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Peake performance

Major Tim Peake is one of the six freshly qualified members of ESA's European Astronaut Corps

Major Tim Peake talked to Airbus Defence and Space on a mobile phone with a horrendous echo which he gamely ignored – evidence of the solution-focused positivity which has got him where he is today? – and reflected on his experiences and ambitions for the space industry.

Major Tim Peake European Astronaut Corps ESA

Major Tim Peake, one of the six freshly qualified members of the European Astronaut Corps. (© ESA)

He was speaking not (yet) from the International Space Station, but from ESA’s Research Centre at Harwell in the UK. Britain’s first official astronaut, and a former helicopter test pilot with the UK Army Air Corps, Tim has a close relationship with the newly formed UK Space Agency, which has just celebrated its first anniversary, and a great enthusiasm for the benefits of space which he communicates with vigour.

Congratulations on successfully completing the ESA astronaut training programme! By all accounts it was wide-ranging, physically strenuous and intellectually demanding. What on Earth prepares you for living and working in space?

Tim Peake astronaut helicopter pilot the British Army

The scope of training was vast! Every part of the 18 months’ training programme was preparing us for living and working in space. The first six months were very academic, classroom-based, designed to give us the fundamental knowledge we need as astronauts. We covered a huge range of subjects – including but not limited to life sciences, orbital mechanics, computer engineering, rocket propulsion …

Tim Peake learned 'survival skills’ as part of his training to become an astronaut. Tim had previously had a distinguished career as a helicopter pilot in the British Army, rising to the rank of major. (© ESA/Vittorio Crobu)

We also spent two months learning Russian – because it’s vital to be able to speak Russian on board the Space Station and also because our launch and recovery is likely to be by the Soyuz rocket, which is Russian- operated. As an astronaut, you need to be a jack of all trades and, hopefully, master of some!

Then we did more technical, specialised training on the various systems on the space station, and practising for extra vehicular activities, for which we had diving sessions in the ‘neutral buoyancy facility’ (a 10-metre pool with a full-size module of the Columbus laboratory) at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. Being underwater simulates the conditions of weightlessness as best as you can on Earth – you can manipulate equipment upside down, move your body around the outside of the ISS mock-up, pretty much as you would do on a real spacewalk.

Diving sessions astronaut training conditions of weightlessness.

Diving sessions are an important part of astronaut training, because being underwater simulates as far as possible on Earth the conditions of weightlessness. (© ESA)

Psychological aspects, of course, form part of the training. Crew resource management training, or, as we call it, ‘human behavioural performance’ helps you understand about compatibility as a team on long-duration missions – human factors to do with living and working together in confined environments, conflict management, decision-making skills. And you always learn something from the physical exercises. As we discovered when we did the two-week group survival course in Sardinia last June, every time you do one of these survival exercises, the group dynamics is different. You always learn something valuable.

Tim  European Astronaut Centre Instructor Gail Iles parabolic flight Airbus A300 Zero-G plane

Did you come into contact with Airbus Defence and Space personnel much during the training programme?
Many of our tutors at the Cologne astronaut centre come from various industrial sectors (including from Airbus Defence and Space, obviously), plus external lecturers and trainers, and it’s great to get to know about their extensive activities and learn about all the companies that are participating in the ISS project. When I speak to people about the major benefits of the ISS, international cooperation is high on the list, and it’s not until you are immersed in the industry side that you realise just how many people from so many different countries are involved in space exploration.

Tim and European Astronaut Centre Instructor Gail Iles during a parabolic flight aboard the Airbus A300 Zero-G plane on 7 May 2010. (© ESA/A. Le Floch)

One of the main things you will be doing on the ISS is scientific research. Airbus Defence and Space has designed and built many of the experimental facilities for the ISS (such as DECLIC, the microgravity glovebox, MELFI, Geoflow) and, of course, the Columbus lab itself. Do you have a science background?

No, I am a pilot by profession and have a degree in flight dynamics – very much an operational background. There are a diverse range of qualifications amongst the European Astronaut Corps – as long as you have the right psychological profile and the basic knowledge skills you don’t need to come from any particular background.

Science was part of the fundamental training package during the first six months, to give us all a grounding in the various scientific disciplines. Once I am assigned as a crew member, which will be around three years prior to going up to the ISS, I will be trained on and become expert in the major experiments that are going to be run during my six-month tour of duty on board the station. It really is a case of seeing what will be allocated to me when the time comes. Personally, I’m interested in all sorts of science. I’m currently working with the medical division as part of my collateral duties, and I do enjoy the medical research on board the station. I’m also fascinated by the physics – some of the fluid physics research that’s being done on the ISS is quite ground-breaking.

