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Brits in space

 Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional New

Ivory Tower: We have a glance at the UK’s future astronaut programme

Star date 25 October 2023

“The agreement between the UK Space Agency and Axiom Space sets out plans for the two organisations to work together to pursue a commercially sponsored, UK astronaut mission… The UK Space Agency is calling on UK universities, research institutions and industry to share their ideas for experiments and technology demonstrators which could be conducted by the crew on orbit over a two-week period.”

Star date 27 October 2024

The GBSS Free Enterprise, sponsored by BritRoulette365, is in geo-stationary orbit above the UK. Its mission, to boldly go where no science superpower has gone before.

Captain Donelan: Mr Freeman, give me a readout.

Freeman: When the big hand reaches the little hand, it will be a quarter past three. Nearly time for the tea trolley to come ’round, Captain.

Donelan: Are you detecting any signs of life, Mr Scully?

Scully: Not in these poll ratings, Captain.

Donelan: Very good, maintain orbit and order me an Earl Grey with a slice of Cherry Bakewell.

[The doors of the bridge open, enter Grant Shapps]

Donelan: What’s he doing here?

Shapps: As minister of defence, I am co-chair of the UK national space council.

Donelan: My question still stands.

Shapps: Where’s my fancy captain’s chair?

Donelan: I’m the captain.

Shapps: Co-captain, just like England with Harry Kane and Harry Maguire.

Donelan: Exactly, everyone knows who the good one is.

Shapps: Could have been worse; they could have sent Cringe Admiral Penny Mordaunt.

Donelan: May I remind you that we are on a scientific mission, which is my brief.

Shapps: May I remind you that we are a commercially sponsored flight, which is my brief.

Donelan: As former transport secretary?

Shapps: As an internet entrepreneur.

Donelan: Yes, who are you this week?

Shapps: Our mission, after decades of state-sponsored exploration by the US, Russia and China, is to bring the free market to space. That’s the British contribution—our breathtaking spirit of private enterprise, like the East India Company or Thames Water.

Donelan: I understand the brief.

Shapps: When we land on the moon, we are to do things the British way.

Freeman: You mean, sell all the assets to private companies owned by friends of the government, partition the land along ethnic and religious grounds, and leave decades of chaos and rancour in our wake as we retreat back to London?

Shapps: The first bit, certainly.

Donelan: We are not going to the moon. We have experiments to carry out, as suggested by some of our best universities.

Scully: You mean, like valuing Britain’s largest pension fund at the bottom of the economic cycle and cutting benefits to staff?

Shapps: We must go to the moon. What about our competition winners?

Donelan: Sorry?

Shapps: The people who entered a competition to be here.

Donelan: That’s what they say about you, isn’t it?

Shapps: No, Margaret and Colin Melchester of Solihull, who won Who Wants to be a Dan Dare?

Donelan: I don’t remember it.

Shapps: You must do, it ran for 10 weeks, hosted by Holly Willoughby and Dermot O’Leary, the prize was two weeks in space on the inaugural voyage of the GBSS Free Enterprise.

Donelan: I don’t watch the BBC.

Shapps: It was on ITV, just after Lorraine Kelly’s Big Science Show. It was part of our Space Fever season, to distract everyone from that by-election result.

Donelan: The one where we lost our deposit and Greg Hands started crying live on air?

Shapps: Who would have thought Tunbridge Wells would go socialist.

Donelan: We lost there, and you weren’t even party chairman.

[The doors of the bridge open, enter Margaret and Colin Melchester]

Shapps: Ah, Margaret and Colin, welcome to the bridge. This is where the action happens.

Colin: Bostin’

Shapps: And this is my co-captain Michelle.

Margaret: ’Aright babs.

Donelan: Thank you for coming. Have you ever been to space before?

Margaret: No never. We haven’t been further than Prestatyn. Colin’s sister has a timeshare in Torremolinos, but you won’t catch me there, what with all that greasy food. I prefer to stay at home with me egg and chips.

Freeman: Technically, that is also quite greasy food.

Donelan: Mr Freeman, don’t you have an experiment to get on with?

Freeman: There are still some bits of the Liz Truss mini budget we could try out.

Colin: He’s a bit half-soaked ‘im, in’t he?

Shapps: Quite, Mr Melchester. Now, I think we are about to be patched through to Downing Street, where President Sunak has a message for you.

Margaret: He’s a president now?

Donelan: Space president. He’s president of the UK space mission.

Colin: He’s got a bob on himself.

