It’s been four years since British Army helicopter test pilot Major Tim Peake was selected to be an ESA Astronaut, beating over 8,000 other applicants. Ahead of his lecture on Human Spaceflight at the RAeS in February, Aerospace International caught up with him to see how his training was going.
AI: What inspired you to fly in the first place? Did you dream about being an astronaut as a boy?
TP: As a young boy, yes, like most young boys and girls do have dreams of being an astronaut but it was really aviation in my teenage years that inspired me. And that was by joining the cadets at school. Despite being in the army cadets they even had an air force section so I would go off gliding many weekends with the air force guys and just absolutely loved flying. From there, really my passion for aviation grew and I decided to join the Army Air Corps.
AI: How did your career as an Apache pilot and rotary-wing test pilot prepare you for being an ESA astronaut?
TP: It’s an interesting one. The ESA astronauts are a real mix, and not just within ESA, but across NASA and Roscosmos as well. It’s a real mix of scientists, engineers and pilots. We all bring different skills really. Among the whole group of us there is a lot of diverse expertise. So an Apache pilot and a qualified test pilot you have operational experience and that helps enormously in terms of managing the space station, with regards to the life support system. Also flying the Soyuz spacecraft. Traditionally European astronauts have the left-hand seat, which is next to the commander in the centre. You have the responsibility of being able to fly the Soyuz in the event the commander needs any assistance. So as a test pilot you also get involved in the new technologies that are being tested, proven, new procedures and all sorts of different operational aspects that we can help with. Also, for example, working in the operations centre and the communication centres.
AI: You beat thousands of applicants some four years ago for this job. How is the astronaut training going so far? It is what you expected?
TP: I’m not sure want I expected! It’s an interesting job that is without a doubt. There is no danger of being bored, there are no two days that are the same really. It’s extremely varied, there is a lot of travel involved. Lots of our training takes place in Moscow in Star City or at the Johnson Space Center at Houston. But I’m lucky enough also to be involved in missions such as the NEEMO missions (that’s NASA’s Extreme Environments Mission Operations) which was underwater in Florida for 12 days last year. I’ve also spent two weeks living down a cave in Sardinia, as well as parabolic flights that are thrown in there as well. This is on top of the routine day-to-day jobs which are more along the lines of giving support to the guys who are onboard the station doing Eurocom jobs. So we talk to the ISS, talk to the astronauts onboard.
AI: You flew the Apache – how does the astronaut training compare to the intensity of learning to fly an attack helicopter and rotary-wing test flying?
TP: I think the intensity is less overall except for those periods where you are going to have emergency situations. When we do train for emergency situations either as Eurocom (which is communications) or as the crew, yes there are extremely intense situations. You really need to be on the ball as you would in an aviation environment. But for the routine training then, it’s a long-duration training event, lots of variety. It’s kind of being a jack-of-all-trades, if you like and hopefully a master of some of them. But the training is very good, like you’d expect from this environment, as it is in the aviation environment. It really thoroughly prepares you for what you’ve got coming during a mission.
AI: Are you the only helicopter-rated test pilot astronaut?
TP: No – there have been several. In fact Suni Williams, a NASA Astronaut who has recently come back down from commanding the Space Station last year, had a very successful mission with two spacewalks as well, she’s a US Navy test pilot.
AI: You’ve been living underwater with NEEMO and also gone caving as part of your astronaut training. What was that all about? How does that prepare you for life in outer space?
