Twenty five years ago, a fighter pilot from York was chosen to be the first British man in space. The Challenger shuttle disaster put an end to Nigel Wood’s dream of reaching for the stars. But a quarter of a century later, the memories are as vivid as ever, he tells STEPHEN LEWIS.

NIGEL WOOD will never forget the day the first space shuttle returned successfully to Earth. He was a young RAF test pilot on exchange with the USAF at Edwards Air Force Base, in California.

The shuttle, Columbia, had been launched two days earlier, and had orbited the earth 36 times. It was due to land on the dry lakebed runway at Edwards on April 14, 1981. And like every other airman at the base, Squadron Leader Wood was there to see it.

It was a historic moment. Previous manned space flights, such as those to the moon, had been on board giant rockets, such as Apollo. The crew had literally fallen back to earth on their return. Columbia was different.

“Nobody before had ever flown a genuine spaceship and landed it under proper control,” he says. “We knew it was either going to be a huge moment in history, or a massive disaster.”

The tension rose as the time scheduled for the shuttle’s landing approached. Because of re-entry, the crew were out of radio contact. No one knew what was happening up there on the edge of space.

“We were all at the end of this huge, long runway, all trying to see. And then way up in the clouds, suddenly you could see this tiny, tiny triangle. It was the most moving moment. Suddenly we knew that they were okay.

"We could see it slowly getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger as it descended. It landed, and it was just… people were hugging each other, people were in tears. You knew right then that aviation history had been made in front of your eyes.”

York Press: Astronaut Nigel Wood  has training in weightlessness aboard a KC-135 aircraft, in 1985/6

Nigel Wood today

The young father of two, who was born in Clifton, York, and brought up in North Yorkshire, had no idea then that he would one day be offered the chance to become part of the shuttle programme. He received a telephone call a couple of years later, just before he was to be posted back to the UK. It was the RAF. “We’re looking for someone to go on the space shuttle,” he was told.

He thought someone was pulling his leg. Only when he phoned back did he realise it was for real. He didn’t need to think twice. “I said yes! For an aviator it was the most fantastic opportunity you could imagine. When someone says do you want to go up in the space shuttle, you don’t say no.”

He and his young family returned to the UK, where he became one of four Britons being groomed for space.

Competition was fierce. But on April 24, 1985, then defence Secretary Michael Heseltine announced that it would be Sqn Ldr Wood who became the first Briton into space.

He was chosen above Royal Navy commander Peter Longhurst, Army lieutenant colonel Richard Farramond and Christopher Holmes, a civilian specialist at the Ministry of Defence.

It was all a bit of a blur, he admits. He had been told by Mr Heseltine only ten minutes before the press conference that he had been selected – along with Cmdr Longhurst, who would make a later flight.

“It was fantastic, but it was also kind of an odd moment. We had been a really tight-knit team, all for one and one for all, and suddenly two of us were going to fly and two weren’t, and we hadn’t even had a chance to talk to one another before the press conference.”

York Press: Nigel Wood today

Astronaut Nigel Wood has training in weightlessness aboard a KC-135 aircraft, in 1985/6

His training began, 17 weeks in all at Houston. As payload specialist – his job would be to look after the military communications satellite being sent up by the British military – he would come last in the pecking order of the mostly American seven-man crew. But he still needed to be prepared for the rigours of space flight.

Much of the training was about how to live for a week in a tiny cramped space such as the shuttle. There were mock-ups of everything from the shuttle’s toilets to its cooking facilities. “It was mainly about things like how to cook, how to sleep, how to go to the loo, how to use a fire extinguisher.”<

Then there was the weightlessness training.

The crew were taken up repeatedly in a ‘zero gravity’ KC-135 aircraft. It would climb high into the sky, then perform a series of half loops. At the top of each curve, there was a period of weightlessness that would last for up to a minute.

It was a bit like reaching the top of the world’s highest rollercoaster – except that it was repeated again and again for up to two hours.

There is nothing quite like weightlessness, says Mr Wood – now 60, retired and living in Salisbury. It sends very odd signals to your eyes, and the organs of balance in your ears, and it can make you sick to the stomach. “People were going to the back of the plane and sitting there with a sick-bag.”

