“Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do anything,” said Major Tim Peake last year, fresh from a historic trip to the International Space Station.
That might have been a cliché coming from anyone else, but Peake is a special case. The astronaut hit the news in 2013 when he was selected to join the crew of the International Space Station (ISS). He was the first-ever Brit to visit ISS and only the seventh UK-born person in space.
“Like many children, I dreamt of going into space but never really considered it a possibility,” he says.
Instead, Peake pursued his ambition to train as a pilot. He graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and spent the next four years flying reconnaissance missions all over the world. By 1998 he was a qualified helicopter instructor. This spawned an interest in aircraft performance and evaluation. He decided to join the prestigious Empire Test Pilots’ School and complete a degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation from the University of Portsmouth, a major step in his path to space.
Ultimately, though, Peake landed his dream job in the most mundane way possible – he answered an online advert.
“On 19th May 2008, ESA (European Space Agency) announced it was accepting applications for new astronauts and I happened to see the advert online,” he told the BBC. “I’d spent the last few years working as a helicopter pilot, flight instructor and test pilot, and coupled with my academic qualifications, I was ideally placed to apply. It was too good an opportunity to miss.”
Despite a CV that matched the advert to the letter, Peake didn’t rate his chances of netting the role. There were 8,000 other applicants and only a few jobs. Feeling in need of a change regardless, he joined a global helicopter manufacturer as a senior test pilot. It was a few months into the new job that he finally heard back from ESA. Along with 900 other applicants, he was invited to join a year-long astronaut screening process. The candidates sat through exam after exam – everything from memory, spatial awareness and concentration to personality and health. Eventually, there were just 10 of them left.
“Weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I began to think I hadn’t made it,” he explains. “But on 18th May 2009, just two days before ESA was due to announce its decision, I was offered one of six places with the European Astronaut Corps.”
That was the beginning of an intensive training programme lasting just over a year. Peake and his family – he’s married with two young sons – had to relocate to Cologne in Germany. Here, he started ‘space school’, where the subjects included spaceflight engineering and space law as well as CPR, survival and how to move around in zero gravity.
In 2013, he was finally selected to join the crew on the International Space Station. By the time his rocket successfully launched from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome on 15th December 2015, the whole nation was gripped by Peake mania.
The journey from Earth to ISS is only eight hours but it’s a tense experience both for the astronauts and mission control. Peake’s ship experienced a problem with docking, forcing commander Yuri Malenchenko to pilot it manually (Peake kept his trademark relaxed grin throughout), but eventually the crew made it on board.
Peake was at the beginning of a six-month stint on ISS. Orbiting Earth once every 90 minutes at an altitude of 250 miles, this football-pitch-sized structure is the biggest object to have been flown in space. Its crew have no time to slack – they work a 40-hour week and spend two hours a day exercising. The focus of Peake’s job was working on experiments for researchers on Earth. These included everything from growing crystals and blood vessels in space to simulating atomic structures and charting areas of the brain as they adapt to stressful situations.
He remained surprisingly communicative while in orbit. There was that bedtime story read on CBeebies with the rolling Earth as a spectacular backdrop. Then there was the time he donned a fake tuxedo to give Adele her Brit award. Peake ‘ran’ the London marathon from ISS and even managed to post pictures of space on social media, not to mention messaging the Queen on Twitter.
That return to Earth was itself a daring manoeuvre. In his first interview post-landing, he talked about that roller-coaster ride: the craft that “blows itself apart with pyrotechnics” sending the descent module tumbling down to Earth; the sparks and flames that stream past the window as the atmosphere burns off the outer insulation; the G-loading that forces the astronauts back in their seats; the “car crash” landing. No profession tests the body and the mind like that of an astronaut, so it says something for Peake’s stamina that he can’t wait to get back up there.
“I would go back in a heartbeat,” he said shortly after landing – and it was no false promise. In January, it was announced that Peake would head back to ISS for a second mission between 2019 and 2024. So what draws him back up there? He surely can’t miss the claustrophobia, the danger, the physical deterioration? No – but he does miss one thing. “The view of planet Earth, of course,” he says. “It is the most spectacular thing you can possibly see.”