Michael Halls-Moore is a man on a mission. Or, rather, a man wanting to be on a mission. His dream is to go into space. But he's a student at Imperial College, and not the most likely client for Richard Branson's 100-grand-a-shot Virgin Galactic trips. No matter. He's going to get there anyway thanks to a cunning internet scheme based on the Milliondollarhomepage concept of pixel-based advertising. On his website, BuyMeToTheStars.com, you can purchase various celestial objects from a small star (£10) right up to a galaxy (£2000). Each object carries a link back to your website, and a short message. He's also keeping a 'Captain's Blog' of his exploits, and a forum for discussion. And he's only just started, so now is the time if you want to buy a star that will really stand out from the cluster.
We caught up with Mike to ask him all about his plans, and why on earth (or off it) we should pay for him to have all the fun.
So, tell us a bit about your background.
I've always been heavily interested in science and technology all through school, college and university. I ended up studying a Masters in Mathematics at Warwick for four years and decided to apply the knowledge I gained there towards research in futuristic engine technologies at Imperial College. I'm the sort of person who doesn't back down from a challenge (even if others deem it to be crazy or difficult!) and that's why I like the idea of BuyMeToTheStars so much!
Has space travel always been a dream for you? Can you remember the early
influences that inspired an interest in space?
When I was younger I was really interested in learning about "what is out there". I once heard an anecdote about how, if our own galaxy was the size of a cathedral and each star in it was a grain of sand, then this cathedral would be full of 100 billion grains of sand. If the universe was a cathedral and each galaxy was reduced to the size of a grain of sand then the same would be true. It really put things in perspective for me! I have to admit I'm a big fan of Star Trek and the ease at which people travelled between different worlds always kept me enthused with space exploration.
Is this completely a one-man show, or have you had lots of help to get the idea this far?
In terms of the website and press releases it's all been me. However, behind the scenes I have the support of all my friends and family who've suggested some fantastic ideas and improvements to the site. I don't think I would have been continually motivated had it not been for all the support I've received along the way. I also get a lot of criticism actually, but it only drives me to try and attempt to prove them wrong!
Why should people pay for you to have all the fun?
A very good question. I've also been asked why the money shouldn't be spent on traditional charitable good causes. Although flying into space is a large part of the challenge, I am also attempting to raise public awareness of two issues which are very important to me. The first is the idea of manned space exploration. Is the vast cost involved worth it in a society where it could be spent on social reform or medical research? I believe so. We wouldn't have items like the personal computer or mobile phones if it wasn't for the early space flight missions like Apollo. It is the indirect benefits that are most important. Unfortunately, these are very difficult to predict! The second issue which is important to me is the environment. It is a hot topic at the moment and it seems people are finally waking up to the fact that climate change is upon us. I'm also going to use the flight as a means to promote environmentally friendly transport. If I make the flight "carbon-neutral" by offsetting any carbon dioxide generated by the flight, then so can others in their daily lives. Space exploration has done wonders for helping predict and understand climate change. Many of the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA satellites were specifically designed to monitor environmental changes. We'd be far worse off in our understanding of climate science without the use of these satellites.
Why not take one small step for a man (or woman), and continue reading after the jump?
So, yes, going into space. It's quite a dangerous proposition. Are you really sure you want to do this?
Firstly, I agree. Flying into space is a very dangerous game. The space shuttle Columbia disaster made people wake up and realise that what they were attempting was far from routine. I'm glad that NASA have implemented many changes in how the space shuttle flies now, as well as changing their whole ethos towards safety. I think setting an example like that is great for companies who are getting involved with space tourism. I'm sure that whoever I fly with, safety will be of paramount importance. Any flight that I do go on will no doubt be very well tested and "man-rated" way before the public are allowed on board. There is always a slight risk, however, but being an Aeronautical Engineer I do have a good idea of what those risks are and I think this helps to reduce the "fear of the unknown" which is usually associated with something as grandiose as space flight.
Are you the kind of person to go in for danger sports?
As it happens, yes! Being highly active in my university's Outdoor Club, I go in for a lot of activities, some of which could be considered risky. I'm mainly into rock-climbing and ice-climbing but have recently been getting into mountain biking and river kayaking. I've always wanted to try skydiving, but I think I draw the line at bungee-jumping - I just can't see myself launching myself off the platform! Does going into space count as a danger sport?
Are you more inspired by the astronauts, by the engineers like Burt Rutan (the man who designed the X-prize winning SpaceShipOne), or by the people who make it all happen, like Richard Branson?
I think everybody on that list is an inspiration, but for the same reason. They all share the fact that they've followed their dream all the way through to the end. They haven't lost motivation with what they're attempting and have just kept going! To become an astronaut, a world class engineer like Burt Rutan or an incredbily successful entrepreneur like Richard Branson requires a very unique drive. Persistence and determination are everything. These are the qualities that inspire me towards achieving my goal.
