Twenty Years of Securing Space
Steve Brooks began working at the National Space Centre before we opened the doors, so on the twentieth anniversary of that big day, we asked him about his most memorable moments.
Malika: when you applied to work at the National Space Centre, what did you think the job would entail?
Steve: I thought it was just a normal security job, although I didn’t initially apply for Security, because when I saw the advert it was for “Space Crew”, which I thought would be like museum guides. I was working at Bostick in security and the local newspaper was open on the table and I saw an article that said the new National Space Centre was looking for 30 staff and I thought it was really interesting. I’d been doing security for forever, you know, for years and years so I applied on the off chance that I might get an interview. I was a little surprised to get an interview, and went to the office at Mansion House in Guildhall Lane, as the Centre hadn’t been finished at the time. The interview was with the Technical Manager, the Commercial Manager and the Personnel Manager.
They asked me to tell them a little bit about myself and I asked how far they wanted me to go back, I think they may have regretted saying “to the beginning”. It was a couple of hours later, and I thought this is the longest interview in the world, but it was going well. I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks and then the call came that I had got the job. I had to take it, it meant a pay cut and a complete change from my career to date, but I don’t think anybody ever goes to work for a charity for the money, I have never regretted that decision.
Malika: You obviously know what the National Space Centre is now, but what did you think it was at the time?
Steve: I thought it would just be like a museum, in fact when I got a letter to saying that I was being selected for an interview I actually drove to Leicester just to look at it. I remember arriving and seeing the Rocket Tower being built and I couldn’t wait for the interview. I just thought this is an incredibly exciting opportunity, completely different from what I’ve ever done. In reality I never thought I would get it. I was 45 and I assumed they just wanted youngsters, but I got the job and the rest is history.
I’ve never regretted it, not for a single minute. Half my working life has been at the National Space Centre, some of the happiest moments of my working life. I remember my sister talking to a friend in Rotherham, who had said that nobody enjoys going to work. My sister put her straight and told her that her brother loves going to work, because he has the best job. Every day is different. It’s like nowhere else and I tell all the new starters there is no place in the world like it, but they all find that out for themselves.
Malika: You have spoken about how much you enjoy the job, but, as you are about to become a grandad, can you tell us about how your family have been involved in the National Space Centre as well. I get the feeling there will always need to be a Brooks working at the Centre.
Steve: My daughter’s partner works on Space Crew now, but it all started when they asked if any staff had children for the marketing photo shoot when we first opened. I think Charlotte was 13 and Rachel was 11, they both looked so cute. We all had to sit in the planetarium and look up, it was really surreal, but it was just a really interesting experience for them. Charlotte still cringes every time she sees the picture, so when she came to work in the conference office, we put it up on the wall, so she could always be reminded where it all started.
We had some fun moments working together, like the time she had to come and ask me if a client could drive a motorbike around the inside of the planetarium, like the “wall of death”. I asked her what she thought the answer would be and she just walked away in full agreement that the answer would be no! We do get a lot of very strange requests. We’ve done a lot of car launches, but I called the line at live fireworks in the planetarium.
Malika: I think a lot of the venue hire clients are looking for the quirky twist to their event, that competitive edge. So, what do you remember about opening day?
Steve: It was very warm day , not much wind, a glorious day. All the windows in the Rocket Tower were opened, to make sure all the visitors felt comfortable once inside. We had trialled with the “Day of 1000” a few weeks earlier, so all the staff knew what they were doing, but nobody was ready for the smell. Before they developed the ground next door and built Dock, it was a landfill site, so on hot days the smell was putrid. Everywhere you went there was this overpowering smell of rotting rubbish. Of course, you couldn’t get rid of it and I’m thinking, this is not good for our first day, especially with NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman being there, we don’t want the overriding memory to be the smell, but the balloons went off, Jeff announced us open and I spent the day being told how amazing everything was, people had forgotten the smell the moment they saw inside the building.
Malika: Was there a really good buzz, were people excited to be there (no pun intended!)
Steve: Yeah, little kids were bouncing up and down, even some of the adults were. People didn’t know what to expect, there had been some media in advance, so there were expectations. You could see people getting excited as they walked down the ramp and saw the rockets. It was great to be part of the team on the other side of it all. Jeff said “the National Space Centre is open” and that was it. I thought that’s it, we’re here, we’ve made it!
