Chapman, who had learned to read when he was three, was excited by Ethel Turner's large library of paperback novels. She introduced him to the thrillers of John Buchan and Dornford Yates, and to the science fiction of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. ''I think it was John Carter's adventures under the hurtling Moons of Barsoom that first made me a space buff,'' he reflects.
Initially he attended Mosman primary school, but when he was nine, he moved over to Fort Street Opportunity School, established a century before as the first model public school in Australia. Teachers and friends at those schools, and later at Parramatta High, often teased him about his fascination with rocket ships and space travel. In 1951, he won a book prize at school, and asked for Arthur C. Clarke's Interplanetary Flight. ''At the presentation, the headmaster joked about wasting my time on fantasies. Many years later, Arthur Clarke and I became friends, and he autographed my tattered copy. While I was an astronaut, I returned to Parramatta High for a tree-planting ceremony, bringing my book with me. My old headmaster had retired, but he was there, and I was glad to make him eat his words.''
His youthful zeal even led Chapman to write a letter to the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, in which he pointed out that the proposed rocket launch facility at Woomera in South Australia was pointed in the wrong direction for launching satellites. ''Oh, yes, Menzies wrote back. He thanked me for my interest, but told me I should not worry, since his experts assured him that launching a satellite would always be impossible!"
Despite this response, Chapman remained convinced that people would fly in space during his lifetime, and set about maximising his chances of being one of them. Learning to fly seemed an obvious step, but he could not afford the lessons. Like all young men in Australia at the time, however, he knew that when he was eighteen he would have to spend six months in National Service doing military training. A very small number of trainees - thirty from each intake, nationwide - were taught to fly by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). To make himself a better candidate for that selection, he joined the High School Army Cadets when he was fourteen, and rose to become the senior cadet officer by his final year at Parramatta High.
After passing the Leaving Certificate (with the highest grade in the school), he enrolled in physics and mathematics at Sydney University. By joining the university's
Squadron of the RAAF Reserve, he made sure he would do his National Service in the Air Force rather than the Army. The plan worked; he spent two summer vacations as an Aircraftsman Recruit (Minor) at Bankstown airfield, learning to fly Tiger Moths. The result was a private pilot's licence and many happy memories of flying a biplane, with his head out in the slipstream.
After graduating from university in May 1956 with a Bachelor of Science degree, Chapman joined the Sydney branch of Philips Electrical Industries as an electronics engineer. In mid-1957, he applied for a job as a physicist with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), run by the Antarctic Division of the Australian External Affairs Department, but he was late in responding to their advertisement. He was told that the expedition teams had already been chosen, but that he could apply again the following year.
In early December, Chapman was working in his lab at Philips when ANARE called, to say that a physicist who was scheduled to spend the next year at Mawson base in Antarctica had just broken his leg. Could he join the expedition in the man's place - that day? Chapman quickly went to see his boss, who was very understanding, and gave him ten minutes' notice that he was leaving. He was on a plane to Melbourne that evening, and a week later, found himself in the MV Thala Dan, ploughing through seventy-foot waves in the Southern Ocean.
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