Hanging out in space

Tim Peake’s achievements as the first British astronaut on the International Space Station have thrilled the nation. But growing up, there was little written in his stars to suggest he’d get there

Hero image

Astronaut Tim Peake vividly remembers the moment the International Space Station’s airlock opened and he glided out into the abyss. His task on the spacewalk was to repair a solar panel but, for a few minutes, while he waited for the sun to disappear, he could enjoy “the luxury of hanging out in space”.

“It’s not a crazy adrenaline rush, like freefall parachuting. It’s very serene. On the one hand, you feel like an imposter and shouldn’t be witnessing that incredible god-like view but on the other, it feels completely normal and relaxing. When you look back on Earth, that’s when you really get the sense of scale and how isolated we are. It’s tiny, just there in the blackness of the universe,” says Peake, 48.

Chemist Helen Sharman had travelled to the Mir Space Station in 1991, but Peake was the first British astronaut to join the ISS crew after he blasted into orbit from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome on 15 December 2015 on a six-month expedition.

It’s an incredible feat, and one that never seemed destined for a lad from West Sussex.

Six hours and three attempts at docking later, Peake was greeted with a bacon sandwich

In his new autobiography Limitless, Peake recalls the 1990 prize-giving ceremony at Chichester High School for Boys. Having gained a C, D and E for physics, maths and chemistry in his
A levels, there was no award for academic prowess with his name etched on. Instead, he remarks how a “bewildered silence would have descended” had the faculty been informed a school building would be named in his honour 19 years later when he was named one of the European Space Agency’s new recruits.

The memory’s typical of the anecdotal and often self-deprecating tone that permeates Peake’s memoir and puts paid to the presumption all astronauts are born geniuses.

“I was keen to get rid of the stereotype and it’s nice to say there are loads of people who’ve had successful careers and didn’t have the greatest start in life,” says Peake who lives in Hampshire with his wife Rebecca and two sons.

He was reluctant to write an autobiography (“I did seem a bit young”) but pleased he was persuaded because for the first time he had the opportunity to contemplate the experiences that culminated in a space odyssey.

“We all live such frantic lives these days, we don’t give ourselves enough time to stop and reflect. I found it almost therapeutic going back over my life,” says Peake, who was born in Chichester and grew up with his parents, Angela and Nigel, a midwife and journalist, and older sister Fiona on a quiet cul-de-sac near the village of Westbourne.

It was an “ordinary childhood… by which I mean that it was stable, secure and untroubled by extremes”, he writes.

Unlike his fellow astronauts, Peake never possessed a childhood passion for space travel.

“For my NASA friends and Russian colleagues, there was a clear route to becoming an astronaut and space is much more ingrained into their society, whereas growing up in the eighties in the UK, I felt more of a spectator watching other nations doing it.”

His own obsession was flying, and helicopters particularly were a source of fascination. In time, he graduated from flying remote-controlled aircraft to real-life Apaches and it all began with the Cadet Corps at 13.

The dated uniform might have chafed and hindered any hope of attaining cool status at school, but Peake didn’t care – he was enjoying the outdoor adventures too much. When he discovered he could combine soldier and pilot life in the Army Air Corps, his end goal emerged. Following his A-levels and a life-changing trip to Alaska’s wilderness, Peake began his army officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where perfection, they were often reminded, was not celebrated but expected.

His first post was in Northern Ireland where, as a 20-year-old “village boy” in charge of 30 hardened riflemen, respect had to be earned. After eight months, he left the Troubles for the “relative calm” of Middle Wallop and started the army pilots course.

“It’s so magical and eerie to look down on” the Earth’s aurora, says Tim Peake. Photo: ESA/NASA

“I would have had a huge dilemma had I not passed my pilots course because joining the army was more about flying than it was about being in the army,” says Peake, who in 1994 was deployed to Gütersloh in Germany for four years as part of 1 Regiment Army Air Corps, with temporary postings to Kenya, Cyprus, Bosnia, Canada and back to Northern Ireland. During this period, he reached 1,000 flying hours, when even the most level-headed pilots are prone to cockiness, believing they’ve learnt everything there is to know. Peake was no exception, carrying out a “showy departure” in Kenya for kicks before giving himself a stern talking-to for being stupid. He’s kept himself in check ever since.

