The Copywriter and the Cosmos

Vinay Singh’s story might sound like the script of a Hindi movie. Imagine a young, geeky boy in Allahabad poring for hours over a grainy picture of the Milky Way in his Class VI Geography textbook. That picture fires an enduring passion for astronomy.

His lifeline becomes the Jawahar Planetarium in Allahabad where he watches the documentary Planets and Stars, over and over again, as he diligently pursues his studies. His parents and teachers, however, are not too enthused about his desire to touch the sky. Aiming to be an astronaut in Allahabad is hardly a viable profession. But advertising… that is different.

Vinay obediently follows the prescribed path. Graduating in B.Com honours, he tucks himself away into a tiny cubicle at Ogilvy & Mather where he spends his time toying with one-liners. Is “The Asli Pain Reliever” catchier than “Nothing Acts Faster” to launch a new painkiller?

But even as he does this, he can’t get his head out of the clouds. During his years in Delhi, Vinay exchanges the planetarium for YouTube astronomy videos and attempts, unsuccessfully, to land a spot on TV shows like National Geographic’s Mission Arctic. He misses it by a whisker – he comes in ninth but the show picks only eight winners. The business of generating taglines for painkillers and chewing gums continues.

And then, one dull weekday morning in 2012, right before another ad campaign presentation, comes the Hindi movie twist. An email sits quietly in Vinay’s inbox, waiting to be opened. Months before, Vinay had submitted an online application to the Axe Apollo Space Academy contest organised by NASA. Only a million people from across the globe applied, gunning for a passenger seat aboard the XCOR Lynx for a sub-orbital spaceflight. In plainspeak, that’s a ride just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, which could cost an ordinary tourist anywhere between $95,000-1,50,000.

When he received an email notification that he had been shortlisted, six months after applying, Vinay ignored it for a week, thinking it was one of those spam messages that promise to change your fortunes if you send them your bank details. This one promised to change his fortunes too, but it definitely wasn’t spam – Vinay believed it only after he received a call asking for personal information that would ensure his maiden flight abroad.

Vinay and 120 other youngsters with equally bright stars in their eyes, were put through a series of gruelling tests over seven days in Florida at the Kennedy Space Centre. The physical military trial included 12 tasks such as rock climbing, push-ups, crunches, and crawling, a G-force centrifuge test with a maximum of 4.5Gs (while remembering a set of coordinates that they had seen for barely five seconds), and a rocket-building exercise. And this was apart from the written tests that quizzed the candidates on everything from astrophysics to space history. But then, they also got to co-pilot a Marchetti SF-260 jet in the air-combat training module.

By the time the qualifiers ended, Vinay was wiped out. The fact that he had won, along with 22 others, registered only when his received his ticket and the familiar orange jumpsuit from legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who hosted the “graduation ceremony” at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral in Florida. “I think I cried about half an hour later, when I understood the magnitude of it all,” he says.

The copywriter received his ticket and orange jumpsuit from legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Photo Courtesy: Vinay Singh

In 2017, the 23 young men and women hope to make their dreams come true. Their spaceplane will zoom out of the atmosphere in a mere six minutes and after crossing the international space boundary, the engines will be killed. Vinay, that geeky kid who sat in the backrows of Jawahar Planetarium in Allahabad, will finally experience zero gravity and complete silence.

“It’s like you’ve spent 28 years writing to Santa, and wham! You are granted your wish. It’s going to be outta this world.”