Peake of perfection for British space hero
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Peake of perfection for British space hero

By Clive Simpson

Helicopter test pilot Major Tim Peake was always used to living life on the edge. But it took on a whole new meaning in December when he blasted into space on a Russian Soyuz rocket. Peake’s boyish enthusiasm and infectious sense of fun quickly endeared him to the British public as his six-month trip to the International Space Station got underway.

As Britain’s first official ESA astronaut, our modern-day hero is proving he’s got all the ‘right stuff’ – from taking part in a gruelling six-hour spacewalk and handling intricate science experiments to presenting awards to pop stars like Adele or demonstrating how to make scrambled eggs in zero gravity.

To the delight of schoolchildren and students across the country, the 45-year-old father of two quickly embraced social media. Midway through his six-month stay, Peake – as any good dad would – shared a short video of himself via YouTube cooking a breakfast of rehydrated scrambled eggs in orbit some 250 miles above Earth.

He has also shown other dad-like tendencies on Twitter, not only posting about his space cuisine but tweeting lyrics from his favourite space-themed songs and asking his followers to guess the titles.

More importantly perhaps, he has also shared photos and short films of the stunning views he sees out his window which, he admits, is one of the best sights ever. And now and then he posts a selfie, probably the most famous of which was during his spacewalk.

Peake, a European Space Agency astronaut, is now nearing the end of his mission on the Space Station, which he has shared with an international crew of five other space explorers. His planned landing back on Earth is scheduled for mid-May.

Among a handful of other Brits who know what it is like is Nicholas Patrick, who was born in Britain but became a NASA astronaut after gaining US citizenship in 1994.

“Spacewalking is a real mental challenge as well as being tough physically,” recalls Patrick. “When the hatch is opened and you float out into space it’s a tremendous feeling. Earth looks the same but feels very different. You are in a suit and no longer separated from space by the shell of the Space Station but just by your spacesuit and the glass of your visor.”

Peake, who grew up on the south coast of England and attended school in his hometown of Chichester, is an ardent family man. His wife and young sons were at the Russian launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, to wave him off.

“Being an astronaut today is a bit like being part of a big family, really,” he says. “We are all working together in science, on new technologies and for the education of our younger generation.

“I’m involved in some truly cutting-edge science on the Space Station, from exciting experiments from investigating metal alloys in search of stronger and lighter materials for growing protein crystals that will help develop better drugs to fight disease.”

Since the dawn of the space age, astronauts have always doubled as human guinea pigs too – and Peake is no exception.

“I’m involved with 23 human physiology experiments on my body ranging from research into asthma, into the body’s immune system and why the immune system becomes depleted in microgravity, to investigating the body’s ageing process,” he says. “This research will one day deliver great benefits for people living on Earth.”

From the outset, ESA and its partner the UK Space Agency (UKSA) planned a busy educational programme for the mission, reaching out to every school in the UK with activities for all age groups from four years old up to graduate level.

“I hope we will have shared this mission as much as possible with anyone who wants to be involved,” says Peake, who was excited to also carry the Union Flag into orbit 24 years after British woman Helen Sharman wore it in space on a privately funded flight to Russia’s Mir space station.

“There is nothing to stop the school kids in Great Britain today from being amongst the first men and women to set foot on Mars in the future,” says Peake. “It is exciting times ahead both in the short term and in the long term.”

As a youngster, Peake was a keen Scout and believes this set him on the right path for his ultimate adventure. “I love the outdoors and adventure, and as a young kid and a teenager, scouting was the first step to making that journey,” he recalls.

“From scouting I joined the cadet force at my high school when I was 13, and that opened up the door to be involved in things such as flying which sparked my passion for aviation. But it all stemmed from those early experiences of scouting, of enjoying the outdoor life, and the kind of adventurous activities you get up to as a Scout.”

Peake says inspiring the younger generation will ultimately be one of the best ways to judge the success of the mission. “Much of the UK’s investment into his flight is directly targeting education and trying to encourage our younger generation to get involved in science and technology, engineering and maths.”

Peake admits he is a fan of the recent run of big space movies from Hollywood and tries not to pull them apart on grounds of scientific accuracy. Gravity had “wonderful cinematography” and he loved Interstellar. “That a director even tried to take on gravitational time dilation and reality beyond the event horizon of a black hole was impressive,” he says. “If films like this get people excited about space and space exploration then I’m all for it.”

Peake named his mission Principia in honour of its author Sir Isaac Newton, Britain’s greatest scientist after the book of mathematical principles Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which set out the laws of motion and gravity more than 300 years ago.