Luckily the lifts worked on that day, although you wouldn’t get me in one, I would rather climb the 144 steps than go in the rack and pinion lifts. They shook as you went up and made a really loud noise. Luckily they got replaced and we have some nice funky new ones now, so no more stairs for me.
Malika: You’ve been responsible for security on some really important event days but which event do you always tell people about when you talk about your job?
Steve: It’s difficult because I’ve had so many great gigs…
Malika: I know which one I think it’s going to be.
Steve: Well, you’re thinking Buzz.
Malika: No, I’m thinking of that amazing week driving four astronauts and a US senator around the country.
Steve: Yeah, the STS-121 visit was the best gig I suppose, because it came out of the blue from the Chief Executive. He asked me what I was doing the following week and then said “get a mini bus, go down to London, pick up some astronauts from Imperial College, bring them back to Leicester and then drive them to Leeds and Edinburgh”. It was a surreal week. At one point we were checking in to the hotel in Leeds and the receptionist asked me if I was an astronaut! I loved spending time with Piers Sellers, Stephanie Wilson, Mark Kelly and Lisa Nowak, although she didn’t say a lot unless she was on stage and then she was fantastic. Just like all the astronauts, she was a bit on an enigma.
It was a terrific five days and I was treated like royalty. Five days of going around all the universities, watching talks, making sure they all got there safely and overseeing the whole thing was fantastic, although a little challenging at the time, as I had no sat nav or mobile phone, so I printed out all the maps. Piers helped out a lot and would sit in the front, with his feet up on the dash, and give directions, he was so kind.
We all got invited back for this meal of Cullen Skink and Haggis, followed by a whiskey tasting session. Fortunately I wasn’t driving that night. I got to sit with Piers and his wife, we chatted for hours. I had to collect him at the train station a couple of years later when he visited the National Space Centre again, and he greeted me like a long lost friend.
Malika: I loved that time we shared with the STS-121 crew, Piers gifted me a pencil from the mission, I had it framed and it is on display above my desk at home. I often look at it and remember an amazing man who, when he knew his diagnosis was terminal, dedicated his life to leaving a positive legacy on climate change. He just always wanted to make a real difference to our tiny blue dot, maybe seeing it from above gave him a new perspective on trying to save it for future generations.
Steve: Obviously you mentioned Buzz Aldrin, well, that was another great experience, I mean to have dinner with him, but when I went to meet him at Leicester train station I didn’t know that he had never been on a UK train, so was not aware that, at the time, you had to open the door yourself in the first class carriage. I was there with a board that said “Dr Aldrin” and as the time ticked pass, I thought the train would leave bound for Nottingham with Buzz on board and I would be getting my P45. Anyway, he gets off the train, right at the last minute with this beaming smile, puts out his hand and says “you must be Stephen”, he was so cool, took it all in his stride. I spent a whole day with him and he worked so hard to make everybody happy. He talked with children on a mission in the Challenger Learning Centre, did a speech from the mezzanine to a huge and very happy crowd, signed 100 books and hosted a Q&A in the Planetarium. The funny thing there was that he only answered one question! The answer took over 30 minutes, so that was all we got, but it was a really good story and I think everybody was happy to be there and hear him talk.
I’ve got a great photo with Buzz, I do tend to get a photo with all of our guests. The worst thing was taking them back to the station, as the train was an hour late, so I had to sit in the café with them and try to manage all the people asking for his autograph. By that time they were both really tired. I remember driving and thinking, I’m driving the second person to walk on the Moon, in my car. Just me, of all the people in the world, it’s me. I was rather really careful with all the lights and made sure I didn’t speed or anything. You’re very conscious of that!
Malika: You’ve been at the National Space Centre for over 20 years, but you’re not alone. Why do you think people stay?
Steve: I think it’s because people love what they do there. I know they love the people that they work with. This may sound very cliche, but it is a family, it’s like nowhere else that you work, everybody works together and you’ve always got some kind of support.
Malika: Security know everything. So do you have any funny stories to share?
