The area cleared around the Soyuz rocket at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan extends for more than a mile before reaching the observation area where family and colleagues gather on launch day. To watch from afar has several advantages. It is easier on the neck, for one. The roar of the 26 million horsepower engines is bearable that far out, too. The main reason, though, is more sobering. At such distance, the crowd should be safe if the Soyuz, a machine that burns 270 tonnes of fuel and oxygen in nine minutes, explodes.
On Tuesday, Tim Peake, the first Briton admitted to the European astronaut corps, will ride a coach into the heart of Baikonur’s exclusion zone. After a short stop to urinate on the coach’s rear right wheel, a tradition embraced since Yuri Gagarin did the same more than 50 years ago, Peake will take his seat in the capsule on top of the rocket. At 11.03am UK time, the engines are due to light up, blasting Peake and his two crewmates into the sky. He is not expected back until June.
For all the inherent dangers – and space travel is still a risky business in the 21st century – Peake’s greatest fear ahead of his inaugural mission to the International Space Station is that something will prevent him from taking part. He is not oblivious to danger, but he has become accustomed to its presence. An army major and former helicopter test pilot, he approaches risk as something to be understood, and through training and preparation, minimised. As Frank De Winne, head of the European astronaut corps puts it: “This isn’t education, this is a mindset.”
Peake, 43, grew up in Chichester and fell in love with flying when he sat for the first time in the cockpit of a plane in the cadet force at school. He flew at weekends, in gliders and tandem-seat Chipmunks, with instructors who would occasionally let their students take control to try their hands at take-offs and landings. Speaking in October at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Peake described the draw of flight that he felt as a boy: “I remember feeling the way an aircraft responded to your inputs. The feeling of being able to control that machine, and fly it around the sky, was amazing,” he said.
At school, he had a reputation among teachers for being calm, sensible and level-headed. Those qualities doubtless helped him get to Baikonur. Another key trait was perseverance. When he struggled with a subject, or a sport, such as swimming, he kept plugging away regardless, his former teachers said. The determination was evident in astronaut training, where one of the toughest challenges he faced was learning Russian, the second language of the International Space Station.
Peake had all the medical selection and flying aptitude tests under his belt by the age of 19 and was selected as an army aviator. As a helicopter pilot he flew reconnaissance missions over Northern Ireland, and later on, over Bosnia and Afghanistan. The most extreme and satisfying flights, he has said, were in the mountains of Bosnia, carried out in winter, at night time, over land that was mined.
“Tim was one of those guys who stood out in so many ways, even when he was a captain,” said Richard Folkes, former director of British army aviation, who has known Peake for more than a decade. Folkes now works at the helicopter firm AugustaWestland in Yeovil, where Peake was employed before being chosen from 8000 applicants to join the astronaut corps. Peake never assumed he would make it through the selection process as the odds are so small, but Folkes says he was more confident. “I wasn’t a bit surprised that he was selected. He’s modest, he’s highly talented, he is a hugely professional aviator and he’s a great test pilot. He’s the perfect guy to be representing the UK and to be representing the armed forces.”
Peake has received intensive training for space walks, or extravehicular activities (EVAs), as they are known in the acronym-rich world of spacefaring. Veterans of the ISS have told him that climbing out onto the structure is daunting – Nasa builds a minute or two into astronauts’ schedules to give time to compose themselves – but he will be delighted if he is chosen. When crew members venture outside, they are tethered to the station. In the unlikely event that they do fall off, they wear small jetpacks that might just save their lives. In training simulations, Peake relished the moments he had to practice the emergency recovery move. Everything is spinning and the jetpack has only enough fuel for one shot to get back safely. “I love it as a pilot,” Peake said. “It’s quite intense.”
At the dawn of the Apollo era of the 1960s, the capsules and rockets experimental vehicles in the most dangerous sense. In the decades since, as rockets became more reliable, and the emphasis of space exploration swung from politics towards science and international cooperation, selectors have looked for rounder personalities. A solid grasp of technical subjects is still a must, but modern astronauts need softer skills too, such as the ability to work well with people from other cultures under stressful conditions.
