Astronaut Tim Peake says average A Levels didn't stop him becoming to first Brit to walk in space
Tim Peake never wanted to be an astronaut. From a young boy, he was obsessed with flying but definitely within the earth’s orbit. “Being an astronaut was never something I had a burning desire to do but mainly because I never thought growing up in the ’80s that someone from Great Britain had any chance of going into space as all missions were dominated by the Russians and the Americans,” says Peake who, despite his prediction in 2015 became the first and only Briton to visit the International Space Station.
Now with his feet firmly back on the ground, he is touring the UK, including three dates in Yorkshire.
“It is a huge amount of fun and aims to answer all your questions about living and working in space,” says the father of two boys. “The first part is very much my story and how I got into space, then there’s a very beautiful section which takes the audience on an orbit round Earth, looking down on the planet and then a high-adrenaline insight into spacewalking.”
You might think that being away from friends and family for six months on the space station would have been one of the hardest parts but, having spent 18 years in the military, Peake was used to being away for extended periods of time. “What I actually missed most was Earth,” he says. “You could see this huge amazing planet all the time and I missed the fresh air, the green and the birdsong. It’s a very sterile atmosphere on the space station that never changes. Missed the weather.”
Peake was born and grew up in Chichester and remembers from a very early age wanting to be a pilot. By the time he was 18, he had already flown numerous solo sorties and been awarded a coveted position in the British Army Air Corps.
He left school with three “below average” A levels, something that he later feared might hamper his chances of becoming an astronaut. He needn’t have worried. His 18 years in the military included tours in Germany, Kenya, Cyprus, Canada and Northern Ireland.
After a year teaching students the art of military flying, Peake was selected for an exchange posting to the 1st US Cavalry Division in Texas, flying the Apache attack helicopter. Returning to the UK to train others to do so, he then passed the gruelling selection process to become a test pilot – a dangerous role that saw him pushing aircraft to their limits, a challenge he clearly relished.
It was then, at the age of 33, that he decided to embark on a degree, gaining a Bachelor of Science in flight dynamics. “I was relentless in my career, always learning, trying to improve myself. I never stopped studying. As a test pilot, I realised I needed to raise my game academically.”
He left the Army in 2009 to work as a senior test pilot for AgustaWestland. At the same time, having been surprised to see an online recruiting advertisement from the European Space Agency (ESA), he underwent a rigorous year-long astronaut selection with over 8,000 other hopefuls. Previously, UK citizens had been unable to apply to become ESA astronauts.
“At the time, I was working as a test pilot. I went for the first assessments in Hamburg and was surrounded by all these people who had doctorates in astrophysics or biochemistry and there was me with my CDE at A level and a degree I got when I was 33,” recalls Peake. “But I knew if I could pass that round, then I was in with a chance.
“Once I got through that initial selection process, academic ability didn’t matter any more. It became more about your ability to get on with other people, your real life experience and ability to work under pressure.”
Out of 8,413 applicants, only around 800 or 900 were accepted through the first round.
“I was very lucky to even make that cut,” he says. “When we got down to the final 10, with just four places available, the director general of ESA wanted to meet all of us – and he then decided he was going to actually select six people. Even then, I didn’t quite believe I’d make the final cut as at that time, the UK wasn’t paying into the human space flight programme, so why would they choose a UK candidate?”
But they did. “I was allowed to tell my immediate family. It was a big shift for us as we were preparing to leave the Army; we were all set to move to Yeovil for a civilian job as a test pilot – and all of a sudden, the plan changed and we were moving to Cologne.”
But that was just the start of his journey which would take a further five years before he made it into space. Peake had to learn Russian in addition to understanding the science and engineering of space flight. Astronaut training covered a plethora of topics as diverse as dentistry, minor surgical procedures and survival training.
But that wasn’t all. Teamwork and communication are vital skills so Peake had to spend seven days exploring a cave network in Sardinia with four other astronauts from Russia, Japan, Europe and the United States. “You soon find out if you are claustrophobic,” he says.
He also spent 12 days living in Aquarius, an underwater habitat off the coast of Florida, as part of a team of six Nasa “aquanauts”. “When that space helmet comes over your head for the first time and you know it is going to stay on for 12 days, it is a very strange feeling and you just don’t know how you are going to react but luckily I was fine.”
For Peake all this was leading up to the main event – the moment he blasted off from Earth. “The training is ok but the exciting bit is the mission. Yes, you have nerves – at the end of the day you are sitting on a massive explosive – but we are taught to only worry about the things within our control. If something went wrong and there’s nothing we can do about it, then there’s no point worrying about it.”
The next six months on the International Space Station were some of the best days of Peake’s life and included a dangerous spacewalk. “Leaving the sanctuary of the space station is enormous – it’s the most exhilarating experience you can imagine. But you have to be on your A-game, the feeling of danger is palpable. I was extremely proud to be the first person to wear a Union flag on a spacewalk.”
Peake would love the opportunity to go back into space. He is excited about the future of space exploration and the UK’s involvement in it.
“We are still part of the ESA despite Brexit and I think there will be more, not less opportunities for would-be UK astronauts. Within the next five years, we will see humans on the lunar surface once again. And we’re not that far from the first mission to Mars either. I think we will be on Mars in 10 to 20 years.”
My Journey Into Space will stop off at the Victoria Theatre, Halifax, on September 28, the Spa Grand Hall, Scarborough, on March 18 and Doncaster Dome on March 31.