Reflections – Richard Hargrave

Starmus changed my life. It really did!

It started in February 2011 at an event in London called Astrofest. An announcement was made by Brian May & Garik Israelian about a new event bringing Stars and Music together. It sounded quite like something I should go to! I went straight away and put my name down on the register. It was the right decision!

I went with my now wife Laura to Tenerife in the June 2011. We rented a small villa close to the Ritz Carlton Abama where the main body of the event was to take place. Laura, my then Fiancée isn’t the fanatic I am but she went along anyway, after all, who doesn’t want to be in Tenerife?
We hopped on the bus for the short ride to the event, registered and all that stuff and then awaited the opening lectures. Before that was a buffet lunch which was lovely. I glanced over and said, “That’s Charlie Duke!” Wow, a real astronaut & one I was subconsciously aware of from my childhood. I’ll explain that in a bit!

Charlie was great and didn’t mind having photos after his lunch with the both of us. He must be fed up with that by now surely! I’d always wanted to know if moon dust was a problem. He told me a great story along with many more.
Now high on my astronaut encounter we dutifully filed down to the conference room. Right near the front, 2 or 3 rows back! I never get that pleasure but here we were.

Then I made one of the unforgettable blunders we all have to take to our graves. I sat next to a fine gentleman and his wife and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Richard from the UK and this is my girlfriend Laura”. He said “Hi, I’m Kip and this is my wife Carolee”. My blunder? I said, “& what do you do”? Well I don’t get out much! He just quietly said, “I’m one of the speakers here”. I looked him up on the internet back at the villa that evening. OMG! I just asked Stephen Hawkings Professor, one of the greatest Theoretical Physicists of all time, “What do you do”! I apologised to him the next day and he just chuckled. We still keep in touch, such a nice couple.
Everyday there were lectures and mingling with influential figures, it was truly amazing but for me it was about to get more ‘Astronomical’. I sat in roughly the same seat, next to Kip & Carolee a row or two from the front and who glides in but Bryan May. The first music record I bought was by Queen, A Night at the Opera. I remember as a boy hearing Bohemian Rhapsody and telling my mum, “Can we buy it pleeease?” We did and now I was sitting so close to him. A very approachable man, quiet, tall, happy to talk to everybody, very generous with his time. Could this get better? Well duh! Of course it could.

At first Cosmonaut Sergei Zhukov came and sat alongside me, chatted a little, gave me his business card! Then, the unthinkable happened, Neil Armstrong slipped quietly in and sat roughly where Brian May had been sitting earlier. Sergei had a photo of the Apollo 11 crew and wanted it signed. Neil didn’t sign as explained he doesn’t do that kind of thing but they talked pleasantly. Sergei asked me to mind his laptop whilst he did his speech on stage! Wow, what trust in me! I guarded it with my life. Neil turned around whilst some of the visuals were on screen, turned around and said to me, “Now that’s interesting”, he nodded to me, I nodded to him in agreement and we carried on following the lecture. I was by now in shock! I like to think I gave Neil Armstrong the respect of not hounding him for a signature or something banal like that. I think he acknowledged that when he nodded to me.

I regret not telling him what he meant to me. Truthfully, the earliest memory I have was my father a veteran airman of WW2, enthusiastically sitting me on the sofa in front of the B&W TV and watching the 1st men set foot on the Moon. Charlie Duke’s voice was heard although I didn’t know that at the time, (hence the subconscious comment earlier), and then I watched the fuzzy images of Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin as they set foot on our Moon. My love for astronomy was born, 13.7 billion years after the Universe began. Now I hear we are talking in terms of 13.8 billion years which makes me quite old, 100,000,052 or something but more than that I was in his presence, literally breathing the same air as that great man. Nothing will take that away from me. The next year I read in a newspaper that had been abandoned in a local park of Neil’s passing. I was so sad. I hope his family learn of his contribution to my life.

