This is a special little space mission that is very dear to me.

For those who have already read this, who are just interested in progress – scroll down to the end of this post

5…4…3…2…1…Lift off!  It’s incredibly exciting to watch the countdown of a rocket launch that is sending something you are involved with into space.  It’s even more exciting and emotional when that thing is personal to you, literally a piece of you, and it may last for millions of years somewhere out there. 

The Story

One of my most unusual missions is Vitae, the project of wonderful French artist Anilore Banon, who is preparing a lunar sculpture, carrying representations of at least 1 million human handprints.  Anilore has toured the world with her exhibitions, collecting handprints from excited children, Nobel prize winners, royalty, celebrities.  So far, we have sent  Anilore’s sculptures to “the edge of space” on high altitude balloon missions, and a shape memory alloy version that was deployed by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet on the International Space Station.

We need a moon ride for the Vitae sculpture, so I have been keeping an eye on all potential commercial and private moon missions.  Years ago, the most promising opportunities were the competitors for the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition to be the first private moon lander.  Many competitors fell by the wayside, and eventually the Lunar X Prize was cancelled, but  one competitor, Astrobotic, always impressed us.

Excitingly, they announced that they plan to launch their first Peregrine lander by the end of this year, and they still had space available.  It’s not quite suitable for Vitae, but it got me thinking…

Do I want to miss this bus?  Can I give others a chance to experience the excitement and emotion of being part of Astrobotic’s historic space mission – potentially the first commercial landing on the moon that will open the gateway to further unmanned and manned exploration beyond Earth?

I knew I could procure a tiny amount of space on the lander if I bought it quickly enough.  With the deadline looming, I ummed… I ahhed…  After much thought, I decided to follow the scientific advice:

You are more likely to regret the things that you didn’t do, rather than those you did.

So I bought it….

What did I get for a decent chunk of money?  A hexagonal compartment 0.5″ across and 0.25″ deep.  But I’m pretty experienced at miniaturising stuff for space, and making the most of tiny amounts of volume and mass, so that was a fabulous challenge.

But what to do with it?  It seems like every man and his dog is claiming some involvement with this  lunar lander, but I wanted to do something special.  Not something mass produced for everyone, just for a select number of people.  Not just a signature.  Not something stored in digital, virtual format.  It needed to be something physical, tangible, real.   Something truly representing each “passenger”, something that can possibly be viewed and touched by moon astronauts (or aliens!) millions of years into the future. 

Most importantly, I wanted it to last.  I know that space is risky, so I planned to create an artifact that has a high chance of surviving, even if everything else on the lander is evaporated in a “fast” landing 😉  As long as the rocket/lander is pointed somewhere towards the moon, gravity will ensure that it eventually reaches the surface one way or another, and the plan is to try to survive any type of arrival on the lunar surface.

I consulted with several experts – air crash investigators, forensic scientists etc, and formulated a plan and a design.  I selected tungsten (also known as wolfram), a metal with amazing properties, for the container.  It has the highest melting point of any metal (3,422°C, or 6,191.6°F).  In its pure form, it is also very good at withstanding impacts, and is one of the strongest  metals:

In the second video, you’ll think it’s been crushed but you can see it’s actually just intact.  It’s the weaker metal around it that has been crushed!

We wouldn’t normally use tungsten for space missions because it is just so heavy, but hey – I was only asked to pay for the volume and not the mass, and they didn’t say that I couldn’t use dense materials!  So I will let the lander people worry about the mass…

What to put inside?  I thought about all sorts of ways of making the container and storing the material, but most methods would not be a great use of the available volume, and any modification to store stuff would weaken the container.  The best method I found was to drill micro holes into a solid block, so that each hole becomes a private container for a passenger, who will be represented by a short snippet of hair.  It’s simple, it’s personal, and some nuclear DNA is present in the root, some mitochondrial DNA in the hair itself.  Incidentally, hair will survive up to a temperature of around 232°C.

Having holes like this not only allows for individual passenger compartments, but also makes an efficient and strong structure – like a honeycomb.

The container will have a plate lid welded to the top of it, sealing everything inside.

If the capsule’s made from such a tough material, how are the holes cut in it?  Electrical Discharge Machining.  Electrical sparks erode a tiny amount of the material at a time, but the sparks are generated so quickly – several hundred thousand times a second – that it doesn’t take too long!

On the outside, I plan to etch clues for any future astronaut or moon-dweller who discovers the capsule, using a universal language or symbols that will give them an idea about what’s inside.  I’ll also keep a map showing which passenger is in each compartment.

