I could not sleep for thinking of the sky,
The unending sky, with all its million suns
Which turn their planets everlastingly
In nothing, where the fire-haired comet runs.
If I could sail that nothing, I should cross
Silence and emptiness with dark stars passing,
Then, in the darkness, see a point of gloss
Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing,
And rage into a sun with wandering planets
And drop behind, and then, as I proceed,
See his last light upon his last moon’s granites
Die to dark that would be night indeed.
Night where my soul might sail a million years
In nothing, not even death, not even tears.
“The Unending Sky” by John Masefield (1878-1967)
If you want to go into space in order to get away from it all, to enjoy a little peace and quiet, then climbing into a rocket capsule with Brian Blessed probably isn’t a good idea. On the other hand, if you want a travelling companion who will take your mind off the coming dangers and provide engaging company throughout the voyage, then I can’t think of anyone more suited to such a role than our distinguished guest.
In the days running up to the prestige lecture, I couldn’t shake the thought that I was about to meet Robin Hood’s dad – Lord Locksley – the character played by Brian in the Kevin Costner movie about Sherwood Forest’s most famous fugitive. Brian has also played equally larger than life figures in Space 1999, Blake’s Seven, Dr Who, The Day After Tomorrow, and Star Wars – The Phantom Menace, to name but a few of the many productions he has enlivened with memorable performances.
These fictional personas are easily matched by the real man, a man who has climbed some of the toughest mountains on the planet, and who is known to TV and cinema audiences the world over. Being a Member of the BIS puts you in the same room as some extraordinary people, none more so than Blessed, “a Yorkshire boy who first discovered space” through listening to the radio as a child. The son of a coal miner, this Yorkshire lad had been deeply moved by classic wireless shows such as The War of the Worlds, and the plaintive way in which the dying Martian war-machines had called to each other in Trafalgar Square. Such broadcasts inspired him to pursue a life-long quest to get into space. “A part of me aches all the time to go into space,” Brian told his audience, “to go home,” adding with total conviction that “we are all children of the stars.”
As a boy, this particular star-child remembers “lying in the grass longing to go to Mars like the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s” Barsoom stories, gazing up at “hatcheries of stars in the Orion nebula.” As an adult, he still “ferments with longing to go into space,” galvanised by the Fred Hoyle lectures he listened to on the radio, and by classic movie serials such as Flash Gordon starring Buster Crabbe. By an odd quirk of synchronicity, Blessed would later play the role of the winged Prince Vultan in the 1980 movie version of the famous space-serial, leading to the catch-phrase everyone now associates with the actor. His thunderous rendition of “Gordon’s alive!,” delivered in that famous stentorian voice, will echo round the BIS meeting rooms for a long time to come.
Brian is not only an expert raconteur but an accomplished mimic, and his audience quickly found itself in the company of a diverse range of characters, including Robert Zubrin, the Queen, the Dali Lamar, Buzz Aldrin and Reinhold Messner. The conjuror of all these different voices has the darting, quick-silver mind of the genuine polymath, of a man who is intensely interested in everything. On several occasions he talked passionately about how children now seem to have a race memory of space exploration and struggle to understand “why we aren’t on Mars,” a planet which has always been a siren world for the actor. The affinity was never stronger than when he stood on the peak of Mount Chimborazo, the highest point on the equator, at the time of the Beagle 2 mission in 2003, knowing that he was as close to the Red Planet, and to Colin Pillinger’s heroic little spacecraft, as he could possibly be.
It came as no surprise to learn that Colin and Brian are good friends, both striving to reach out into space in their own way, and both united in their determination to overcome all possible obstacles to achieve their respective goals. It was in the context of Colin’s struggles to deliver Beagle 2 to its target planet that Brian observed: “you are never failing in life if you have a go,” adding that it is “our birth right to go to Mars.” This is surely a sentiment which every member of the BIS shares.
A strong advocate of human expansion into space, Brian was adamant that “we mustn’t be Earthbound.” With “wildlife losing everywhere” in its encounters with humanity, Brian is convinced that we must “export our Lepidoptera to other worlds.” Such beliefs help to explain the relentless drive which has compelled Brian to train as a cosmonaut, and which explains why he is convinced that “adventure is the key to the new millennium, primarily adventure in space.” Brian may have completed his cosmonaut training late in life (enduring the brain-spinning rigours of the centrifuge at an age when most men have already slipped into retirement) but there can be no doubt that he has been a terrestrial astronaut from his earliest years. And those years have been packed with restless adventures, all undertaken by a man who “could not sleep for thinking of the sky.”
And if not thinking of the sky then dreaming of peaks to conquer; Brian is the oldest man to have reached the summit of Everest, a feat accomplished without oxygen in 1990 when he followed in the footsteps of George Mallory, the “Galahad of Everest;” and at seventeen years of age he scaled Monte Blanc after travelling across Europe with just a few pounds in his pocket.
The one thought that stuck in my mind coming away from the meeting was an image of the constellation Ursa Major. I had, after all, just met a great bear and for a while (like everyone else in the room that night) we had travelled together across “The unending sky, with all its million suns.” If the opportunity ever arose, I’d be more than happy to share a space capsule with Brian Blessed. It’s not only our wildlife we need to export to other worlds. It’s also the charming exuberance and infectious optimism of celestial explorers such as Brian, people who live life to the full as they search for a way back to the stars.
Mark Stewart, FBIS