Shortly before he left Gütersloh in 1998, he met Rebecca, a newly arrived lieutenant, and the pair embarked on a long-distance relationship before getting married in 2000.

“I’m just hugely grateful she’s always supported me, travelling all over the world, putting up with long absences, and the stress that comes with the job as well. Nobody can do these things without it being a team effort. There’s an entire network keeping the wheels on the track.”

The pair lived in the US where Peake learned to fly Apaches, and then back in the UK when he trained to become a test pilot. Although he’d earned the rank of major, Peake had never seen himself deskbound in the army at 55, so in 2008, at the age of 36, he was “in the right place to make a leap” when he discovered the European Space Agency was recruiting astronauts.

He applied online, as you do any job, he remarks, and as did 8,500 other hopefuls. Over a year, he took part in physical and psychological tests, interviews and an extremely thorough medical. “You pick up what little is left of your dignity on the way out” is how he remembers it.

“The further you got through, the more important it became to you because you started to believe you had a chance of actually getting it. That’s when you start having conversations with people, which was quite bizarre, like you were telling people you were going off to be a cowboy.”

Peake was at home in Larkhill in 2009 when he got the call to say he’d been selected. It was swiftly followed by a press conference in Paris where the six astronauts were unveiled to the world’s press and he became a household name overnight, which was a “complete shock”. Over the next six years, Peake embarked on robotics and survival training, including a 12-day stint in the Aquarius laboratory 60ft below sea level in the Florida Keys. He also studied the intricacies of spacewalks, the ISS, the Soyuz, zero gravity and the scientific experiments he’d be expected to undertake, as well as Russian. It was meticulous preparation for life as an astronaut, which ultimately arrived that day in December.

“Launch day is very relaxed. There’s the suiting up and the walking out and then, before you know it, you’re on the bus and off you go to the launch pad. It’s a very well-oiled process. It ensures everything runs smoothly to the point where you’re on top of the rocket and ready to go and that’s what you want – you don’t want any surprises. That’s when you sit and listen to a bit of music before you launch off to space to take your mind off what’s about to happen,” says Peake who picked U2, Coldplay and Queen.

Europe’s The Final Countdown also flooded through, thanks to Mission Control, although there was no actual countdown, just the words “engines at full thrust” and then nine million horsepower launched Peake, Russian Yuri Malenchenko and American Tim Kopra into orbit. Six hours and three attempts at docking later, Peake was greeted with a bacon sandwich by commander Scott Kelly aboard the ISS.

“We’re encouraged to make it normal as quickly as possible,” says Peake, who worked 12 hours a day, five days a week, exercising, carrying out tasks and maintaining the station. They’d clean on Saturday (“Yes, astronauts hoover”) and do link-ups with home on Sunday. The team even celebrated Christmas with stockings, a tree and a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The daily itinerary, planned months in advance, might have felt strangely mundane at times, but never the scene from the Cupola, the ISS’s observatory.

“Every time you go to the window, you’re just struck by this view and this wonder, especially the aurora. It’s so magical and eerie to look down on it,” says Peake, who knows astronauts who’ve had a spiritual experience during their missions. But for him it was more about a “broadening of horizons”.

“Everything we see out in the universe makes up less than five per cent of the universe, so there is a lot more out there we are yet to discover. I think we have to keep an open mind and, as an astronaut going into space, that really cements that position. I think complex life is rare in the universe, but biogenesis is happening all over the place.”

His hope is to return to space within the next few years. “The plan is for all my class to fly twice by 2024,” says Peake, happy to continue acting as spokesperson for space exploration in the meantime. “It’s such an exciting time to be involved in the space industry. We’re about to come to a 10-year period where we watch astronauts return to the moon and start building a space station around the Moon as a stepping stone, so there is no end of things to get my teeth into.”

Limitless: The Autobiography by Tim Peake (Cornerstone, £20) is out now

Main image: Tim Peake (centre), with fellow astronauts aboard the International Space Station. “We were encouraged to make it normal.” ESA/NASA

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