Dreaming of space

James Parr, London, England

“Some of us are too dumpy or scared of heights to be astronauts – we don’t have the ‘right stuff’, the PhDs or the rocket science,” laughs James Parr, 45, founder of the Open Space Agency (OSA).

“But I realised there were a lot of people like me – citizen scientists and product designers, who can meaningfully support the space programme, and contribute to that future.” James started out as a designer who “realised that I was creating stuff that goes in landfill, and rapidly did a 180 and became someone who worked on green issues and sustainability”. After setting up a company that addressed climate change, cancer and obesity, NASA became one of his clients.

“I’d always been inspired
by the space programme”

“I’d always been inspired by the space programme,” he says. “I loved the food packaging, how they made a hammer work in zero gravity, how you keep humans alive in space. So when I started working with NASA, all my space dreams came out again. I advised on certain technologies, and did work on planetary defence from asteroids. I thought, ‘what we’re doing is supporting NASA. A proper agency can do more of that’.” The OSA, founded five years ago, is dedicated to unlocking the insight of citizen space explorers. They believe that the technology and skills to meaningfully contribute to space exploration are now within the reach of small teams of passionate individuals. They’ve worked on design projects both small – a whisky glass that works in zero gravity – and major: 3D printing lunar habitats, and a space station.

“I love the fact that there is a real purpose to this work”

James gets a kick out of his day-to-day. “I love the fact that there is a real purpose to this work,” he says. “I’ve got no angst about its value. And I love addressing tricky problems. Much of it is far beyond my capabilities, but I get to work with amazing people. It’s nice holding the rudder for the geniuses! That makes my life very rich. I’m very lucky to work on projects like this. I think the human race is about to see itself come of age in the solar system. We have amazing possibilities to discover new things, and go to new planets. But we’re also realising that we’re on a fragile, tiny planet, tailored perfectly for us, that is under threat. So there’s this duality – understanding our place in the universe, and better ­figuring out how to look after ‘spaceship Earth’. We’re on the threshold of a lot of technologies maturing. We’re excited that there is a new generation that is suddenly becoming inspired by space.”

Photography by Nicholas White