British Army’s Star Man

Former Army Air Corps pilot Major Tim Peake is destined to have a star-studded career as a British astronaut. Although not the first Briton to be blasted into space (that accolade went to Helen Sharman some twenty years ago), he will be the first full-time career space traveller employed by the European Space Agency – a true astronaut in the full sense.

Tim’s reach for the stars started way back as a boy; “I was a great Star Wars fan and the appeal of Sci-Fi always gripped me. I find it fascinating to think that what was then considered fiction is now quickly turning into fact as we continually push back the barriers in science.” He got a taste for life in the Forces as a member of his school’s Combined Cadet Force, and he combined this with his fascination with flying to become an Army helicopter pilot. Tim spent 17 years flying pretty much every type of helicopter the Army Air Corps had to offer, ending up as the Senior Apache Attack Helicopter test pilot at Boscombe Down. Jokingly he said, “My mum always envisaged me growing up to become a bank manager; but she’s seen me go from being a pilot to an instructor, to test pilot and now astronaut!”

Tim got a call from a mate asking whether he’d seen the online advert from the European Space Agency (ESA), seeking to recruit potential astronauts. “I didn’t think about it too much at first, but then realised it was the right time, right place and I had the right qualifications; besides, by the time they next came looking for recruits I’d be too old, so I went for it.”

ESA put Tim through an intense period of psychological testing, memory retention exercises and mathematical problem-solving to beat off 8413 other candidates from across the whole of the continent, and becoming one of only six rookie astronauts to be taken onboard.

Since joining ESA Tim has completed a 14-month basic training regime. When Tim blasts off, he’ll do it in a Soyuz rocket, so it is essential to be fully conversant in Russian. He was sent to St Petersburg to study the language. “Coming from a scientific background, it was by far the hardest thing I had to learn. It is so different from any other language, and, of course, it uses the Cyrillic alphabet.” Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the training was weightlessness. He explained, “They submerged me in water for up to eight hours in a space suit, to get a sense of what it is like working in that environment. I got a real taste of zero gravity when we went for a flight in a specially adapted Airbus A330. The aircraft flies along doing several dips, each giving about 15-20 seconds of weightlessness, during which I had to complete various tasks.”

Life becomes incredibly complicated when there’s no gravity; six or more hours of training are required simply to operate the loo! But it’s the Extra Vehicular Activity, or spacewalking to put it in layman’s terms, and the view of Earth from space that drives Tim. “I am incredibly excited at the prospect of going spacewalking. It is the most dangerous part of the programme as you are at risk of high levels of radiation and being hit by micro meteorites, but to be able to look back at Earth is going to be a fantastic experience.” He added, “Seeing the world sitting there in front of you without any borders showing or evidence of either political or religious confrontation will be magical.”

Tim now works in Cologne employed by the ESA and maintains his connection with the British Army as a Territorial Officer, keeping abreast of the Apache Helicopter programme. He expects to spend six months 350km up in the International Space Station, sometime before 2018. Then after that, who knows? The sky’s the limit – no, Tim’s thinking way beyond that!

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