Now I need a  little piece of you…

Ideally, pull out 2-3 hairs (ouch!) from anywhere (head, arm etc) – or perhaps collect them from a hairbrush or comb. These type of hairs should have a little bit of nuclear DNA in the root.  Or just snip off a few cm of hair.  If you also rub the hairs a little bit, you could collect up even more DNA.

Then secure them in something like a little plastic bag or folded up piece of paper or aluminium foil, mark who they belong to and post them to me at:

Address changed…. 🙂

I can probably work with other samples too, please feel free to ask.

Anything you send will only be handled by me.  It will be securely stored and permanently sealed into the capsule for delivery to the lander.

I need to receive samples by 15th February 2021. Air mail letters from almost anywhere in the world should reach me in time if sent by about 10th February.  The container will be delivered to the lander by 1st March 2021.

Who’s onboard

199 of our closest family, friends and colleagues.  Some couldn’t make it, but they are on this mission in spirit.


I contacted lots of organisations to find one with the right attitude and abilities to carry out this challenging project.  Ultimately, it was Ian Parker at Solutek Ltd who impressed me most, and they set to work right away…  The reports are condensed versions of those provided by Ian.

280121: Tungsten billet arrived.

030221: Passengers are arriving and being transferred to mylar pods to await integration.

040221: Report from Ian: “We have a hexagon.  It sounds lovely when it cuts. It will clean up nicely with a bit of dressing on wet and dry”. Exciting!

050221: Recess for lid cut into hexagon.  The chips on the edges show that there is still some brittleness, even in this “pure” tungsten form, but the chips will be cleaned up.

Attempted drilling holes with conventional drill.  Not unexpectedly, it didn’t last long!  There is nothing where the drill used to be…

060221: Making progress with a new strategy for creating the passenger compartments.

070221: Designed some “Ground Support Equipment” (GSE) to help to load up the passengers and to protect the capsule during transport.

120221: Solutek’s top secret moon compartment cutting begins… how spacey does this look???!!!!


Secret cutting process in action…

Holes about 1mm deep so far…

Continued progress reports from Ian at Solutek – it’s all very dramatic as we are watching the machines work away for hours and hours into this challenging material…

13021: This image really puts the scale into perspective – that’s a 5p piece!…

Ian has volunteered to do this massive piece of work (on a tiny work piece!) for free.  What an incredibly generous gesture.  I’m touched.  He has declared that he is “in love with the job”.  That sort of attitude is priceless…

140221: We are down to 1.6mm deep…

…broken drill spoiling the party…

…hopefully move forward at a better pace

150221: We are circa 1.9 deep. Another broken drill (I can pop the broken drills out on the EDM machine)

New depth per drill 0.25mm…

170221: The day when Ian is feeling most pressure – he has lots of challenging jobs on the go as well as this, and his email entitled “It’s engineering Jim, but not as I know it!” tells it all… “We are down to 2.6mm (we need about 4.2mm) and running out of drills Captain”….


3D printed Ground Support Equipment has arrived!  I was excited to open the package from SGD, who had been really helpful, and offered great sales support and rapid tunaround.  I knew I needed to use stereolithography to manufacture such small, precise parts.  When I opened the packet, I was disappointed – the parts seemed to have broken in the post – one part had  broken away from the main part.  But when I looked closely, I realised that the “bit that had broken off” was actually the part I had ordered, and it had been printed and delivered perfectly.  I just had lost track of how small it would be!  The “mini passengers” are slid down the guide, through the hole, into the waiting compartment beneath:

The jewellers, Mark Lloyd and Mike Lane, have been working away testing the laser welding process for the lid.

Mark used a diamond wheel to clean up the edge of the two samples, on one side he kept it flush and on the other a slight bevel, for two reasons.  The first was to see what the weld is doing on the other side, and the second so he had a channel to weld a fine platinum wire into the groove for extra strength.

Weld with wire:

This is the weld after running an abrasive wheel on the excess and then a brush wheel to blend the finish back in:

Manufacturing setup at Solutek


The challenge of cutting really small diameter, relatively deep holes finally killed off all of the drill bits.  However, now that the holes have been sunk to a decent depth, the EDM process can be used to complete them without risk of chipping or damaging the edges.  And so… I just got an email from images saying “the holes are in!” and an image to prove it.

And then the next image, as Ian wrote… “She is cut free!”

Ian is ultrasonically cleaning the capsule and baking at 75C.

200221: Both Mark Lloyd and Mike Lane have declared that the material does not get particularly hot when laser welding one bit at a time.  In  fact, they can hold parts in their hands while welding.  This is great news, and one of the reasons why we selected laser welding in the first place.  It means that the encapsulated DNA will be safe from the welding process.

