It was me or Tim Peake
Back in 2008 I wrote a piece about the European Space Agency recruiting for astronauts, including the opportunity for a UK candidate to likely go on a mission to the International Space Station. Of course I applied and for a little while there was the tantalising prospect that I jmight be that first ESA British astronaut who was going to have an out-of-this-world experience. I hadn’t reckoned on a certain Major Tim Peake:
Seven years later, on 15 December 2016 just after 11am GMT, Tim will sit atop a 50m Russian Soyuz FG rocket containing 300 tonnes of kerosene and liquid oxygen. In an incredible rush, he will go from zero to almost 29,000 km per hour, before he can enjoy the tranquility of six months’ zero gravity in low Earth orbit.
Not long after he’d been announced I remember Tim doing a Q&A from the UK Space Centre in Leicester. My question consisted of only two words: “swap jobs?” He laughed but politely declined. If the chance came tomorrow to sneak into the capsule in his place, I’d be there in a nanosecond.
The mission is called Principia, named after Isaac Newton’s book that helped define the discipline of mathematical physics which I studied at Newton’s very own Trinity College, Cambridge. There is no more appropriate moniker for this British foray into space. Reaching low Earth orbit requires a mathematical understanding of gravity and Newton’s Principia laid those foundations, realizing that an apple falls to the Earth for the same reason that the Moon (and the ISS) orbit around it. Every space voyage has a mission patch and here’s Principia’s.
Hoping and expecting everything to go according to plan, Tim will reach the International Space Station around 19.00 GMT and this will be live on TV and the web. If I could be even more envious (in the nicest possible way) it’s because he’s not going for a short stay. The mission is scheduled to last a whopping six months.
While up there, one thing that Tim is extremely keen to do is to perform a spacewalk or EVA (extravehicular activity). The International Space Station is pretty big. You’ll know this if you’ve ever looked for it in the night sky as it passes overhead (there are great apps that tell you when it’s going to be visible from your location and it’s well worth the watch). In fact the station is a little larger than a football pitch (both British and American).
If Tim’s lucky enough to journey outside the ISS he’s effectively in his own miniature spaceship, sculpted to fit a human body. It’s as close as you can get to being alone in the cosmos (unless you wanted to try it without wearing a spacesuit, although that’s not quite as bad as you might think and is described accurately in the Johnny Mackintosh books). To try the suited version yourself, here’s a spacewalk simulation game from NASA.
Speaking of Johnny Mackintosh, while cloaked he flies past the International Space Station at the beginning of the second book, Star Blaze.
Three hundred and forty kilometres above Earth, they passed the space station windows so close that they could see the astronauts inside.
It would be funny to imagine one of those astronauts was Britain’s own Major Tim Peake. To commemorate the Principia Mission, the UK Space Agency has produced a special issue of their magazine (link opens as a pdf).
My plan for 2016 is to blog rather more (not difficult), including my thoughts on how to speed up humanity’s transition into becoming a space-faring species. Tim Peake’s flight is another small step along this giant interstellar highway to a potentially golden future for our species.