Margaret: Shush Colin, that’s nice for him. I’ve always liked him, so much better than that young woman who was in charge for a bit and broke everything.

Shapps: Does that mean you would consider voting Conservative?

Margaret: Oh no, don’t be silly.

Scully: I’ve got President Sunak coming through now.

Sunak: Hi guys! Rishi here, back on “Planet Earth” [makes quotation marks with his fingers]. Listen, I’m super-jealous of you out there in the outer rim, just like Obi Wan Kenobi.

Colin: What’s he talking about?

Shapps: He says hello.

Sunak: So, have you guys got any questions for me about any of my five pledges, or, maybe about what I’m doing to fix the terrible situation I inherited?


Sunak: No? Maybe you’ve got another question you’d like to ask about maths?


Sunak: Or anything really.


Sunak: OK, that’s cool. Is there a time lag on this? Maybe we could go to the main event where the competition winners decide on which experiments to do. I’m totally pumped for this.

Margaret: Is he OK?

Shapps: Yes, absolutely fine, just Rishi being Rishi. Right, I’ve got here a big tub with all the suggested experiments in it, and I’d like you and Colin to pull out one each.

Donelan: Hold on, is this OK?

Freeman: It’s certainly not a scientific method, Captain.

Donelan: No, I mean, have we checked the experiments aren’t woke?

Freeman: Woke experiments?

Donelan: You know, like those bisexual toilets in night clubs.

Freeman: I think you mean…

Shapps: Look, we don’t have time for this. Rishi has only got the 40-minute version of Zoom. Colin, you first, have a rummage. Read out what university it is from and tell us what we should do.

Colin: It’s from the University and College Union branch of the University of Manchester, signed by the branch chair I think, a lady called Tori Wonka, and it says, “Why don’t you give us back HS2 and stick this farcical waste of public money up your…”

Shapps: Thank you, Colin, we’ll certainly take that under advisement. Margaret, perhaps you’d like to choose one.

Margaret: It’s from the University of Leicester and it says, “We thought we were your space guys. You never call, you never write. What is all this commercial sponsorship? We could have got you a tie-in with that enduring 100-year-old symbol of British travel, Thomas Cook, if it hadn’t gone bust during the pandemic.”

Donelan: This is going well, Captain Shapps. Fortunately, I think Mr Freeman has a great British experiment prepared, as voted for by the readers of LAD Bible—well, they got to ask a question during the televised Covid press conferences and they’ve been on the suppliers’ list for scientific advice ever since.

Freeman: Yes, it is an experiment to ascertain the rate of expansion of carbon dioxide molecules under zero-gravity conditions.

Shapps: Gosh, sounds awfully clever. How does it work?

Freeman: I take this two-litre bottle of cola and drop a packet of Mentos in it, like this…

Donelan: No wait! Is that woke coke?

Scully: Too late.

[A soda fountain ensues, covering the entire bridge]

Donelan: Makes you proud to be British.

Sunak: Hey, look guys, that was really cool, like when Boba Fett was eaten by the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi, but I’ve got to go do PMQs now. I know, snoozefest, right? Anyway, one last thing to tell you. We’ve been looking at the spreadsheet and Jeremy and I have decided to pull funding from the national space programme. Budget was a bit “astronomical” [does air quotes again] and we thought it better to spend the money on space-based activity nearer to home, like a new rocket ride next to the checkout tills in Tesco, Nuneaton. So, not sure how you are getting back, Claire Coutinho will email you the details, bye.

Margaret: Ta-ra a bit, duck.

Freeman: Great.

Colin: Are you OK, Mr Freeman? You’ve got a face as long as Livery Street.

Freeman: I’m 20,000 miles from home, trapped in a tin can, sponsored by a fictional betting company, with Captain Kangaroo and Captain Pugwash, and two members of the cast of Peaky Blinders.

Scully: What about me?

Freeman: And a guy who couldn’t get the nomination for Mayor of London in a race once. Stuck with no hope of rescue, how am I supposed to feel?

Shapps: Still, at least you’ll miss the January 2025 general election.

Freeman: Fair enough, what else is in the tub of suggested experiments? I’m sure I’ve got some Meccano and half a dozen eggs somewhere…

Terms of use: this is a free email for fun on a Friday, it should be circulated widely like potty-mouthed WhatsApp messages for government scientific advisers during a public inquiry. Want to suggest something experimental to the co-chairs of the national space council? Want to say hello? Email ivorytower@researchreseearch.com