Becoming an astronaut is a dream but for Tim Peake it became reality, as Channel 4’s Live From Space will show. Interview by Nel Staveley.
There are few people who would describe spending a week living in a deep, dark, unexplored underground cave in a remote corner of Sardinia as ‘great’.
But then, few people are Tim Peake.
“It wasn’t your average tourist cave,” he says. “It took serious caving just to get to where we were staying, and then there were 8km of unexplored caves from that. It was very isolated.”
Next year, Peake, a former RAF test pilot, will be the first British astronaut to join the crew on the International Space Station (ISS).
“Spending that week in the cave is all part of human behaviour performance training,” explains the 41-year-old. “When you get a bunch of international astronauts together for six months, you need to know yourself as well as you can, and being in an isolated environment like the cave helps you do that.”
It makes sense, but you can’t help but think that somebody capable of becoming an astronaut in the first place is probably quite aware of themselves already. Especially when that person lives in a country which doesn’t historically support astronauts (although the UK joined the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1975 and is now its fourth largest financial contributor for satellites and robotics, it hasn’t backed human space travel) – and when that person can face down Jeremy Paxman in an argument.
Peake appeared on Newsnight last May to talk about being chosen out of 8,000 applicants to become one of eight new ESA recruits, when the famously tough presenter began grilling him about why he was going into space when he’d simply be ‘drifting around’.
Peake kept his composure, pointing out that he’d be going into space for science, engineering, and to inspire the next generation.
“It was a bit annoying,” Peake concedes. “But most people never seriously think being an astronaut is easy or wasting time, most appreciate time spent on the ISS is hard work and challenging.”
Preparing for the challenge is daunting in itself.
Peake is in the process of two-and-half years of exhaustive training, which sees him constantly travelling between Japan, Russia and Houston (where he, his wife and two children, “a very excited” five-year-old and a “too young to understand” two-year-old, are now based). He’s learning to control the robotic arm that can “grapple to catch visiting vehicles for supplies”, getting up to speed with speaking Russian (to converse with the other ISS crew members) and understanding Japanese, learning how to put out fires and dealing with depressurising on board the ISS, in case there’s “a bad day up there”.
That’s just the mental side of things; the physical aspect of getting ready to leave earth is pretty scrupulous too. Peake and his fellow astronauts must complete at least four hours of physical exercise a week (which you get the impression isn’t a half-hearted amble on a treadmill), get accustomed to lack of gravity in the back of special aircraft, and regularly spend six hours at the bottom of a gigantic pool, in full space suits, learning to walk, breathe and bend their fingers, in case they’re sent on a space walk.
“That’s very hard, because you’re having to work in very bulky gloves to do tasks that require a high degree of dexterity, so your fingers and arms are really punished.”
It all sounds mind-bendingly tough, but perhaps most overwhelming are the bits you can’t train for. Like how much Peake, a keen runner, walker, kayaker and climber, will cope with no fresh air.
“After family and friends, the thing I will miss most is fresh air,” he admits. “I can deal with confined spaces – and inside the ISS is actually as large as a 747 airliner – but I love the environment and will miss fresh air and the outdoors.”
You can’t train for sleeping.
“You just have to learn when you get on board, but many astronauts suffer lack of sleep at first because you’re seeing 16 sunrises and sunsets a day, and that messes up your rhythm.”
There’s also the small fact that they’ll be Velcroed into special sleeping bags, so “arms and legs aren’t flying around.”
Being in space, without the force of gravity also wreaks havoc with bones and muscles.
“You have to exercise for two hours a day when you’re up there, there’s a treadmill and a vacuum weight machine, to keep up leg and upper body strength. The body is almost too good at adjusting to being in space and quickly sheds bone density and muscle mass where it sees it’s not needed, which is really dangerous when you get back to earth.”
Anyone who’s seen the Oscar-winning film Gravity will have witnessed Sandra Bullock’s legs crumpling at the end, so Hollywood’s portrayal of space travel is – on some level – accurate. But is it useful?
Or is putting actor-astronauts on the big screen in danger of normalising something like space travel?
“It’s easy for people to think, ‘There are people in space all the time and it’s not special anymore’, but we need to remind ourselves why it’s so cutting edge,” says Peake.
“It’s really important to get the message out there, like with the [Channel 4] series. It’s good to have space travel in the public mind, so people understand what we do and why we do it.
“We do it for scientific research you can’t get on earth, for the age-old human desire to explore and reach out to asteroids and stars. It’s helping young kids study engineering, technology, maths and science.”
Channel 4’s Live From Space Season starts on Sunday, March 16.