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  • Writer's picturePatrick Mullane

The U.S. space program isn't just for Americans - the British are coming!

Patrick Mullane is the author of "The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle, Growing Up an Astronaut's Kid in the Glorious 80s." A signed copy of the book may be ordered here. It is also available via Amazon in both paperback and ebook here.


I note in my memoir, The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut Kid in the Glorious 80s, that my earliest memories are from England. My father, an American Air Force aviator, was stationed there between 1970 and 1974 where he flew the reconnaissance version of the F-4 Phantom out of RAF Alconbury. Dad had flown in the same aircraft in Vietnam and had returned from southeast Asia to pick up my mom, sister, and me before shuffling off to the UK when I was only two years old. Over the next four years, I came to believe that the entire world was cool, foggy, and rainy year-round and that cheerio meant something other than the singular form of the breakfast cereal.

An RF-4C Phatom II. (Public Domain from Wikipedia Commons)

I returned to the U.S. in 1974 with a bit of a British accent. Unfortunately, while such an accent might have served me well as an adult, it wasn't an advantage to a seven-year-old trying to fit in at an Ohio elementary school. I distinctly remember being teased for my propensity to say "ta" instead of "thank you." I lost the accent quickly.

By the time I turned eight, I had left my British roots behind and become a fully American boy. That said, I wasn't like most American kids who had a well-defined hometown. I had already lived in seven different places before I was ten, the age at which my father was selected to join the first group of space shuttle astronauts. Such was the nomadic life of a military family. Dad's NASA assignment allowed us to finally stay put for a while. I spent eight years in Houston before departing for university in 1986.

Dad flew into space once before I went to college and twice afterward. He retired in 1990 after his three trips into space. Upon retirement, he'd often work at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex and our family would use it as an excuse for a family reunion. We'd rent condominiums on the beach and spend time together while dad went to serve as the visitors center "astronaut-in-residence," having lunch with tourists and giving presentations about flying in space. Often, I'd join him for the day at the space center and that is when I began to notice something - the number of British tourists that visited the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and attended the talks was substantial. (I also noticed that almost all of them had sunburns that convinced me they might drop dead on the spot from radiation poisoning - but that's a topic for another day).

A Christmas card from our time in the UK. Don't judge the outfits ... you've got similar pictures in your photo albums too! (My twin, Amy, is on the far left. Our younger sister, Laura, is in the middle. Laura was born in the UK).

Not only were the British numbers large, but I often found my fellow space aficionados from across the pond the most knowledgable and fanatic space fans. I enjoyed speaking with them. The history of space flight was our common language and I could have spent hours with many of those I met talking about everything from Moonraker to spacelab. Of course this assumes that my conversational partner didn't have a particularly strong Scottish or Welsh accent. While I'm pretty sure that those that fell into the latter category of dialects were indeed speaking English, at times I think I might have had a better shot at understanding somebody speaking Klingon.

While other nationalities were well-represented at the visitor's center (the Dutch come to mind), the Brits had a distinct numerical advantage. The number of Brits and others from outside the U.S. who visit the space center made me realize that the American space program isn't just for Americans. NASA has been adopted by millions around the world as their"home" space agency. I suspect this is because interest in space is evenly distributed around the world, but money, engineering capacity, and the national will to invest in space exploration aren't.

The U.S. space program is also much more accessible than "competitive products." Cape Canaveral is close to Disney World and is a much easier (and nicer) place to get to than Kazakhstan where the Baikonur Cosmodrome is located. Russia is also generally more insular. While a crude measure, a Google search shows the relative interest in and promotional prowess of the Russian space program. Search "Visit Baikonur Cosmodrome" and Google will yield 121,000 results. Search "Visit Kennedy Space Center" and Google kicks back 52,000,000 results.

What the above data doesn't explain is why, by one measure anyway, Brits seem more into the U.S. space program than Americans. With the launch of my book, I've been seeing more traffic to this website. I was reviewing the data the other day and noted that over about the last week, the number of American visitors to my site was 796. The number of English? A staggering 707. When you consider the significant difference in populations of the two countries - the U.S. is at about 328 million and the U.K. is at about 66 million - this discrepancy is truly amazing.

Whatever the reason for British interest in NASA, I'm glad for it. The investment in space exploration the United States has made has led to high profile successes (and a few tragedies) that bring together people who might differ on every other dimension. Indeed, in the world of space nuts, all that matters is your interest in technology and space exploration. It's too bad we don't have more such national activities that can bring people together in the same way. God knows, we could use them...

A note: if you are interested in space exploration, I highly encourage you to join the Facebook group called "Space Hipsters." You can find their page here:

Finally, if you have your own theories on why there is a British fascination with the American space program (or disagree with the premise in the first place) feel free to comment on my Facebook page.


Patrick Mullane is the author of "The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle, Growing Up an Astronaut's Kid in the Glorious 80s." A signed copy of the book may be ordered here. It is also available via Amazon in both paperback and ebook here.

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