What do you think the biggest challenge for Branson/Rutan is going to be in bringing space travel to the general public?
As it happens, I don't think the problems are going to be of a technical nature. The Scaled Composites team (and thus Virgin Galactic) have already demonstrated a "proof-of-concept" via their successful entry into the X-Prize. I think the real issues to overcome will be found in the area of safety concerns. A lot of people will feel as if they are going to be flying on one huge (and possibly dangerous!) rollercoaster. Until a substantial number of people give it a go, many people will be wary. However, I imagine people felt like this when the first commercial aircraft were flown. Until they were shown to be reliable people were justifiably cautious. Part of my
challenge is to show the public that a "common guy" like me is willing to go and has the ability to do so. I don't know of many people who wouldn't want to go into space if it was within their means and was extremely safe.
There are a number of competitors not so far behind Virgin Galactic. Which company do you think has the best chance of succeeding?
I think it's a very exciting time for space tourism. It reminds me of the mid-to-late 1990's when the internet was becoming well known. There was a lot of innovation and people were essentially becoming millionaires overnight with dot.com companies. There have been many space tourism companies recently most of which have put forward an entry into the X-Prize. I'm not sure who is likely to be most successful, but I've always secretly rooted for Armadillo Aerospace as I have a great deal of respect for John Carmack [of Doom and Quake computer game fame], another great innovator. I like the concept of Rocketplane as well, whereby a LearJet is essentially becoming "space-rated". I also hope that some British teams will have a proper go at the X-Prize as manned space flight is almost non-existent in this country.
So if this whole scheme comes together and you get launched into space, what next? Would you try to inspire others, set up your own space company (everyone's doing it), or push for an orbital flight?
I think I'd like to try all three! Inspiration is fundamental for future science and technology endeavours. Every year I seem to hear that the number of students entering a scientific or technical discipline drops. This is a real shame. Mathematics, Physics, Engineering etc are incredibly exciting courses with very exciting (and well paying!) career prospects. My own University has some very interesting seminars for kids to come along to, including an audience with the crew of the previous space shuttle mission only last week! In terms of setting up a company, I'd love to give it a go. A firm which makes a living from promoting space would be an ideal job. Would I push for an orbital flight though? Most definitely! It's been my lifelong ambition - I've always wanted to experience a week of being away from Earth to look down on it. Maybe one day it will be an affordable reality for all.
Time to put your Nostradamus hat on. Give us your predictions for where space tourism will be...
...5 years from now:
I think Virgin Galactic, and potentially a few others, will be beginning routine operations. I don't think they will be profitable at this stage because the initial costs are pretty high (building the spaceport and testing the vehicles is expensive). On a more personal note, I'm hoping to be on one of these flights!
...10 years from now
In 10 years I think space tourism will be routine. There will be a range of companies competing, with perhaps 2 or 3 that are a cut above the rest (as with most business areas). I also expect prices to drop for a ticket. At this stage you might be able to get into space for 75,000-$100,000 (as opposed to today's price tag of $200,000). If we're really lucky then companies like Bigelow Aerospace will have started "space hotel" ventures and possibly orbital flights will have begun for the general public.
...100 years from now
I wonder whether we'll be more concerned with the state of the environment than going into space in 100 years time! I'm sure spaceflight will seem as routine as driving a car by this stage. Unfortunately, when people consider things routine they tend to also become complacent. I hope that people never become complacent with something as risky as heading into space, but who knows? Maybe people will have a holiday home on Mars - Martians will complain that their house prices are being driven up by the Earthlings! Some things may never change...
The year is 2030, you've been selected as the first man on Mars. What would be your first words as you stepped onto the surface?
If I could say anything (even a bad joke) then I think it would have to be: "Where's the welcoming commitee?". Seriously, it would be something dramatic and memorable I'm sure: "This marks the first step on a new world. Let's set a better example for the one we've just left."
Now a few London Questions...
Hmmm...I'm more of a club man myself, and I'd have to say The Ministry Of Sound. Always excellent music and a guaranteed great night out.
Favourite place in the whole of the city
My morning run manages to take in the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the MI6 building and the Tate Britain Gallery. You can't do much better than that! I love the centre of the city.
Have you ever been sick on the Tube?
Hehe...I've definitely FELT sick on the tube, but I have managed to hold it in and avoided publically embarassing myself!
What one piece of advice would you give to Ken Livingstone?
Encourage use of public transport and bikes within the centre. At the moment is seems to be constant gridlock. I am actually quite impressed with a lot of the measures being taken, especially those to do with cutting back emissions. I'm also seeing a lot of "Green" buses recently. Adding up all the emissions from all the buses, this will certainly have a big impact on
London's environmental footprint.