That test begins on the launchpad. Even with no delays, Peake will spend nearly three hours in the Soyuz capsule before blast-off, cooped up with his crewmates, the veteran Russian commander, Yuri Malenchenko, and the Nasa astronaut, Tim Kopra. Given a perfect ascent, the three will reach the space station six hours after launch, and two hours after that, open the hatch to meet the six crew already in orbit. But this assumes the Soyuz reaches the station in the best possible time, circling the planet only four times en route. The slightest delay at launch can switch the ascent schedule can mean the three men will be stuck in the cramped capsule for two full days.
Helen Sharman became the first Briton in space in 1991 when she flew to the Russian Mir space station as part of the privately-funded Project Juno. Flying in Soyuz was “real teamwork” she said, adding: “Tim will have no trouble with that.”
David Southwood, a senior researcher at Imperial College, and a member of the UK space agency steering board, has known Tim since he joined the European Space Agency in 2009. “It’s absolutely clear why he got selected against all the odds,” Southwood says. “They couldn’t let him go. He stands out. Most astronauts now are similar, but he is up there in the exceptional class.”
“I think that there was a cowboy element to the original astronauts. Not so with Tim. Tim is ever cool, calm and collected whilst always seeming more charming than macho. When you talk to him, that calmness comes through. It is just about possible to believe that he really enjoyed himself facing the challenge of exercises like escaping from a helicopter cockpit whilst suspended upside down in water. I’d say he is made not so much of the right stuff but rather “even better stuff,” he adds.
Peake has put an enormous effort into inspiring children, visiting and holding online video discussions with schools. On the space station, he will oversee a handful of projects that students have created. He is also expected to take part in the Royal Institution Christmas lectures from orbit. “I think that there are going to be an awful lot of young people going with him in spirit,” Southwood said.
Some astronauts from past generations have not been known for their charisma. But Peake is not a two-dimensional personality, says Folkes. Tim and his wife Rebecca have two sons, aged 3 and 6, and Peake throws himself into family life. He can call home from his laptop on the International Space Station, and at weekends chat over a video conferencing facility onboard. The technology will help him keep in touch over Christmas, a day he plans to start with a bacon sandwich.
Peake plays the guitar, but has no plans to follow Chris Hadfield, the Canadian ISS commander, and record covers of Bowie hits from orbit. He is taking up a rich playlist on his iPod though, and will tweet out lyrics throughout the mission. Whoever replies first with the correct band and track name will win a “space rocks” patch that Peake will have with him. His taste in music is “all over the place”, he said in October, spanning Nirvana, Creed, Nickleback, Coldplay, Queen, Dire Straits, Bowie, Eminem and Sting. “He has a nice sense of humour about him, and he’s creative,” says Folkes. “He’ll have some fun up there, and I’m sure that we’ll see that.”
As head of the astronaut corps, Frank De Winne, who became the first European commander of the International Space Station, will be in Baikonur for the launch with Rebecca and the children. How will Tim be feeling on Tuesday? “He will be smiling from ear to ear,” says De Winne. “And then the moment he gets into the capsule, it will be all serious and work.”
Born: Timothy Nigel Peake on 7 April 1972 in Chichester, West Sussex.
Career: Graduated in 1992 from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as an officer in the British Army Air Corps and was awarded his Army Flying Wings two years later. He became a helicopter flying instructor in 1998 and a helicopter test pilot in 2006. He was selected as an ESA astronaut in 2009.
What he says: “After a gap of 24 years since Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station, the Union flag is going to be flown and worn in space once again. What that means is that there’s nothing to stop the schoolkids of Great Britain today from being amongst the first men and women to set foot on Mars in the future.”
What others say: “Tim has done so many things in his life that when he told us he had been chosen it didn’t come as a surprise. Tim has always shown huge determination to succeed. I can remember school reports from Chi High which said: “Tim never gives up”. Nigel Peake, Tim’s father.