Diary of a Spaceman

Feature in Issue 22-3 | Autumn 2010

In August 2010, James Baker conquered space – wowing the Forest Fringe and winning a Total Theatre Award for his endeavours. Here, the urban spaceman’s diary is opened to reveal how he did it.

Spacemen need to watch what they say… On leaving the earth’s orbit in Apollo 8 for the first time in humanity’s existence Michael Collins prosaically states, ‘You’re go for TLI.’ What could have perhaps entered the history books as the zenith of human achievement was sadly marginalised due to the lack of colour in Collins’ orations. ‘One Small Step for Man’ this was not. In fact, a great criticism of astronauts is that they are often not the best equipped to document the experiential/phenomenological nature of their missions. How often has an astronaut waxed lyrical about the smell of the moon? It is with these instances in mind that I wonder what best to tell of my experiences of space in just a few hundred words. Here goes…

I’ve made the decision to fulfil a childhood ambition. I’m going to travel to space. I’m going to become an astronaut. And I’m going to do it all with a borrowed ladder, chalk pastels and an eBay bought silver suit. Or at least this is the idea.

The mission: Edinburgh festival is the location. By climbing a 6ft ladder 1467 times each day for 30 continuous days I will eventually reach a height of 50 miles: space. Each climb of the 6ft ladder will be documented by me drawing a chalk star onto the wall. After the 30 days the stars will have made a panorama of space that surround the audience who observe from below. In the process of reaching ‘Space’ I will also have created it.

Before leaving for Edinburgh I post a letter to NASA. I tell them that I’ve calculated how many times I’d need to climb a 6ft ladder to equal the height of space; I ask whether they’d honour me with official astronaut status if I complete my endeavour. I even attempt to coerce them with the inclusion of complementary badges that read ‘I want to be an astronaut’. Weeks after, when I begin my epic adventure to space, the response letter still hasn’t arrived. I continue undeterred. Below are fragments of my diary entries over the 30-day project.

Start Time: 10:00am, 1st August 2010.

Day 1: Extremely difficult first 100 climbs. Doubt the project already. A lady comments on what an environmentally friendly way it is to get to space. I wake up needing to wee throughout the night as I have drunk so much water in order to keep hydrated.

Day 2: Wake up to much stiffness in my legs. Stretch out. Although my body aches much more than the first day I am finding the climbing easier. A child calls me stupid. She wants to be a farmer when she grows up. I wash my space suits and one of them has turned transparent in the wash. A ring of spots has appeared around my neck where my suit rubs.

Day 3: Aled Jones (of Snowman fame) pops in to see me. He returns with his daughter an hour later who was ‘desperate to see the spaceman’. Andy Roberts (my Ground Control) now has a routine of treating himself to a cigarette after 800 climbs. We are both developing habits to get us through the day. Right knee beginning to twinge. Today’s run is the quickest so far.

Day 4: I entered the Forest Café to find a tin labelled ‘Space Cream’. The masseur, Alex, who works next door, had concocted a cream to treat my muscles at the end of the day; my first bespoke health product.

Day 5: Spaceman nourishment includes: 3 x Lucozades (I can suggest Cherry or Lite thus far), 3x bananas, 3x cereal bars and some kind of chicken wrap or fajita for lunch + my own weight in water. On popping out for lunch (in full astronaut regalia) I was met with broad Scottish shouts of ‘How far have you got spaceman?’ Word seems to be spreading.

Day 6: Receive some freeze-dried space food in post. I am coming to the conclusion that I will have to cover the ceiling in stars as well as the walls. I am now at the height of Concorde. It’s getting lonely up in Space.

Day 7: Space chafing. My suit is now starting to rub in unspeakable places, there are calluses on my palms from drawing, and blisters on my feet from climbing. Broken the 10,000 climb mark; our first significant milestone.

Day 8: I will include here a word on a lovely chap called Brent who has visited me every day, and soon will be returning home. Brent doesn’t say a lot but his presence nonetheless spurs me on. When quizzed on why he continues to come back he responded with, ‘I don’t know, but I feel like I’m helping somehow’. He’s right, he is.

Day 9: The publication of an article in The Guardian about my endeavour marks a personal milestone.

Day 10: We are visited by a three- or four- year-old boy who watches me climb and descend for about 20 minutes. He tells his mum that he wants to be a spaceman so I gift him with a badge that reads, ‘I want to be an astronaut’. My spacecraft is beginning to accrue minor damage with bolts coming loose from the ladder. She has been a trusty companion in this exploration thus far and I would be sad to see her replaced. I hope that the remaining journey is free of turbulence. I finished the day a third of the way to space. The journey continues.

Day 11: I have developed a new name due to my shifting physical shape. I have been re-dubbed ‘The Ass-tronaut’ due to my developing glutes. Quite the opposite effect to regular astronauts I believe, who tend instead to suffer from muscle atrophy. My body is definitely changing shape.

Day 12: The day ends with a text message from my mother who warned me of the incoming Perseid Meteor Shower (set to hit tonight). It would seem that even astronauts’ mums worry.

Day 13: Lack of documentation today. Appeared on the cover of The Times and celebrated too hard resulting in hangover. Over and Out.

Day 14: Upon hitting 20,000 climbs Andy and myself mark the occasion with two audience members who, upon an agonisingly slow countdown began a sporadic victory dance. The elation was minor and unexpected but genuine.

