Tim Peake photographed at the European Astronaut Centre (© Paul Avis/BBC Focus Magazine)
On December 15, Tim Peake will begin the journey of his life. He'll be launched into space on board the Soyuz TMA-19M, blasting off from Kazakhstan on a six-hour journey to the International Space Station. We met Tim at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany to find out how preparations are going.
What stage are you at with your preparations [as of late October 2015]?
Over the last two weeks, I’ve been doing some last minute training here at the European Astronaut Centre. I’ve signed up to 23 human physiology experiments that are going to be done on my body, so they’ve been collecting blood, and [performing] X-rays and MRI scans – all the kinds of medical data that we need to support those experiments.
In the next couple of months, I’ll be heading to Star City just outside Moscow in Russia, where I’ll be doing final training in the Soyuz simulator with my crewmates Tim Kopra from NASA and Yuri Malenchenko from Russia. We’ll then be spending two weeks in quarantine in Baikonur [Kazakhstan] prior to our launch into space on 15 December.
Your training programme over the past six years has been incredibly intense. Was there any point at which you had second thoughts?
I’ve never had second thoughts about what I’m doing. Yes, the training is tough, but I enjoy all of it. Learning the Russian language is probably the part that I’ve found the toughest, and at times the least enjoyable. But even with that I’ve struggled through and got to a happy place. We’ve got brilliant instructors who go out of their way to make sure that we’re trained to the highest standard possible, and you really do feel the support of all the ground team.
What’s been the most physically demanding part of your training?
The spacewalk training – it takes an awfully long time to train somebody how to operate in a spacesuit outside the International Space Station with all the tools and equipment. This is probably the most physically and mentally challenging task we have to do, but it’s also the most enjoyable.
We do our spacewalk training in a 12m-deep pool at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. A replica of the whole space station has been sunk, and we’ll spend six hours at a time practising spacewalking. The neutral buoyancy [where the buoyancy from the water balances the force of gravity, so you neither sink nor rise] enables you to manoeuvre your body upside down or on your side into different worksite positions. Of course you still have gravity – you feel the blood going to your head and you drop down a little bit in your spacesuit – but it gives you that freedom of movement.
As a pilot, every time I put on the spacesuit and go down in the water, I see it as a flying sortie. You have to be really well choreographed. You always have to know what you’re doing next, where your buddy is and what he’s up to, but you have to be so focused on what you’re doing at the time as well.
What will be your daily routine on the ISS?
Every day will be different, but fundamentally we’re doing science and we’re maintaining the space station. It took 10 years to build the space station – we’re now well into the operating phase, and that means that science is taking over the majority of the time. I’ll be running experiments in the European and Japanese laboratories, and also carrying out any maintenance that’s needed, like replacing valves, keeping the carbon dioxide under control, and processing urine into water. We also expect the toilet to break at some point – it’s 15 years old now, so that’s the kind of task that we’re trained for.
Which aspect of the mission are you least looking forward to?
I’ve heard that the urine transfer tasks can get a bit mundane and repetitive – constantly transferring and processing the urine on almost a daily basis [equipment on the ISS recycles urine to provide drinking water for the astronauts]. We’re working towards a 100 per cent closed, self-sufficient life support system, which is what we’d need for a Mars mission. With the water, we’re up to around 90 per cent self-sufficiency, which is all by processing our urine back into drinking water.
What kinds of science experiments will you be carrying out on the ISS?
Some of the human physiology experiments are really exciting. We’re doing airway monitoring, looking at what causes asthma and how nitric oxide influences the airway. We’re also studying why an astronaut’s eyesight sometimes changes [in space]. There’s a theory that it could be caused by the intracranial pressure rising and pushing on the back of the eyeball, or by the increased levels of carbon dioxide on the ISS.