But it was also enormous fun. He learned to push off from one side of the plane and float to the other – “you couldn’t stop yourself until you hit the other side” – and to do somersaults and float upside down. But it was vital to be prepared for the weightlessness of space – so that when they were there for real, they could concentrate on the important stuff, like flying the shuttle, doing experiments, and deploying the satellite.

The training continued off and on until January 1986. And then came the event that changed everything – the Challenger space shuttle disaster (see panel).

Nigel was back in the UK when it happened. He still remembers it as though it was yesterday.

He knew many of the crew, having trained alongside them at Houston.

“It was a horrible moment,” he says. “There was the human loss – you knew your mates had been killed. And it was one of those moments, too, when you knew that history had changed dramatically. Not just for me, but for NASA, for the United States, for the space programme.”

He and his crewmates continued training. They got to within three months of launch before their flight, like others, was cancelled.

Sqn Ldr Wood resumed his career as a pilot, becoming the RAF’s chief test pilot and retiring in 2003 with the rank of air commodore.

His wife, Irene, died a few years ago, and he now runs his own photography and design business in Salisbury.

But even after all these years, he remains in love with the dream of space.

There was a real sense of excitement in those early years of the space shuttle, he says. As Britain’s scheduled first man in space, he gave talks up and down the country. And wherever he met young people, it was always the same: the gleam in the eye, the excitement, the sense of awe.

He is not a space nut, he insists. And he understands that there will always be those who believe manned spaceflight is an expensive waste of time, although he’s not one of them.

Scientific benefits come from the space race for a start, alongside other less tangible but equally important benefits.

“It is a frontier of human endeavour,” he says. “When I was at university, men were going to the moon. And to me, to do things like that, to go and physically walk on the moon, to tackle that final frontier, it was just wow!”

We have our sporting heroes today he says. But the manned space programme gave heroes to a different group of young people altogether – the young scientists, engineers and medics who represented the best hope for the future.

“It gave them something to aspire to,” he says. “And a nation needs to do that: to give people something to aspire to.”

THE headline in the Yorkshire Evening Press on April 25, 1985, said it all. “Britain’s – and York’s – first man in space” it declared.

That man was 35-year-old Squadron Leader Nigel Wood.

The father of two, who had been born in Clifton, had been chosen to join the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which was scheduled to lift off on June 24, 1986.

In an interview with the Evening Press, Sqn Ldr Wood could barely contain his excitement. “I wish the shuttle was outside now and I could go right on to the launch,” he said. He was particularly looking forward to getting a proper bird’s eye view of the North York Moors, he told the newspaper’s reporter – before adding it was unlikely he would do a space walk. “Unless they throw me out.”

Sqn Ldr Wood had been chosen the day before by Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine to be the first Briton in space, beating a Royal Navy commander, an army lieutenant colonel and a civilian specialist at the Ministry of Defence to the honour.

At the time he lived in Hampshire with his wife Irene and two young daughters, Melanie and Katherine. But his links with York and North Yorkshire were real.

His father, Donald, was himself an RAF officer who had served at RAF Dishforth. Nigel lived in York for the first three years of his life, later attending school in Ripon and Easingwold.

This newspaper was certainly proud of him. “Our Man In Space” ran the headline above a leader column that April 25. York, with its ancient history, was now taking its place in space history, the leader said, before adding: “We wish Squadron Leader Wood well in his travels, wherever they may take him.”

Challenger... 73 seconds into fatal flight

ON JANUARY 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida at about 11.40am Eastern Standard Time. Seventy three seconds into its flight, it spectacularly broke apart. All seven crew were killed – among them Christa McAuliffe, who was to have been the first teacher in space.

Billions around the world watched the disaster on television. The footage was replayed over and over again – that plume of smoke and fire that suddenly exploded in jagged directions and spiralled out of control as a leak in one of the solid fuel rocket boosters ignited the main fuel tank.

Following the shock of the tragedy, the US space programme was suspended for almost three years. Some would say it has never fully recovered.