Ian has named this “Project Amber” in-house.  That’s creative, much better than the normal “time capsule” that others might come up with.

I completed the sketches for the mysterious symbols on the outside of the capsule.  The plan is that they can be interpreted by anyone in the future, without the need for language, and they are essentially clues to a treasure hunt that will lead the future finder to a location on Earth.  At this location, a twin capsule will be buried, containing the names and passenger compartment locations of everyone on board.  If all goes well, the engravings will be carried out with this 0.4mm diameter ball-nosed cutter:

Passenger compartment layout.  Green are to depth 4.1mm, red are shallow, circa 2.8. This gives 182 compartments.  The perimeter compartments will be left empty as contingency, and to provide thermal insulation to protect the passengers.

Engraving begins.

Handover of capsule arranged for a secret location at dawn tomorrow…

Engraving complete… this is one of the few images of the”code” that I will show in detail for now…. as Ian says – “the icing on the cake”…

And possibly billions of years too late to drum up any alien custom, but any future explorer who manages to break into the lid of our capsule will find this beneath 🙂

210221: Final delivery photos and notes from Ian has he prepared to make his way to the drop-off site (I  know that NASA has secret black van drop-offs like this too, so we are not alone…).  “It’s been a complete privilege and an honour.  I’m glad I found a way to do the engraving”.  I’m glad too, thanks Ian!

Appropriately, the moon was watching as Ian completed his task….

210221: What a  mini moon passenger loading facility looks like – USB microscope, magnifying goggles with headlamp, scalpels, tweezers, gloves:

And what a bunch of Sam’s hairs look like before having a haircut:

220221: I have learned a lot about the different types of hair and features of it, probably more than I wanted to know!  I learned that the electrostatic charge is not insignificant at the this small scale, and at a certain point it becomes a bit like that game where various creatures pop up and you have to bop them down quickly again.  Occasionally hairs would go pinging off.  I’d search for them, give up on them, and replace them in their compartment.  Later, I’d find the loose hair.  In the few cases where this happened, I have used a “belt and braces” approach, and rather than not using them, I put these errant hairs into a sort of rogues gallery, with question marks against them.

I’m  having to use a variety of techniques to wrangle the hairs – for some animal fur I am having to add in a bit of paraffin wax to make them less fine and more manageable.  Sometimes I am having to use a hair dryer to heaten and straighten them.  Many work best if I apply single, short hairs.  Where possible I have sought out the roots and made sure that they go in root end down.

All passengers integrated, protective foil resting on top, assembly in its transportation container ready for welding the lid on:

230221: For some time before loading the passengers, I had run the scene in my mind over and over again, mentally rehearsing.  Over years of space engineering, where there’s usually only one chance to get everything right, I have tended to question myself and my actions.  It’s a healthy thing, because it leads to better performance, but it’s also a challenge.

The last couple of days of loading passengers was more tricky than I had imagined in those mental rehearsals – I has assumed that electrostatic forces would not come into it, but they made the passengers difficult to wrangle. I could have given up and just tossed the hair snippets randomly into the capsule, but I was determined that everyone should be in their own place. I’m glad I persevered. I chose the boarding randomly in the order that the passengers ended up in the sample boxes, working round and round the hexagon from the centre out.  Interesting seating arrangements developed!

After a rather frazzling 48 hours, it was very relaxing to be in the quiet, peaceful and fairly dark workshop at Mark Lloyd Jewellery in Hartlepool. I was concerned about anyone “escaping” but of course Mark was very delicate, and inspired confidence, so I just left him to his own devices as he whittled everything just so and completed the lid-fitting (round of applause, breathe a sigh of relief!) and welding, which was finished with a very fine platinum wire, melding everything together. The result was something that felt as though it could last for a few billion years….

Then I parceled it up….

…and headed to the local DHL drop-off point, the Family Shopper store in Hartlepool.  I was told that there may be a slight hiccup as I didn’t have any export paperwork, which would be hilarious because – what exactly am I exporting, and to where?  What are the import taxes on the Moon?!  A quick phone call from a very helpful DHL lady in Middlesbrough put my mind at rest – we worked out a way to give an appropriate value and do the right paperwork.

We were told that the payloads must be received by Astrobotic by 1st March.  After all the hard work from everyone over the last 6 weeks or so, would we make it????

DHL seems to think so!  And technically, since it’s a DHL payload on the Astrobotic lander, that will be taking us to the moon, I think if they can’t get us from England to Pittsburgh USA on time, that’s really their responsibility, right?!

