As phone calls go, it was pretty out of this world.
But this lunchtime, Yorkshire called, and Major Tim Peake, Britain’s first official astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) answered “loud and clear”.
The National STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Learning Centre and Network in York played host to more than 100 primary school teachers, brought together by the UK space education office, ESERO-UK, and the European Space Agency for the live in-flight call beamed via Mission Control at Houston, Texas to Major Peake at the ISS.
The extraordinary link up was part of the astronaut’s efforts to get more children engaging with science, technology, engineering and mathematics - and saw teachers from the UK, Poland and Norway put their questions to Major Peake.
The astronaut, who was a military and test pilot before joining the European Space Agency, has been living on the ISS since December 2015, where he has been carrying out repairs and experiments - and even fitted in time to eat bacon sandwiches prepared by Heston Blumenthal, watch the Six Nations rugby and donned a tuxedo T-shirt to present a Brit Award.
But more importantly to the Major, who admits he didn’t take the traditional education path you might expect of an astronaut, he has been inspiring the next generation of scientists by working with ESPERO-UK as an ambassador for STEM education.
The Tim Peake Primary Project runs in more than 1,000 schools across the country and today’s event heard saw two lucky teachers in York to speak direct to Major Peake with their questions.
Tom Holloway, from Hillcroft Primary School in Surrey, asked him what skills and experiences had proven most useful to him in space - to which Major Peake had a surprising answer - “the ability to put together an Ikea wardrobe”. That, plus thousands of hours of training and planning so that not much in space “is unexpected”.
Karen Hammond, headteacher of Mellor Community Primary School in Leicester, asked Major Peake about his creative thinking and problem solving skills - watched on by her a hall full of “excited” children.
Skills he had developed as a military and test pilot, he said, had been honed by ESA training, both living in a cave in Sardinia with fellow astronauts and cosmonauts, and 12 days spent living underwater with Nasa near Florida. Teachers from Poland and Norway asked how Major Peake had developed a love for space, which experiments had surprised him most.
He told them he would do “absolutely nothing” differently in his career path, despite leaving school at 19 with three “very average” A-Levels for the military and not starting a degree until he was 33, “because I am stood here, or floating here, from the International Space Station”.
Speaking about what had inspired his interest physics and space, Major Peake said: “As a young boy I used to love looking up at the stars. I always had questions for my parents about where we were in the solar system. That progressed into a passion for physics and I still love those questions about our place in the universe today.”
Gareth Dyer from Hempland Primary School in York is one of more than 50 ESERO-UK ambassadors working to inspire children into pursuing a career in STEM.
He was invited to watch the chat with Tim Peake in person. He said: “I’ve worked in quite a few schools in York over the last few months and the one consistent thing is that every chid knows about Tim Peake and his mission.
“Tim is a fantastic ambassador for education. The videos he puts out makes it very real for the children and seeing him on the ISS has been incredible.
“I have a girl in my class who has decided she now wants to be a space engineer.”
Dr Allan Clements, manager of ESERO-UK, said: “There’s no doubt about it - just the context of space is really inspiring to children. Tim’s mission is out of this world.”