9 February 1995: Michael Foale becomes the first Briton to walk in space

Officially, astronaut Dr Michael Foale was flying as an American for Nasa when he performed his first spacewalk on 9 February 1995.

But if there was ever any doubt that the Lincolnshire man, who was raised in Cambridge, was also very much British, it was soon dispelled by his first words relayed to his British father and American mother watching in a TV studio in London.

Peering down at the bright blue orb 240 miles below, Foale is reported to have said in true British understatement, “Gosh, it’s high, isn’t it?”

At the time, the British government didn’t sponsor human spaceflight. So that meant aspiring British astronauts had to hitch a ride with another country. For example, in 1991, Briton Helen Sharman joined the Russians on the Mir space station.

In June 1987, Michael Foale had been selected to fly with Nasa, and it was during the American Space Shuttle mission STS-63 in 1995 that Foale first stepped out into space – the first time a Briton had done so. He was joined by Bernard Harris, who, incidentally, became the first African-American to perform the same feat.

The job Nasa had lined up for the two astronauts wasn’t exactly glamorous. The purpose of the spacewalk, or extravehicular activity (EVA) in the jargon, was to test some modifications that had been made to their space suits. That meant making Foale and Harris as cold as possible by moving the Space Shuttle, Discovery, away from the sun. The temperature inside Foale’s gloves fell to -6˚c.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Foale also had to perform an endurance test in passing a piece of equipment weighing over a tonne to Harris. With both astronauts complaining of being “unacceptably cold”, Nasa cut the spacewalk short. Foale and Harris had spent four hours and 39 minutes outside with the stars.

As recently as last month, official British astronaut Tim Peake followed in Foale’s cosmic footsteps. And as an astronaut with the European Space Agency, he proudly wore the Union Jack on his sleeve.

Also on this day

9 February 1979: Britain’s first £1m footballer

British football’s first £1m transfer took place on this day in 1979 when Trevor Francis moved from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest. Read more here.