An Interview With Ireland’s First Astronaut And Space Tourist

Irelands first Astronaut

In late 2007 or early 2008 Irish entrepreneur, Tom Higgins, 46, will become the first Irishman to travel into space. He will make the trip on board a commercial spaceship, built and operated by Virgin Galactic (http://www.virgingalactic.com/), the world’s first space tourism company owned by British business tycoon, Sir Richard Branson.

Born 5 November 1958, in the rural town of Naas, in County Kildare, Tom is married with two children and is probably best known as the colourful boss of Ireland’s leading telephone psychic service, Irish Psychics Live. In a recent interview about the service, which he founded in 1998, Tom revealed that he has been an avid space fan for as long as he can remember. An enthusiast of 1960’s television science fiction series such as Dr. Who, Star Trek, The Invaders, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, and The Time Tunnel, Tom says he remembers “like it was yesterday”, watching Neil Armstrong become the first man in history to set foot on the surface of the moon.
“I saw those first ghostly black and white TV images and was hooked. I decided that if it ever became possible, I would be the first Irish person to venture into space. When, as an eleven year old, I made this declaration to my folks I’m sure they must have thought I had several screws loose!”


First Space Tourist

Irelands first Astronaut

In fact Tom met his hero, Neil Armstrong, in November 2003, while the world’s most famous astronaut was on a visit to Dublin. He also met Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon when he too visited Dublin in November 2004.


“I was really impressed by Neil. He is just such a genuine unassuming kind of guy. It’s said that you should never meet your heroes because they will always disappoint. In the case of Neil Armstrong nothing could be further from the truth.”


But going into space is not an inexpensive ambition. Although Tom will not have to pay the twenty million dollars handed over to the Russian government by the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, fulfilling his double ambition of becoming Ireland’s first astronaut, and first space tourist, will cost more than €250,000. So how does he justify spending that kind of money on a trip that will, after all, only last a few hours?


“My space adventure is being sponsored by my company, Realm Communications,” he explains. “We already spend many times that amount each year on advertising and promotion so when compared to the publicity the trip will generate it’s a good way of getting the company and its services better known, thereby generating more business and more revenue. And because the expenditure is tax deductible it makes sense from a commercial standpoint as well. The fact that it also fulfils a personal ambition is just icing on the cake.”


“Weird” Writings

Being launched into space from the sun-baked steppes of the Mojave Desert in California is a long way from life in the small rural town of Naas in which Tom grew up. Born to working class parents, (his father, was a painter and decorator) Tom was educated in the local Christian Brother’s school and then in the Vocational School only a few hundreds yards from his home on a local authority estate. He left school at age 16 “without qualifications” and worked at what he describes as “a few dead end jobs.” A couple of years later he went back to school as an adult student to study journalism. Apart from an interest in art and mathematics, Tom had two other consuming passions: Weather forecasting and writing. He also had a keen interest in science fiction and all things “offbeat”. Combining his interest in the offbeat with his desire to write he began submitting feature length articles to various magazines and newspapers while in his early twenties and in 1981 finally “clicked” when several of his stories were accepted and published by Weekend Star, a national weekly magazine.
“What astonished me more than the fact that they wanted my stories was the fact that they were actually prepared to pay for them,” says Tom. In fact, although he didn’t know it at the time, Tom had created a niche in the market as a “freelancer” (speculative journalist) specialising in the “weird and wonderful”. Just the kind of thing that helped sell newspapers and magazines back then. Soon he was selling stories to most of the larger newspapers and magazines in the country and doing fairly well at it.


Ireland’s First Freesheet Newspaper

In 1983 Tom went on to set up Ireland’s first advertising freesheet newspaper, which was distributed free to homes in County Kildare every two weeks. Newsdate was an immediate success; but then four years later, in 1987, Tom revamped it into a full colour regional magazine. Unfortunately this failed to attract enough advertising to keep it afloat and it folded in 1988.


Tom immediately changed tack and went into the PR business, designing printing and distributing tailor-made promotional newspapers and magazines for a wide range of businesses. At the same time he continued writing and selling offbeat stories to the various newspapers and magazines of the day. In 1989 he began working as a roving reporter for the national broadcaster, Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE), with a stint on The Gerry Ryan Show on 2FM. Once again Tom specialised in the offbeat and the paranormal. Gerry’s listeners lapped it up.


Ireland's First Commercial Weather Service

Then in 1991 Tom began thinking seriously about his other consuming passion: Weather forecasting. During the 1980s Tom had formalised his interest in things meteorological by taking a correspondence course in Meteorology with a US university. He felt it was time to go with another first and decided to take on the Irish Met office.


“I felt that the standard of forecasting in Ireland was pretty dismal. I would often work out my own forecasts and compare them with those issued by the Met Office. Mine always seemed to work out better. Ever since I was a kid I seem to remember friends and neighbours, who knew of my interest in the weather, putting rather more faith in my amateur predictions that was strictly warranted. My forecasts weren’t exactly hi-tech. I’d look at the Met Office synoptic charts on TV, check out the sky overhead, wrestle with a few calculations and ‘issue’ my personalised “forecasts”. But people kept coming back for more, so perhaps I was doing something right!”


