Sellotape to keep the bits safe), had him bust a few myths (see audio below) and got his opinion on my crazy idea of how to get into space (he liked it!).
It was amazing. I kept having to pinch myself to believe it was real. Leroy was so lovely, so down to Earth, so humble about all the incredible things that he’d done. We talked about the pyramids in Egypt and he told me that it took three months of looking, but they are visible from space – that he’d send me some photographs that he took. This wasn’t just a kind turn of phrase either, by the time I got home, I already had several pictures in my inbox. He didn’t need to make that effort, but he did. My face ached from grinning and I had to work hard not to approach strangers on the streets of London exclaiming “I just had lunch with an astronaut”. What a privilege.
We’ve stayed in touch since then. I’ve promised to take him to my favourite wine bar next time he’s in town and he said he’d take me flying in his plane next time I’m in Houston. Unbelievable, but brilliant. More than ever, I want to go to space. There *has* to be a way.
Not only did Leroy take the time to have lunch with me, he also spared the time to do an interview and promised to put me in touch with some astronauts who might be in Houston when I was there. I don’t know how I struck so lucky and got to meet such a wonderful and interesting person, but I’m sure glad that I did.
Among a vast array of other fascinating things, I asked Leroy about his first time in space, whether astronauts really eat “astronaut ice-cream” like you get in museum gift shops, and if you can see the Great Wall of China from space?
Listen here: Leroy Chiao talks space, astronaut ice-cream and the Great Wall of China