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5 Things I Learned By Hacking My Way Into Space

The incredible story of how Jon Spooner ended up with Tim Peake on the International Space Station. Or at least, a version of him did…

Mini Jon floating in microgravity in the Cupola module on the International Space Station, March 2016. Photo: Tim Peake

In 2010 Jon Spooner of Unlimited Theatre accidentally set up his own space agency. Based out of his garden shed, the Unlimited Space Agency started as a fun way to tell inspirational stories about science to children. It turns out that if you go around wearing a spacesuit and saying you’re “the Director of Human Spaceflight Operations for the Unlimited Space Agency”, more people than you might imagine want to join in and play along. What started as a dream ended up with British astronaut Tim Peake taking a 3D printed ‘Mini Jon’ with him — fulfilling Jon’s lifelong ambition to go to space.

Here are the Five Things Jon learned as he hacked his way into space…

1) If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

My mum always told us “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. It’s a cliché, but through embarrassment, or shyness, or fear of rejection, most people don’t. The worst thing that can happen is someone says ‘No’, and I’m fine with that. When that happens, I figure I’m just asking the wrong person, so I go and find the right one.

My mum wasn’t talking about being pushy or asking for things you didn’t deserve or hadn’t earned — we’re talking about basic stuff here. Asking for help, support, ‘Can I have a lend of your 3D printer’, and ‘Maybe you could take me with you, to space?’

My journey started by emailing a woman I’d read about on the internet — Dr Gail Iles (or Dr. Awesome as she prefers to be called). Gail is a particle physicist, and at the time was an astronaut instructor with the European Space Agency. I wrote to her and asked if we could meet. She said yes, we went for lunch and have been friends ever since.

That first time we met, I asked Gail if I might be able to visit the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, where she worked. Y’know, for research. She said she’d see what she could do. A few days later she emailed inviting me to come out and train with her for three days as an astronaut, which was where I met Tim Peake for the first time. And that is, basically, how I ended up going to space. I just kept asking people to help me get there.

Mini Jon with Tim in the Columbus module of the International Space Station, March 2016. Photo: Tim Peake

2) Be persistent. Never give up.

Every single astronaut I’ve met gives this as their primary piece of advice to anyone who wants to get into space. It’s another cliché, but again, it’s so true. Clayton Anderson made 14 unsuccessful applications to NASA before being accepted as an astronaut and flying on two Space Shuttle missions. Our patron Tim Peake gave this wonderful response to a 9 year old boy who’d been told by his teacher that his dream of becoming an astronaut was unrealistic:

3) Always wear your spacesuit.

We’re taught from an early age that if you want to get on in life, you have to fit in — speak in a certain way, adapt your behaviour to the environment you’re in and wear the right clothes.


Jon with Tim in the Training Hall at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, February 2015. Photo: Will Duke

It turns out that if you wear a spacesuit wherever you go, people LOVE IT. It opens a lot more doors than it closes. I have been laughed at and ignored by quite a lot of people with well paid jobs, wearing chain store suits and working in the ‘proper space industry’. But not a single one of them has had a 3D printed model of themselves flown to the International Space Station.

I think we all know who’s winning here, right?

You have to have a COOL space suit — you can’t just Amazon Prime a ‘Made in China’ NASA knock off and expect anyone to think you’re anything other than a kooky marathon runner raising money for charity. Which isn’t a bad thing, of course, it’s just not going to get you into space. If you want to get into space then you need seriously brilliant collaborators, designers, makers. You need care, thought, originality, extreme creativity, inspirational oddness. In short, if you want to get to space, you need artists. Which brings me to:

4) Work with artists.

OK, as an artist, I already knew this, but a lot of people are weirdly nervous about working with artists like me. Maybe it’s the spacesuit thing. Regardless, working with artists can be hugely inspiring, and if the spacesuit thing is a problem for you, you should totally get over it. Like this guy did:

In my first meeting with the UK Space Agency when I described the project I wanted to make with them, I was literally told “I don’t understand why we need artists to make this”. After two years, with more than 12,000 missions completed by children across the UK and more signing up as Cadets every day, no one involved in the project is in any doubt about the value of the technical expertise and uniquely thoughtful contributions that artists bring to almost any project.

Artists are used to making impossible things happen. They won’t think your ideas are ridiculous. They invent new things every day. They get stuff done. If you aren’t already, you should be working with artists.

If you want to work with artists and need any recommendations, ask me!

5) You don’t need a space rocket, you need a Space Shed!

In the early days of the Unlimited Space Agency our Missions Operations Manager sat me down and explained that resources were scarce and so we couldn’t afford a rocket to get me into space. Hammer blow.

However! Being persistent, inspired by other astronauts to never give up and knowing a lot of extremely talented artists, we set to work on building an alternative space vehicle. Inspired by my writing shed at the bottom of my garden we designed, built and then launched The Space Shed!

After multiple launch attempts at festival sites in summer 2017 (Rome wasn’t built in a day!), we’re now seeking partners for future launch attempts in 2018 and beyond. You got to have a dream, right?

Jon at an UNSA event with the Space Shed.