That’s not the end of the story.  Just the end of the beginning.  The mission has actually been a surprisingly tough challenge, but we’ve done as much as we can, not just with technical solutions, but with the positivity of all involved.  Particularly the genuinely extraordinary spirit of Ian Parker at Solutek, and the finishing touches from Mark Lloyd, but also others who were part of the story, such as Mike Lane the jeweller.

Thank you.

131021: Astrobotic have confirmed that our payload has been fit-checked on the lander, and released this statement: “As we begin assembly, integration, and test of our Peregrine lunar lander, receipt of critical flight components like the flight battery, helium tanks, and propellant tanks keep our program on track for a mid-2022 launch,” says Sharad Bhaskaran, Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One Director”.  Here’s a fancy looking piece of kit and some people in white suits to prove it 🙂  Though I do note that they are not wearing face masks (we were wearing them for space assembly long before they became fashionable during Covid!) nor anti-static wrist straps nor apparently using an anti-static bag… but the electronics are well covered and with caps on the connectors, so I shall forgive them…

230822: Astrobotic sent an update: Greetings from the Astrobots!
We wanted to thank you once again for being part of our historic Peregrine Mission One! Peregrine is slated to transport your cargo to the Moon soon (United Launch Alliance, or ULA, will be announcing the exact launch date in the coming weeks) and we couldn’t be more honored to have you aboard.
They also sent some photographs of the capsule and the MoonPod that it’s being integrated into:

140123: Jeff Bezos’ (well, his company Blue Origin’s) brand new BE-4 engines are ready.  United Launch Alliance’s brand new Vulcan Centaur rocket is heading to Cape Canaveral on a “RocketShip” – a RO-RO ferry that carries it around the Florida peninsula.  Once at Kennedy Space Center, the Centaur will be prepared, its rockets test-fired, and then it will be ready for the moon.

Astrobotic’s brand new Peregrine-1 lander has successfully completed vibration, acoustic, electromagnetic and (as far as I know, thermal vacuum) tests, so is on its way to be integrated with the rocket.

You’ll notice that I wrote “brand new” a lot.  This is truly a pioneering mission.  They still say they’re on target to launch in the first three months of 2023.

250123: Astrobotic confirmed that the thermal vacuum testing was successful, so the Peregrine lander “has successfully completed its entire flight acceptance campaign. Peregrine is now ready to be shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida when Astrobotic’s rocket provider, United Launch Alliance (ULA), gives the green light to receive it”.

311023: Our lunar lander ride has arrived safely in Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was unloaded at Astrotech facilities where it will be integrated with the Vulcan-Centaur for launch on Christmas Eve 2023.   It’s aiming for the mysterious Gruithuisen Domes.  Nobody knows how these domes were formed…

More specifically, we are heading to Sinus Viscositatis, which means “The Bay of Stickiness”


281223: The mission is currently planned to launch at 2:18 a.m. EST (0718 UK time) on 8th January 2024 from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  The lander is fuelled and ready.  After launch, it will spend some time getting checked out while orbiting the earth, then head to the moon.  Again, it will get checked out while orbiting the moon, with a planned lunar landing on February 23, 2024.

Here’s the lander being integrated into the launcher fairing:

And here’s a timelapse of that fairing being integrated onto the Vulcan-Centaur launch vehicle.

I have been given a link to view the launch, so you can watch it here or NASA+ or search for “NASA live” on YouTube.

080124(07:18 UK time):5…4…3…2…1…Lift off!  It was incredibly exciting to watch the countdown of a rocket launch that wass sending something we are involved with into space! (See what I did there?! Top of page 🙂 ).  Everything went very smoothly, which is fantastic for a brand new launch system.  We are on course for the moon, and the lander is talking to ground control.  If all goes well, the next interesting update should be around mid-February.

Watch this space for more details about the landing…

080124 (14:30 UK time): There is an “anomaly” that means the lander is not currently able to point at the sun with any stability.  I am not sure of the implications of this, but typically this might have two effects – parts of the lander will get hotter than normal, if it was supposed to be positioned in a certain way, and the battery might not get properly charged.  This sort of anomaly is not unusual, and typically there are mechanisms to resolve it – so we’ll see…. 🙂

080124 (19:45 UK time): It seems that Astrobotic are releasing information on social media before informing those of us who have payloads on board, so you are probably better informed than I am!  The mission updates are also phrased in a rather vague way, so here’s my interpretation…

The launch vibration probably caused a leak in the propellant tanks, and this leak (jetting out into space) would have caused a thrust on the spacecraft – just like in Apollo 13, when the astronauts were having difficulty controlling the spacecraft after the oxygen tank event.  This probably caused the difficulty in pointing at the sun.  I guess the lander has lost so much fuel that it will make a normal landing impossible, so the team will be looking at the best way to use the remaining fuel.

