At some point in life, every young boy will have had dreams of going into space.
The fact that the new Star Wars movie has opened to almost universal mass hysteria and with British astronaut Tim Peake heading to the International Space Station, millions across the UK and beyond have become re-acquainted with the notion of going into the realms of science fiction.
For one Bolton father the dream of seeing the world in its entirety from such a great height – something less than 600 people throughout history have experienced in the flesh – is set to become reality after joining Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
Allan Gray, who lives in Westhoughton with wife Lisa and daughter Courtenay, signed up for the future astronauts programme after a chance meeting at a business conference in Washington DC.
He said: “I only signed up for the conference because they said there’d be a space guy on and I’d always been interested in space.
“It turned out to be Stephen Attenborough from Virgin Galactic and he gave a talk about what they do and I was surprised the programme had been going for nearly 10 years.
HERO: Allan with Al Worden from the Apollo 15 mission
“He signed a flyer for me which said ‘I hope to see you up there some day’ and it just coincided, three months later, with us selling the business and in September last year I signed up and bought my ticket.
“My family were a little bit sceptical at first but once they knew I was serious they’ve been very excited and really supportive.”
Virgin Galactic, which was started more than a decade ago but has been a dream of Sir Richard’s since the early 1990s, aims to make commercial space flights available to mere mortals.
More than 600 people across the world have already signed up with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks parting with $250,000 for the pleasure.
Professor Stephen Hawking, the author of A Brief History of Time, is also on the list of luminaries having been given a free ticket by Sir Richard.
Now, $250,000 lighter himself, Allan is ready to throw himself head first into the experience.
He’s already been out to see Virgin Galactic’s Mojave factory – and even taken part in centrifuge training, which essentially test the reactions and tolerance of pilots and astronauts to acceleration above those experienced in the Earth’s gravity.
TRAINING: Allan taking part in the centrifuge training at the NASTAR training facility in Philadelphia
He said: “It’s not just a case of here’s your ticket, we’ll see you in a few years; it’s a very engaging community and we get to do a lot of stuff together.
“There’s three days of training before our actual flight but everything up to that is optional.
“The centrifuge training I’d recommend to anyone, even if you’re not into space the exhilaration is just incredible.”
Despite the obvious dangers associated with commercial flights into space – one of the Virgin Galactic aircrafts was involved in a fatal crash in October2014 – Allan says it’s a small risk to take.
He said: “Having been part of the programme for over a year now you get to learn a lot about how Virgin Galactic think and how they handle things and safety is a primary concern. I believe Richard Branson is the first commercial person to go up there so that says a lot.”
Despite the crash, in which co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed and the pilot, Peter Siebold, was seriously injured, Virgin are confident that the programme is on track, with another aircraft already 70% developed.
SPACE MATES: Allan poses with a cut out of Sir Richard Branson at Virgin Galactic’s London HQ after signing up
As with most people, Allan’s fascination with space started as a young boy when his dad – part of the generation who were first gripped by the possibilities of the space exploration thanks to the moon landings – took him to see Star Wars.
That interest lay dormant while the 41-year-old developed and ran a business but, with a more supportive careers advisor, things could have been different.
He said: “At school I wanted to be an astronaut and when you get to pick your options I told my teacher that he kind of laughed at me and said I’d need to join the Air Force. I said I was going to join the Air Force but they said I wasn’t very good at mathematics so they said I should think of something different.
“It turns out I wasn’t bad at mathematics but just not in that academic way. I went on to be a computer programmer so I was using quite complex mathematics so I wish I’d have stuck with it so for an opportunity to come up at my time of life when I can afford to do something like this is pretty amazing.”
Allan hopes that, in time, the cost of commercial space flights – the first of which Virgin are hoping will be in space by next year – will come down enough to give children the chance to experience what many astronauts have called the ‘overview effect’.
LIFT OFF? Allan at the Virgin Galactic factory where he got to see the aircraft he’ll go into space on
“A lot of people who go into space talk about something called the overview effect which stays with you for the rest of your life and it makes you see the world in a completely differently way and changes the way you think about thing forever so I’m really looking forward to that aspect.
“And I’m really keen to see the cost come down in a significant way like airline tickets have so we can get kids up there. If you can imagine a kid who has been into space and seen the world as a whole, with no borders between countries, imagine what kind of politicians and leaders they would be.”
Despite signing up over a year ago, and with no firm date on the horizon, Allan is still pinching himself that one day soon he’ll be in space – and is even looking for his next space adventure.
He said: I came to the realization that it’s probably not something that I’d want to give up so I’d be looking for the next best thing or the same thing again.
“There’s two levels to the excitement – there’s the immediate excitement and then you think it’s sunk in and it feels normal so you have to remind yourself how amazing this thing is and then when we watch the first commercial flight take place I think we’ll all share the pleasure that those first people taking that flight will get.”
For more information on the Virgin Galactic programme click here.