With your membership of the European Astronaut Corps and the establishment of the UK Space Agency (UKSA), one year old at the beginning of April, British space – termed by some Britains best-kept secret  – seems to be moving centre stage. Do you have a role with UKSA to foster this?

ESA has agreed that I give a percentage of my time to the UK Space Agency in an ambassadorial role. I am involved with UKSA’s space-based careers initiative, which was announced at the opening of UKSA last year. We are taking this one step further, looking at UK scientific research, with a specific focus on microgravity research – something we’re very keen to promote in the UK. And, in fact, another ‘secret within a secret’ is that there is a whole raft of British industrial companies and research institutions that have got huge amounts to contribute towards human spaceflight and science research and we try to assist them in a number of areas. I remind people that the UK is a member of ESA – indeed, a very large contributor – and that this should be fully embraced as we can do things together with ESA that we just can't do as a single nation.

Tim Peake British astronaut Airbus Defence and Space Stevenage ExoMars rover Bruno

Tim made his first official visit to a UK space industry company when he came to Airbus Defence and Spaces Stevenage site on 25 March. "It was great to see at first hand some of the exciting and interesting projects in which the UK space industry is involved,” he enthused. Here, he is introduced to Bruno the Mars rover by Paul Meacham of the ExoMars rover project team. (© Airbus Defence and Space)

Clearly, since space is more visible in those countries that have their own ‘national’ astronauts, it’s only natural that I should use my position to raise the profile of the kinds of facilities we have which can help science and industry within the UK.

When the establishment of UKSA was announced last year I thought it was an entirely good thing, and a real acknowledgement of the good work of the British National Space Centre prior to becoming UKSA. I’m sure that we will see it continue to grow and become more solidified in its identity, with real progress over the next couple of years. 

Airbus Defence and Space Stevenage Tim Peake Brtish astronaut Airbus Defence and Space's young graduates and apprentices

During his visit to Stevenage, Tim chatted to some of Airbus Defence and Space’s young graduates and apprentices (Katherine Bennell, Simon Rose, Thomas Colt and Jack Armitage). Will they follow in his footsteps and take to the skies? (© Airbus Defence and Space)

One might assume that your military career would have provided enough challenges. What drove you to apply for the astronaut job – fulfilment of a boyhood dream or insatiable appetite for competition?

I did have a boyhood wish to be an astronaut – what boy or girl doesn’t? – but in my teens this was replaced by an absolute passion for flying. I was very fortunate to be able join the Army Air Corps as a helicopter pilot and then to continue for 18 years as an instructor and test pilot. As a test pilot you are exposed to industry and the aerospace sector and that’s where my awareness of space activities grew and my excitement and interest in it developed. So when I saw the ‘astronaut job’ advertised on the ESA website, it seemed the logical next step for me. I was, however, flabbergasted to be successful! I wasn’t at all quietly confident. I was just enjoying the experience, and happy to be part of the process; I took every step as it came.

What are you most looking forward to, once you get to the ISS?

The view! The ‘Yuri Gagarin’ moment. More generally, being able to contribute to the spaceflight mission will be a fantastic experience.

It is now 50 years since Yuri Gagarin made that momentous voyage into space and back again – on 12 April 1961. What is your view of the great space adventure?

Yuri Gagarin’s return trip started mankind's exploration into the universe. I think it’s entirely possible that 1,000 or so years in the future, humanity will have colonised various planets and moons in the solar system, and be reutilising resources from beyond Earth, maybe even have travelled beyond our solar system! In that perspective, the little things we do in our own lifetime are small building blocks along the route of this enormous endeavour.

Everybody now acknowledges that anything we do in the future in terms of space exploration has got to be an international collaboration, simply because the scope of what we are now trying to achieve is so much greater than in the past. We have to work together, and combine resources; space is one of those very few areas that can transcend politics, break down barriers and get governments working together. For example, the global exploration strategy includes China, South Korea, Russia, the US, Japan, and of course Europe – we’re all signed up to an agreed framework for space exploration. It is something truly wonderful. We saw it first with Shuttle/Mir sorties, and then with the ISS, and I believe that in the future that international collaboration will just keep growing and growing.


Find out more! A special dossier full of informative articles has been created about 50 years of manned spaceflight

Living in Space Dossier: Human beings beyond the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere

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