On February 14th 1991 Tom went into the commercial weather business, in partnership with a Dublin based provider of premium rate telephone lines, offering a paid-for weather service by phone. Recorded weather forecasts were offered on the telephone for which callers paid 48 pence per minute. This was the first charged-for telephone weather service in Ireland.


“Even though the Irish Meteorological Office was still offering their phone forecasts free, we began receiving thousands of calls per day. People were prepared to pay for good information and the service was a huge success.” Tom’s weather service is still in operation today, and is run jointly partnership with the Irish Farmers Association. WeatherTel offers recorded weather forecasts while WeatherTel Live provides direct access to live weather forecasters.


Ireland's First Telephone Tarot Service

In 1998 Tom introduced a new premium rate telephone service to the Irish market: Irish Psychics Live was launched in February that year, bringing live telephone tarot to Ireland for the first time. The service kicked off with just three psychics (tarot readers) manning the phone lines, as Tom had figured he would probably only get 10 or 15 calls a day at most. But he soon realised that he had grossly underestimated the extent of public interest in his new service, and, consequently, the number of “tarot readers” that he would need to operate it.
“Things were already going well in the first week or so, “ he recalls, “our three psychics were busy all the time, working 12 hour shifts. So I hired a few more readers, mostly people I had encountered during my journalistic days.”


Barely a week into the service Tom was contacted by a young roving reporter from the Pat Kenny Radio Show who introduced himself as Ryan Tubridy. Ryan said he wanted to run an “item” on Irish Psychics Live for the show.


“Naturally I was delighted with this opportunity to publicise the service,” says Tom. “But I was also apprehensive: Having worked as a reporter for 15 years, on programmes such as The Gerry Ryan Show, I knew just how easy it would be to do a hatchet job on something like this.”

During the course of his researches Ryan Tubridy called the Irish Psychics Live telephone line anonymously and received a personal psychic “reading”, the results of which he reported back to the show’s presenter, Pat Kenny. Next morning Pat broadcast part of the reading on air. The nation heard the psychic tell Ryan that he was being influenced by a very strong fair-haired man, an “Air Sign man” (Pat Kenny is an Aquarian, an Air Sign) who was accustomed to dishing out advice and to whom many people listened and paid close attention. According to the psychic this older man was responsible for a lot of Ryan’s success. He also told him that he (Ryan) would soon be offered a promotion.


Irish Psychics Live Owes Much Of Its Success To Pat Kenny

When the pre-recorded reading ended Pat Kenny seemed taken aback. He asked whether the fair-haired man could be him. He then revealed that earlier that morning Ryan had received the predicted promotion in the post. Pat Kenny went on to comment: “As a fellow sceptic of Ryan’s my mind has been opened…”

Tom takes up the story: “After what amounted to a personal endorsement of the fledgling Irish Psychics Live by one of the most respected media personalities in the country, the service was abruptly inundated with thousands of calls. The response jammed Telecom Eireann’s switches, but as we only had five or six psychics online at any one time, we just couldn’t handle the call volumes and most of the immediate calls were lost. But what absolutely amazed me was that people didn’t give up trying. They kept calling back and calling back until they got through to us. Then they went and told their friends and their friends started calling, and so on and so on… there was this tremendous snowballing effect. As a result I would say that Irish Psychics Live owes much of its success to RTE and Pat Kenny.”

Over the following months and years the volume of calls continued unabated, turning Irish Psychics Live into the hottest premium rate phenomenon in the industry’s history, and the most successful service of its kind anywhere in the world.

“It was an amazing experience to preside over such an astonishingly successful venture,” says Tom. “I certainly had an amount of luck on my side but I believe the reason Irish Psychics Live has remained so successful to this day is that we try to hire only people who we believe are genuinely psychic and who care passionately about the work they do. Whether you believe in psychic powers or not you cannot fail to be amazed by some of the people who work for us; they are astonishingly gifted people with a real desire to do good.


“Of course we can never achieve perfection, but we can aspire to it. And I think it is precisely for this reason that many of those who rang as a result of the Pat Kenny show all those years ago, still call us regularly today.”

Following the success of Irish Psychics Live in 2000 Tom designed, patented, and launched the world’s first telephone quiz game, QuizCall.
Tom explains: “Although QuizCall was meant to take advantage of the huge interest in quizzes engendered by the television show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, QuizCall became hugely successful in its own right and was both popular and profitable. But like many things in the premium rate business it eventually ran its course and was suspended in 2003.” However Tom has plans to reintroduce the game to the Irish and UK markets, in a new format, during 2005.


The Spanish Connection

In 2001 Tom went into the property rental business in Alicante, Spain, where he and his family now live for part of the year. “The weather in Ireland is mostly quite awful so it’s such a pleasant change to wake up each morning to bright blue skies and brilliant sunshine. It makes you more optimistic about life, more willing to get out and do things.” Tom’s company rents luxury holiday villas to foreign tourists and is in the process of setting up a chain of specialist guest houses in the Valencia region of Spain.

So, apart from that what other ambitions does he have for the future? “Well in the short term we are setting up a Spanish construction company, but I would like to become more involved in tourism in Spain as well. On the telecommunications front here in Ireland, we are in the process of developing a range of new premium rate services which we hope will continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in the market. Beyond that, well, the sky’s the limit, I suppose.”