Day 15: Deborah Pearson from Forest Fringe remarked upon how my canopy of chalk-etched space is similar to actual space in that no longer can you perceive it in its entirety all at once. I get a kick from artists noticing characteristics of my work that I hadn’t seen myself. An American girl proposes to me. She suggests that if I were to become an astronaut certified by NASA, I would require American citizenship. I told her that I’d think about it. I am half way to space.

Day 16: The ladder is shredding my hands but on the whole I’m in good shape. I have experienced even more significant damage to my spacecraft. The third rung of the ladder’s rivet (one of two) has flown off. It’s a trusty vessel but I worry about its stability for the final leg of the mission.

Day 17: A lady came in this morning keen to get my contact details so that she could re-email a contact that she has at NASA. I accrue a new pain in a muscle above my right knee. This aggravates me on every descent of the ladder. Every ten or so climbs I was asking Rob (Robert Jude Daniels of Bootworks) for a countdown of how many left. I wanted to give up. Serendipitously on the final climb two girls entered The Forest clutching a bag inside of which was a collection of space-themed sweets. They said it was to ‘get me through tomorrow’. Every time I want to give up I find a new reason to carry on.

Day 18: Things are not well at space camp. After the initial 200 climbs my right knee begins to provide me with some serious problems. Every climb elicits a different grimace. It genuinely takes all my resolve to carry on. The pain is mostly on the descent. I am determined to complete my journey – however, if tomorrow proves as difficult I need to consider the effects of permanent damage. I am able to alter my technique slightly and use my arm muscles to take some strain. The repetitive nature of the task also allows very little time for repair or rest. I am described by one Forest Fringe intern as ‘a well-loved dog that you should put out of its misery but can’t’. Because of the shift in technique my hands have developed sizeable blisters, At one point today I had to question whether the water running down my face was tears or sweat.

Day 19: Finally finish the ceiling of The Forest foyer. The last star chalked onto the ceiling sparked an impromptu round of applause, woop and cheer from an assembled audience who had been watching intently, waiting for me to finish.

Day 20: As with any space mission, I should imagine, boredom sets in today. My right knee begins to play up again. I am given an A4 piece of paper which reads, ‘THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PAIN! PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY.’

Day 21: For part of my ascent a chap called Blue joins me. He climbs the stairs, keeping pace with my ladder climbing. He imagines reaching great heights.

Day 22: One lady today remarks that the stars were akin to the counting of the years of internment by prisoners on their cell walls; counting away the numbers left.

Day 23: Met an astrophysicist, he will forward news of my journey to ‘The right kind of people.’ I may be an astronaut yet.

Day 24: A letter from the aforementioned Brent admonishes against the perils of falling into alcohol abuse once my mission finishes. Apparently it’s a common occurrence for astronauts to try and equal the dizzying heights of euphoria experienced through space travel with some form of intoxicating equivalent post landing. I shall take heed and enjoy in moderation.

Day 25: The only audience to speak of was a cheese-plant that’s been newly situated in the foyer; and even that looked nonplussed by the whole affair.

Day 26: An e-mail from the manufacturer of my ladder reads, ‘One of the most famous expeditions in the world, the ascent to the summit of Mount Everest in May 1953, was completed By Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay and involved the use of a Lyte sectional aluminium ladder. We also believe that ladder is still there today, so very appropriate in the circumstances.’ One audience member also gifts me with the motto Per Ardua Ad Astra: Through Adversity to the Stars.

Day 27: We’re now well over 39,000 climbs (our target 43,710) – the end is in sight. I was joined briefly by two young girls who raced me at climbing by using the stairs opposite my ladder.

Day 28: Today I fail (for the first time) to complete my daily target of 1457 climbs. I now have an extra 100 climbs to do tomorrow. I’m excited about finishing the mission but a welcome return to earth will be the real reward now.

Day 29: Due to a numerical oversight I manage to make up the missing 112 climbs from yesterday before lunch; an extremely happy accident. There’s still tomorrow to go. I have no idea if there’ll be anybody left in Edinburgh to celebrate with… I guess we’ll see.

Day 30: I put on my spacesuit with a mixture of reluctance and relief. The last leg seems to take forever. We decide to leave ten climbs for a countdown at 8.00pm. A smoke machine floods the stairwell and David Bowie begins to play on a guitar from downstairs. We heroically as possible try to negotiate a smoke-filled stairway and complete the endeavour to much elation.

I can only reflect positively on what has been a monumentally character shaping month of my life. I set out on this mission ignorant of what might follow. I couldn’t have envisaged it being as taxing, wonderful, moving and exhausting as what transpired. I’ve climbed through fashion shows, festivals, anniversaries, burglaries, birthdays, awards ceremonies and banquets (and all the while I’ve been supported by some of the most wonderfully generous people). And at the end of it all… I’ve failed. I have yet to hear from NASA. I am still not officially an astronaut. But at least for a fleeting moment in Edinburgh this year I felt like one… and I think some other people believed it too. This is the spaceman’s last transmission. The view’s beautiful up here and I have yet to come down from space.

Finish Time: 8:00pm, 30 August 2010.

30 Days to Space was presented by Bootworks at Forest Café, Forest Fringe Edinburgh, August 2010. It won a Total Theatre Award for Innovation. www.bootworkstheatre.co.uk Spaceman photomontage / artwork by Robert Jude Daniels.

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Issue 22-3
p. 6 - 9