In the six years since Peake joined the European astronaut corps, he trained in Germany, Japan, Canada, Russia and the United States, lived underground in a Sardinian cave system and underwater in a habitat off the Florida coast, an exercise that simulated aspects of a future asteroid visit.

For his spacewalk, Peake trained in diving gear in the huge swimming pool at NASA’s astronaut centre in Houston, and in a virtual reality environment that recreates – with stomach-churning realism – the sensation of working outside the Space Station. “The instructors make you tumble off now and then to see if you survive. To get back on, you have to orientate yourself and fire your jetpack. It is not as easy as George Clooney makes it look in Gravity,” he recalls.

Describing his first spacewalk as “exhilarating”, Peake posted a selfie on Twitter saying the feat would be “etched in my memory forever”.

The Union Flag ‘flew’ officially in outer space for the first time and the flag could be seen clearly as Peake exited from a hatch on the Space Station on a tricky six-hour mission to repair a faulty solar power unit and lay new cables. Peake described stepping into space with the Union Jack on his spacesuit as “a privilege” and “a proud moment”.

Watching from an inside window, NASA’s Scott Kelly added to the sense of occasion. “It’s cool to see that Union Jack in space,” he said. “The Union Jack has explored all over the world; now it’s exploring space.”

Not everything went to plan during the excursion. Four hours into the spacewalk Peake’s partner Tim Kopra reported that water had started to pool in his helmet and that the absorbent head pad was becoming wet. Earlier a carbon dioxide sensor malfunctioned suggesting water could be leaking. Ground controllers at NASA immediately ordered both astronauts back into the Space Station as a precaution.

Surprisingly, Peake describes being an astronaut as ‘less dangerous’ than much of his earlier work. He left the army’s training college at Sandhurst at the age of 20 to command a 30-man platoon of Royal Green Jackets in Northern Ireland. Then, as an army helicopter pilot, he did tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Some of his most memorable flying was in the hills of Bosnia, where he flew reconnaissance missions at night and during the winter. The terrain was mined, so landing was a careful process, and he encountered sporadic gunfire.

Peake went on to become a helicopter instructor pilot and a test pilot at Boscombe Down. During an exchange trip to the US he flew Apache helicopters and helped introduce them to the British army on his return.

One test flight in Arizona was beset by abnormal vibrations that could have spelled disaster. Peake was flying the Apache faster and higher than it had flown before, an exercise called ‘envelope expansion’. “Sometimes you only realise you are in a dangerous situation after it has happened,” he recalls. “A subsequent investigation showed that our tail rotor had been banging metal on metal, and drilling a hole through the tail rotor gradually, so we were glad we knocked that sortie on the head when we did.”

More than 6,000 Europeans applied to be astronauts when ESA advertised six vacancies in 2008. At the time, the UK was not interested in human spaceflight, and no funding for the programme meant no British ESA astronauts.

And so Peake admits he went into the selection process thinking his chances were very slim. “The process, a combination of online questionnaires, medicals, tests and intensive interviews lasted a full year,” he recalls. “Right up to the very end I was talking to my wife, Rebecca, and saying it’s so good I’ve got this far but I’m sure they are not going to pick a British astronaut.”

Then, over dinner with his wife one evening, Peake’s mobile phone rang. It was a member of the Director General’s office at ESA and he was in. “I’d hoped to keep that call private but I wasn’t able to hide my excitement,” he says. “Rebecca knew instantly it was good news. She took it really well. She knows my character very well and she’s been hugely supportive throughout. My mother was less happy. Right from the very beginning, when I was a teenager, she wanted me to go into something safe like banking.”

To keep themselves fit and healthy, astronauts living on the Space Station engage in two hours of fitness training a day using a series of exercise devices design to work and stretch the body in microgravity.

“We do a lot of fitness training and I think these days most astronauts are pretty fit because we have realised that it is one of the best countermeasures for the effects of microgravity,” he explains.

“Just as you need to be fit for space you need to be fit for coming back to Earth. The better shape you are in before you launch gives you the best opportunity of maintaining that level of fitness on board the Space Station.

“We have a treadmill, a bike machine and a weight lifting machine up there and most astronauts today are either almost maintaining their level of fitness or only have a very slight degradation of fitness when they come back.”

And after his fantastic space-faring adventure, what will our new superhero have missed the most – apart, of course, from his wife, Rebecca, and sons Thomas and Oliver?

“The fresh air I think,” he says. “I love the outdoors. I don’t run on treadmills as a habit because I like to go out with a pair of shoes on and run outside. I like doing activities with the family in the outdoors and playing games, so I think that not having fresh air is what I will miss the most.”