In the Japanese laboratory, we’re growing protein crystals for drug research. There are hundreds of thousands of proteins in the human body, and some of them are disease-causing. In order to find a drug to counter these proteins, it needs to fit like a jigsaw puzzle piece. If you try to grow proteins on Earth, there’s sedimentation [where protein molecules settle due to gravity] and convection [where differences in density set up currents in the fluids], so you get tiny crystals which are very impure, and the drug which fits the crystal isn’t that effective. In space, you can grow big, very pure crystals, so you get great drugs to fit that disease.
In the Japanese segment, I’ll be installing an electrostatic furnace. This is designed to burn small pellets of metal alloys and composite materials, so that we can investigate their melting, cooling and crystallisation properties. In microgravity, you can create new materials that you can’t create on Earth. We’re looking into how we can make aircraft and car engines cleaner and more efficient, and how we can more effectively burn things with fewer pollutants.
How will you be celebrating Christmas Day in space?
It’s just another day at the office for us, but the astronauts always have a bit of fun. Believe it or not, there’s a small Christmas tree already up there, there are some Santa hats, and I think a Christmas pudding is being flown up in time for us. So we’ll definitely have a celebration.
New Year’s Eve is going to be a lot of fun. We go around the Earth every 90 minutes, so we’ll see every country celebrate New Year’s Eve. What better place to witness that than from space?
Looking back, was there a particular moment when you decided you wanted to be an astronaut?
The actual decision was when the European Space Agency had their selection process – up until that point, the opportunity didn’t really exist. Helen Sharman [the first Briton in space] had a wonderful opportunity in 1991, which was a commercial venture that sent her and her backup Tim Mace to Russia to study as cosmonauts.
The only other route for a Brit to become an astronaut was to do what the likes of Mike Foale, Nick Patrick and Piers Sellers did and take up American citizenship in order to fly with NASA. So when I saw in 2008 that ESA had opened up the application for Brits, I applied straight away.
Will we be seeing more British astronauts now?
Absolutely. Since my selection, the UK has joined ESA’s human spaceflight programme, so the opportunities for Brits to become more involved in human spaceflight are excellent.
Do you think your mission marks the beginning of a new era for British space exploration?
I do, genuinely. We’ve probably got about 10 years left of the International Space Station, and then we’re well into the realms of looking at lunar exploration as a stepping stone to Martian exploration.
The UK is brilliant at robotics, which will form a very large part of the lunar and Martian missions. So I think in terms of scientists, industry and astronauts, it’s the right time for us to get very involved.
Will you have the chance to travel to Mars yourself?
Unfortunately, looking at the timelines, the Red Planet is going to be outside of my career frame, which is why I’m really excited when I talk to teenagers and schoolkids – they’re absolutely golden for that kind of opportunity. I might be in the right career time for a lunar exploration in the late 2020s. I’d love to do a lunar mission, but of course the competition would be fierce, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
If you met a teenager who was desperate to become an astronaut, what advice would you give them?
Lots of teenagers have been writing and asking that very question, and I honestly think that the most important thing is to work out what you want to do. Sure, you want to be an astronaut, but put that to one side for a minute. Nobody becomes an astronaut age 19 – you need to go and do something for 10 years minimum. That might be an engineer, a scientist, a schoolteacher, a medical doctor, but do not let the astronaut job really influence that decision. It’s most important to do what you’re good at and what you’re passionate about, and that will naturally lead you to becoming an astronaut, if that’s what you want.
Do you have any immediate plans following this mission?
At the moment, my focus is on the mission, but of course I’ve thought about what life will be like afterwards. The initial priority is to go through the rehabilitation and get back to full fitness as quickly as possible, and to use my experience to assist with all the other spaceflight programmes we’ve got going on, contributing and planning for future missions.
Chris Hadfield famously took his guitar into space, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti took an espresso machine. Are there any items that you plan to take with you to the ISS?
A teacup! In fact, it’s already up there. A NASA astronaut called Don Pettit worked out the exact angles you’d need for a cup in space to hold liquid without it leaving the cup and floating away [the liquid is kept in the cup by its surface tension]. So I’m looking forward to enjoying a cup of tea normally, rather than having to suck it though a straw!
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