The story of Ire­land’s would-be as­tro­nauts and the space shut­tle that never took off

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News - Liam Collins

TWENTY-SEVEN years af­ter they set off to join the space race, Ire­land’s four would-be as­tro­nauts were re­united in Dublin re­cently, a lit­tle older, but still do­ing what they were do­ing when they were re­cruited for the Eu­ro­pean Space Agency project in 1991.

Wil­lie But­ler, orig­i­nally from Kilkenny, was a cap­tain with Aer Lin­gus, then and now. Kevin Barry from Dublin, who was a cap­tain in the Air Corps, is now with Vir­gin At­lantic. Pro­fes­sor Ciaran Bol­ger, also a Dubliner and then a ju­nior doc­tor, is now a neu­ro­sur­geon with Trin­ity Col­lege and Beau­mont Hos­pi­tal. And Deirdre McMa­hon, also a medic, orig­i­nally from Belfast, is now an anaes­thetist liv­ing out­side Paris.

As they re­called six months of hav­ing hot and cold wa­ter poured into their ears, with­stand­ing blood-cur­dling G-forces and end­less psy­cho­log­i­cal tests, Deirdre McMa­hon re­called that they got on well “be­cause we had the gift of the gab — we were more so­cia­ble that most of the other Eu­ro­pean can­di­dates”.

The four were picked to com­pete with hope­fuls from around Eu­rope for a place on the pro­posed Eu­ro­pean Space Agency’s ‘Her­mes’ project, a space shut­tle that would put the con­ti­nent into the space race with the USA and the then USSR.

“It was our first hope for Ire­land to have its very own as­tro­naut in space,” re­called Dr Niamh Shaw, of the Black­rock Cas­tle Ob­ser­va­tory in Cork, who be­gan the quest to find out what hap­pened to Ire­land’s only space mis­sion.

She tracked down the four in­trepid space trav­ellers through old news­pa­per clip­pings and an ap­pear­ance on RTE’s Sat­ur­day-night TV pro­gramme, Kenny Live. The sci­en­tist and space en­thu­si­ast then spent four years try­ing to find the in­trepid four, who were iden­ti­fied from hun­dreds of wannabe space en­thu­si­asts as hav­ing “the right stuff ”.

“They just dis­ap­peared from pub­lic view, as did their in­cred­i­ble story,” she says. Even­tu­ally “des­per­ate for help” she made a pub­lic plea on RTE Ra­dio One’s The Ryan Tubridy Show last Fe­bru­ary, and, within days, found out where they were and what they were do­ing.

They were fi­nally re­united at an event in the Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons last Thurs­day night, where they spoke about their ex­pe­ri­ence for the first time.

All four re­called their vary­ing re­ac­tions to see­ing an ad­ver­tise­ment in the news­pa­pers, placed by Dr Ann Saun­der­son of the govern­ment-backed sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy agency Eo­las, for Irish can­di­dates to take part in the Eu­ro­pean Space Agency’s Her­mes project.

For Deirdre McMa­hon and Wil­lie But­ler, it was “the dream of a young kid brought up on Apollo” to go into space. Kevin Barry said he was “re­ally keen” while Ciaran Bol­ger had a non­cha­lant, devil-may-care at­ti­tude. There were 700 ap­pli­ca­tions in all, and the four were se­lected from 250 can­di­dates.

“When we got to Cologne in Ger­many and met the oth­ers, we found that they looked on you as a com­peti­tor — we were just so­cia­ble and en­thu­si­as­tic,” says Ciaran Bol­ger.

They de­scribed the rig­or­ous and in­va­sive test­ing that went on for months.

Ire­land was only con­tribut­ing 0.05pc of the space pro­gramme’s bud­get, and the Irish can­di­dates re­alised their chances were di­min­ish­ing rapidly when the French and Ger­mans brought in highly qual­i­fied pilots from their own as­tro­naut pro­grammes.

Al­though the Irish were the most suc­cess­ful group on the panel and were in­cluded in the fi­nal short­list, none of them made the fi­nal cut.

“I was very an­noyed at the time,” re­calls pi­lot Kevin Barry, “but then I had to do a flight for the Air Corps in the af­ter­noon and I just got on with it.” Deirdre McMa­hon was ruled out be­cause of a mi­nor heart is­sue.

“Wil­lie [But­ler] and I got through to the very end, but it was clear to me we were never go­ing to be se­lected; it was pre-de­ter­mined for other na­tion­al­i­ties,” said Ciaran Bol­ger.

Ul­ti­mately, the Her­mes pro­gramme was can­celled be­cause it turned out to be too ex­pen­sive al­though some of those they trained with did go to space when the Eu­ro­pean Space Agency be­gan co-op­er­at­ing with the Rus­sians on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion pro­gramme.

Dr Niall Smith, of the CIT Black­rock Cas­tle Ob­ser­va­tory in Cork, told last week’s gath­er­ing that bil­lion­aires were now re­plac­ing na­tional agen­cies as fi­nanciers of space ex­plo­ration.

He told an en­thralled au­di­ence that Ire­land is an ideal place to launch ‘space tourism’ — but even more im­por­tantly, that the govern­ment should be look­ing at the pos­si­bil­ity of ‘space broad­band’.

“In­stead of dig­ging up ev­ery road and boreen, they need to use space tech­nol­ogy; it al­ready ex­ists, and Irish com­pa­nies could get in­volved,” he said.

For the four Irish as­tro­naut hope­fuls it was a dream never to be ful­filled, but when they were re­united they had plenty to talk about and the in­ter­ven­ing 27 years showed that they had lost none of the gre­gar­i­ous good hu­mour that car­ried them through a dif­fi­cult, if fruit­less, space mis­sion.

‘Wil­lie and I got through to the very end, but it was clear we were never go­ing to be se­lected, it was pre-de­ter­mined for other na­tion­al­i­ties’

MIS­SION MEM­O­RIES: Kevin Barry, Dr Ciaran Bol­ger, Dr Deirdre McMa­hon and Wil­liam But­ler re­united in Dublin last week

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