It’s possible that they can carry out a crash landing onto the lunar surface, (I guess Elon Musk would call it something like a lunar crater creation project 🙂 ).  This would suit us just fine, because I designed the capsule to survive very high speed impacts.

It’s possible that they try to reach an orbit so that the lander remains in space for a long time (which it probably will anyway).

Anyway… if we don’t have a perfect flight, I’ll ask Astrobotic for:

  • Details of the final orbit, so we know where we are, and how long we are expected to remain in deep space (could be a verrrrryyyy long time!)
  • Details of how and when we can refly our payload to the moon.  It’s good to be in space already, but let’s make it the moon as originally planned.  I guess pretty soon.  Spacecraft are normally built with Flight Spares.  For our capsule, I already have everything I need, and I have (of course!) some improvements in mind to make the capsule even better 🙂


I’ve been asked a few times for my best guess about what Astrobotic might do from this point, and I’ve carried out some simulations.  However, without precise data (remaining fuel quantity, leak rate and lander trajectory), it’s difficult to guess.  It’s also complicated.  For example…

The lander was supposed to pass around the moon once, then return and swing around the Earth, and head up to the moon again.  In principle, if a satellite trajectory is not adjusted, it will return to the same point – the closest point to Earth (“perigee”) – as it left, which I believe was an altitude of 500km.  However, I believe that Astrobotic had planned to raise the perigee, so that when it comes back around Earth it will be above the crowded part of orbit (which is about 550km).  To do this, the lander would need to burn at the furthest point from Earth (“apogee”) when it swings around the moon’s orbital radius – though the moon won’t be there at that time.  If Peregrine doesn’t have the fuel to raise the perigee, then Astrobotic might decide that they don’t want an uncontrolled lander heading back to Earth, in which case they might try to nudge it in a different direction… if it were up to me, I’d invest all the fuel I had in one big burn to try to ensure it’s on a trajectory to impact the moon 🙂

I’m sure that one thing they will be considering is how to get a picture of the moon from as close as possible, on whatever trajectory we take!  The challenge is that on the first orbit, even though we go beyond the distance to the moon, the moon won’t have caught up to us!

150124: There’s an update from Astrobotic here.  I’m picking out bits to summarise, and adding my comments in italics:

The lander has reached the peak of its orbit around the moon’s radius, and is on its way back towards Earth.  I guess it’s “over the moon”, ha! 🙂  The current trajectory has deliberately or inadvertently been adjusted so that the lander re-enters Earth’s atmosphere rather than orbiting back around the Earth. 

“after a consultation with the space community” (I’m not sure who this space community was, because neither Anilore nor I (33 years space experience!), who are paying customers, were consulted 🙂 ) 

“to preserve the future of cislunar space” (cislunar space – the space between the Earth and the Moon – is huge, and there are infinite possible routes to the moon.  If the lander has a volume of 2 cubic metres, there’s roughly a 1 in 1,360,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 chance that it will be in the same place as another object of equal size.  I think they are primarily concerned about Low Earth Orbit, which is full of satellites.)

“have made the… decision” (I don’t see how they were in a position to make a decision, as their main rocket doesn’t seem capable of providing any sustained thrust)

“to maintain the current spacecraft’s trajectory to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.”

If they had sufficient means of propulsion and control over direction, they could have boosted the trajectory when the lander was at its furthest point from the Earth, which would have meant that it would swing back round Earth at a higher altitude, away from most LEO objects (see above for explanation).

I don’t mean for this to sound negative, it’s just my view with my space engineer’s hat on.  There are some fabulous positives!

  • We were on the maiden flight of a brand new launch system, the Vulcan Centaur, and it worked beautifully.
  • The boost from the Vulcan Centaur (not the Astrobotic lander) got us as far as it did, and took us on a thrilling trajectory above the Moon.  We have a selfie to prove it 🙂
  • Mr Newton is now in the driving seat, and if the trajectory continues as it is, we will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere as a shooting star, somewhere to the east of Australia.
  • The shooting star is created by parts of the lander evaporating as the enormous heat builds up from compressing the atmosphere at 25,000mph.  But the capsule we created is designed to withstand very high temperatures and stresses.  It’s just possible that everything else evaporates around us.
  • Then one day, a scuba diver swimming around the warm, clear, blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef, notices something sitting on the sea bed.  A tiny shiny grey object, with mysterious markings etched on its hexagonal surfaces.  An object that has been as far as the moon and back…

And… Moon 199 will return to the moon… soon 🙂