However, more Astronaut/Cosmonaut fun was coming. Neil left the auditorium to the right and Alexei Leonov replaced him and came and sat next to me and Sergei’s laptop! I kept quiet for not wanting to say something daft but felt a nudge. I turned to my right, a strong hand was thrust at me and Alexei and I exchanged pleasantries’, I even introduced myself and Laura in Russian. Very chuffed with myself! At that point, Neil Armstrong came back in the room. He and Alexei hugged and chatted and laughed. I offered to top our diverse group up with bottles of water. It was a moment I’ll never forget being part of. In fact, if you look in the Starmus book on page 9, you can see a picture of the two of them with the back of my head between them! My best side I know but what a picture!

Apart from the amazing lectures and speakers, was the trip up the volcano Mt. Teide, the Starmus Star Party. Many of the greats from the conference were there. At one point I had lost Laura in the darkness. I stood at the door to the Restaurant at the Parador I believe it was, only to hear a voice of Southern American origin say, “Hey Richard, how ya doin’?’ It was Charlie Duke! 10th man on the moon and Capcom to Apollo 11’s Landing, was asking me how I was doing? I was 2,000 or so meters above sea level and sure felt close to Heaven at that moment! I replied I was fine and went out into the black of the night with my soup and Red wine in my trembling hands thinking, ‘Don’t fall over, Charlie Duke is beside me!’ I made it! The viewing wasn’t the best that night of the first Starmus Star Party as the sky was somewhat obscured by Sahara Sand blowing across the island but was still better than many views you get and anyway, there were enough ‘Stars’ walking amongst the crowd!

What more of my past was being reflected by Starmus? Well some 11 years previously my daughter was born and remained nameless for a short while. No name seemed to fit this wriggling Earthling. We were watching a film, Earthling wriggling in her Moses Basket, Contact, famously based on the book by Carl Sagan and the work of Dr Jill Tarter. We both exclaimed ‘Jodie’ as we saw who was playing the lead role, Jodie Foster of course, so it was again another important reflection on my personal Universe that I got to chat and have a photo with Dr Tarter at Starmus.

I really was in Heaven. I spoke to so many eminent people, made new friends and had experiences I will never again be able to repeat. The whole event was finished off with the Sonic Universe concert with Tangerine Dream and of course Brian May, the man who inspired me to pick up and learn guitar! It was the first proper Live Concert Laura had been to, we sat at the front amongst Astronauts, Cosmonauts, Nobel Prize winners, Physicists and the like, awe inspiring music ringing out, all that after an emotional gathering of all on stage, Neil, Buzz, Charlie, Alexei and figures of note galore, too many that I can’t remember them all! I can still see Neil in a snowstorm of ticker tape, waving to the admiring masses. I’ll take that memory everywhere as I will all the moments which had personal meaning to me, Neil & Buzz (& Charlie), my earliest memory planting that Astronomy seed in my brain, Jill Tarter and the link with my daughters naming, Brian May, my first musical influence, Kip for being so nice for a man so clever and amazing and his lovely wife Carolee, Alexei Leonov for being such a character and always saying hello whenever we see him, for all those that took part, especially Garik who without him none of this would have happened.

Starmus 2014 was announced! Oh no! Not again! Oh yes! Yet again another amazing experience. It can’t sadly for me be the same, as Neil Armstrong has sadly passed and will always be missed from anything he has graced previously but that being said, Garik did it again, another ‘Stellar Line-up!’ Now Starmus 2016 will do it all again. I hope I can go and meet old friends and new. I urge you if not this time but next time to go. It could only happen here on Earth….couldn’t it? Maybe Garik could let me help him organise ‘Starmus-Mars’??????

Starmus struck me in the heart and mind. It has never left me, that awe inspired feeling, now I embark on an astronomy related BSc course with passion given to me by that first Starmus and reignited by the second Starmus to whom my 2 month old son attended, I’m sure he is the youngest to have attended?

That’s probably not everything but a kind of ‘best of’, Starmus still goes on to influence my thoughts and dreams. It must be said, for me, ‘Starmus changed my life!’

Thanks for listening!

That’s me in the middle!