One small step for John Knox, one giant leap for university

Share this article

IT WILL be one small step for a man, but a giant leap for Scottish graduates.

When British astronaut Piers Sellers blasts off in the Space Shuttle Discovery on Saturday he will be carrying a small scrap of cloth embroidered with the emblem of Edinburgh University.

It will accompany the Edinburgh science graduate on his 13-day mission to the International Space Station - only the second since the loss of Columbia in 2003 - and be sent back to Scotland on his return to Earth.

It will then be stitched carefully into the famous Geneva Bonnet, which legend says was crafted from material taken from the breeches of 16th-century Scottish reformer John Knox and which is still used in Edinburgh's graduation ceremonies.

Professor Grahame Bulfield, the university's vice-principal and head of the College of Engineering and Science, said it was a perfect combination of the past and present. "Our students will receive their degrees capped by something more than 400 years old and with an emblem that's been into space," he said.

Sellers, 51, who earned a degree in ecological science at Edinburgh in 1976, has maintained close ties with his alma mater since his first Shuttle expedition in 2002.

He then became only the third Briton to venture into space

and on his first flight carried a university flag that is now displayed proudly at his old college. He has also made two lecture visits to share details of his adventures, one accompanied by his fellow astronauts from the Atlantis mission of four years ago.

"We think of him as our man in space," Bulfield said. "We're very proud of his achievements, not only as an astronaut but also as a very distinguished scientist.

"He made an incredible impact when he and his colleagues came back to talk, both on our students and the schoolchildren they talked to. It was not just a gee-whiz talk about what they'd done; it was a fascinating account with lots of technical details and scientific explanation.

"I'm sure he'll be in demand for a long time after this mission but we're hoping he'll come back and tell us what he's been doing this time."

English-born Sellers, who will conduct three spacewalks during Discovery's mission to resupply the Space Station and test safety modifications made after the Columbia disaster, speaks fondly of his university years.

He said: "I love Edinburgh. I had a really happy time there as a student and I like going back. I used to go diving in a thin wetsuit off the east coast."

His mother Lindsay, who lives in Surrey, recalls that he enjoyed university life so much that she barely saw him. "He disappeared up there and would reappear periodically with a big bag of washing. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there."

At Edinburgh, Sellers nurtured his passion for earth sciences, developing an interest in global warming and working to improve a knowledge that would lead him to a job at Nasa's Goddard Space Center near Washington DC, computer modelling the climate. He and English wife Mandy arrived in the US in 1982.

Sellers made repeated applications to join the astronaut corps and was finally accepted in 1996, five years after he became a naturalised US citizen. But he still considers himself a British astronaut and says he gets great satisfaction from talking to children in the UK about science.

"Whenever I go back and talk to school kids I try to impress on them that science is a lot of fun," he said. "It's interesting and it's vitally important. It's intellectually stimulating and to have a job you're happy to go to every day, and one that's real exciting, is a real boon compared with other jobs that are routine and boring."

One of the most amusing stories of Sellers' career also has its roots in Scotland. He took Scottish band Garbage's second CD, Version 2.0, aboard Atlantis and photographed it spinning in zero gravity during a spacewalk. When he presented the photo to the band in Houston, he was allegedly embarrassed to discover the disc was a counterfeit copy.

Sellers says that music is an important part in the lives of his family. Garbage's song 'Push' was played to Atlantis by mission controllers as his 'wake-up' music in 2002, and for this trip his wife and children Imogen, 21, and Tom, 18, have asked Nasa for songs from the Cure and Coldplay.

Discovery's crew of seven will complete pre-flight training in Houston tomorrow and fly to the Kennedy Space Center before the three-day launch countdown clock begins ticking on Wednesday. A 10-minute window for lift-off opens at 8.43pm BST on Saturday.

Debate is still raging over the safety of the ageing shuttle fleet after Nasa officials cleared the launch against the advice of the agency's chief safety officer and lead engineer, who warned of the danger of foam insulation filler peeling from the fuel tank at lift-off and causing catastrophic damage to the 23-year-old orbiter.

It was falling foam that struck a hole in the wing of Columbia and caused it to disintegrate on its return to Earth in February 2003, killing seven astronauts.

Nasa's associate chief of spaceflight operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, said that he and agency head Michael Griffin believed any risk was to the spacecraft and not the crew, who would be able to take refuge on the Space Station and await a rescue mission if any damage was detected.

"The risk, while not desirable, is still tolerable for this flight," Gerstenmaier said.


THE velvet and silk John Knox hat has been used for over 150 years during the "capping" ceremony of Edinburgh University's graduates.

The University Principal touches each graduate on the head with the cap as they collect their degrees to signify conferral of their qualification and the end of their time there.

Legend claims the hat was originally made from the breeches of Scottish scholars John Knox or George Buchanan, who died almost 450 years ago.

Knox is thought to paved the way for the educational changes that led to the establishment of Edinburgh University, and a statue of him in the grounds shows him wearing a similar hat.

The graduation cap has been mended several times as the fabric has become threadbare after touching so many heads. It is thought to have touched more than 100,000 graduates.

During a recent restoration, an inky note was discovered inside the hat, inscribed with the words "Henry Banks, 22 Duke Street Edinr 31 July 1849".

Experts believe the note may have been placed there during an earlier restoration.