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Education / Unst would be prime site for world’s first training centre for young astronauts, space teacher says

US based space teacher Mike Mongo believes "kid astronauts" could be a thing of the future - and Unst could be a perfect location for a training centre for youngsters. Photo: Rich Johnson

A SATELLITE launch site, as we all know, is planned for Unst – but what about the idea of creating the world’s first space training centre for children on the island too?

The ambitious idea has been floated by California based ‘astronaut teacher’ and author Mike Mongo, who says the isolated nature of Unst would be a perfect fit for a training centre to get young people ready for travelling into space.

He believes that “tomorrow’s jobs are in space” and that as ordinary people begin to travel there in the future, “we will inevitably be bringing the best part of humanity to space – which is children”.

“It’s the isolation and geographic qualities of Unst that make it really exceptional for getting kids ready for space,” Mongo said.

“We’ve been going to space for 60 years. We’ve been sending human beings to space since 1961. It’s time that we send kids to space, and open up the door to the future.

“Unst can lead the way with a really simple thing – a training centre for kid astronauts. Perfectly situated, perfectly located, presenting the appropriate challenges for the students. Putting them in the right mindset.

“Not in a vacation wonderland, not in Disney, but in a primal, natural, isolated setting with real instructors from around the world matching the international make-up of the students that are training.”

Lamba Ness in Unst where Shetland Space Centre proposes to build a commercial satellite launch base. Photo: Shetland Space Centre
Lamba Ness in Unst where Shetland Space Centre proposes to build a commercial satellite launch base. Photo: Shetland Space Centre

Mongo has written children’s book The Astronaut Instruction Manual, while he spends most of his time teaching in schools and connecting with students in classrooms.

He said his book is also being turned into a television series by the makers of sci-fi show The Expanse, and the screenwriter of Kung-Fu Panda.

He believes the key is giving children “permission to reimagine themselves as already training for space”. By doing so, youngsters will also be more keen to pursue carers in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Mongo said while people today are “tourists” to space, where we go up and come back down, the next generation will spend time there and work.

This is why he feels it is import to look ahead – with a space training centre for youngsters, who would in theory travel to space before they are adults, potentially a key part of this.

Mongo pointed to existing analogue training facilities for astronauts, such as the hands-on HI-SEAS in Hawaii, where he said an exercise will take place with children next year.

“Nonetheless, a permanent facility would play a really important role in moving the world forward. It opens up opportunity and possibilities to all the students in the world.”

When asked about the idea, Shetland Space Centre chief executive Frank Strang said the company has been approached by “several interested groups who see Unst as a great location for training, one of which is a very prestigious university”.

“One of the initiatives we are keen to drive forward are our STEM and STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics] programmes and it’s all about the youngsters and what legacy we can leave for them,” he said.

Strang believes it is “all doable – we just need access to the resources to accelerate it”.

“We are waiting for Mike Mongo to get back to us and we can delve into what he is suggesting to see how viable it is, but what I can guarantee is that Yvette [Hopkins, the space centre’s director of Shetland operations] and the team will most definitely be putting in place a whole raft of initiatives for the youngsters.”

Shetland Space Centre hopes to launch the first satellites from Lamba Ness in Unst next year, although the planning permission process is still ongoing.