Steve: People think because we work at the National Space Centre we know everything about space. Because we all wore the same uniform in the early years, visitors couldn’t differentiate between Security and Education, so I used to be asked really difficult questions all the time. I mean, you pick stuff up after being here for a few years, so sometimes I knew the answer, but most of the time I had to get an expert. You can’t just blag it, we’re not that kind of place.
I was once on the carpark and this car pulls up and the chap inside says “morning, what is this place then?” I explained it was the National Space Centre. “what’s it about then?”, I tell him it is all about space. And then the killer question, “would I like it?” Well, it depends. If you like space and science, I said, this will be the place for you.
Malika: We get that on a daily basis into the marketing email inbox! Because people always say, do you think my child will like a day out? Well, nobody knows your child better than you. So we can give you all of the information about it. And then you need to make the decision whether they’ll enjoy it or not. Yeah, I find that the most difficult question.
Steve: I suppose the other question I got asked a lot was “where is your anti-gravity room?” People look gobsmacked when you tell them there isn’t one.
Malika: How many astronauts have you met over the years? And do you now fancy being one yourself?
Steve: I think I fall short on the astrophysics side of things, so it is probably a no. Over the years I have met about a dozen astronauts, I’m not really keeping count. Tim Peake was a pleasure to look after. I remember standing waiting to move to the next part in the schedule and he had a few minutes spare, so he asked if he could go out and chat with the children waiting outside the Centre. I said it was up to him, as there were a lot of really excited people out there, but it wasn’t really a question and he just headed out to meet people, have photos taken and answer questions. I think he would have spent a lot more time out there if the autograph hunters hadn’t started to move the kids out of the way.
Brian Duffy was also wonderful. I actually hosted a table with my wife at a dinner with Brian at the Centre, which was bizarre, but also brilliant. Brian went around every table individually after the meal. And my wife always says he’s got a lovely voice. Oh, I could listen to him all night.
Malika: So, the final question. As a National Space Centre begins to recover after the pandemic, what are you most looking forward to?
Steve: Getting back to life as it used to be. Being with people again, the team we work with have made the past 20 years so special for me and I can’t wait to get back to spending time with them again. I miss the atmosphere of being in the Centre full of people, I think we all miss the interaction. Having to go into the office every week, or every two weeks, at the moment to just see people is a great bonus to be able to talk to colleagues and just to see people coming back to the Centre and enjoying themselves.
Malika: The feedback has been amazing so far. Standing clapping as the first visitors came through the doors felt like the turning point for me, but seeing people in the queue crying with happiness made me realise why we all continue to do our job
Steve: I used to stand at the rear of the planetarium as the visitors went in, or left the show. The kids would always say three words when they walked in and saw the dome; whoa, wow, wicked or cool, ok, four words. As they left they would always smile at you and tell you it was the best thing they had ever seen, or how much they enjoyed learning something amazing about space. I loved those moments. We are good at everything we do, even when it comes to Olympic torches. That was one of the funniest things, having jetpack man deliver the torch over the tower. We were told that we should treat the Olympic torch as a VIP, we had huge planning sessions, went through all the possible emergency procedures, but I still can’t forget the room full of every high up member of the Emergency Services, Council and Festivals Unit sitting in that first meeting and I just said proudly that our leg of the relay would be done by Jetpack Man. Everybody erupted into laughter because there was so much pressure to get this right, so up to that point the meeting had been really serious. Looking back, even Gary Lineker loved it. And watching the videos on YouTube, well, when Jetpack Man flies over the Rocket Tower it’s spectacular, isn’t it? I’m on there as well, but you can’t tell.
I’ve spent just over half of my working life at the National Space Centre, and it’s been a really happy 20 years. When I do finally retire for the final time it will be so difficult not to keep in touch with everybody. I have loved being the first on site every morning and seeing spectacular sunrises. I’ve enjoyed the tranquil and beautiful riverbank, which makes it difficult for you to believe we are still in a busy part of the city.
I have so many great memories, mainly of the characters, and there were some terrific characters. There still are.
I’m still going to be around for some time, but when I go I hope they will replace me with a hologram, so I can be in every photo and welcome every happy visitor to the National Space Centre.