TP: These are really space ‘analogues’. The aim is to try and simulate or give an environment where you can inject stresses into a small international crew, similar to onboard a spacecraft. That enables the crew to be able to work together as a team, exercising all sorts of different psychological and social skills in terms of leadership, followership and decision-making. The cave environment is great because you’ve got high levels of isolation, it takes about eight hours just to get to the base camp in the caves and there is lots of vertical ascent and descent. It needs lots of technical ability to get there as well – its not a cave that your average tourist would go down to! You need to be extremely well-qualified with lots of technical equipment to get there. So once we are there we are actually doing genuine exploration as well – this cave system in Sardinia has got miles of unexplored areas. So we are exploring those areas, we are mapping the caves as we go and we are doing scientific research, taking biological samples, soil samples, for example. On top of that we are doing photography tasks. Cave photography is quite tricky in order to get the lighting correct and obviously photography onboard the Space Station is very important too. There are lots of similarities in the cave environment with EVA and other spaceflight activities. It’s a great analogue for training. Now the NEEMO mission underwater is similar. The fact that you are living down at 20 metres, you are completely saturated, there is no ability to go to the surface without going through decompression, otherwise you risk severe injury from the bends and decompression illness. So you have that elevated level of risk, of isolation and once gain you are doing scientific work. Now NEEMO is slightly different in we were specifically researching an asteroid mission. We also have a 50-second communication delay, to simulate being on an asteroid 15 million km away. But, agai,n it was a space analogue that puts the crew into these environments.
AI: What is your typical ESA’s astronaut day like? Apart from the cool stuff like weightlessness training is there much paperwork and academic study required?
TP: Yes, there really is, in the three and a half years I‘ve been with ESA, no such thing as a typical day. You tend to go through ‘blocks’ of training and they are scheduled well in advance. You might be going off to Russia to do Soyuz right/left-hand seat training or study the Russian segment of the Space Station. Last year I spent a lot of time in the neutral buoyancy laboratory in Houston learning how to do spacewalking, EVA activity. But in an average day there is also administration to do and paperwork. We are also given management tasks to do so that we have a ‘career profile’ within ESA. So we come back from a mission and can be usefully employed in management roles. So there is a huge amount of variety in terms of what we are doing. In the pre-assignment phase, the training really takes priority and we try and fit everything else around that.
AI: Do you get involved in outreach initiatives as well, talking to students and schools?
TP: Yes, most definitely! Recently I was back at Kings College London doing a presentation I have done for three years now to courses, a Bachelors in extreme physiology and a Masters in space health and medicine, which is extremely successful. It is always very interesting to speak to the students, they are all very engaging and enthusiastic about human spaceflight. It is an excellent area to study human physiology. We do more general educational outreach and activities, such as ‘Mission X’ which is coming up this year again. This emphasises ‘train like an astronaut’, trying to get young adults involved in good, healthy eating and exercise.
AI: Will you also be tweeting from outer space, like Commander Hadfield on the ISS?
TP: I certainly will be! I joined Twitter just last year before the NEEMO mission, so I tweeted duruing NEEMO and I’ll be tweeting on my ISS mission, most definitely. I think Chris Hadfield is doing a fantastic job. The images that he is sending back every day are just really inspiring.
AI: As an ESA Astronaut, what are your thoughts on the joint US/European Orion/ATV deep space spacecraft that’s been given the green light recently? Do you expect to fly on that at some point?
TP: I certainly would like to see a European astronaut fly on it, yes. I think it is absolutely fantastic progress we have made and the fact that Europe and NASA have joined together on this project is great. International collaboration gives stability to these projects and helps them to progress. That’s why the ISS has been so successful. I think now we’re looking to the future, you’re looking at doing things, going places where one nation really can’t go it alone. Everybody needs to contribute to the next steps, to the Moon, the asteroids or eventually Mars. So the fact that Europe is onboard with NASA is wonderful and that we are providing the service module to Orion is great as well. And yes, hopefully that will be the barter element there as well that will enable a European astronaut to fly.
AI: Do you know when you expect to fly? Is there a flight order in your group or seniority? Who chooses the mission?
TP: Thankfully we don’t have to get involved or worry about that! Flight assignments are really taken care of at the highest level. All ESA astronauts are qualified to the same level and we’re all able to do any of the missions. We just continue with our training programme and await assignments. But the great news is that Europe has been very successful in the past in flying all of their astronauts at least once and most multiple times. We already have three of my class of six of 2009 assigned, Luca, Alex and Samantha and we have a further three flights available between 2015 and 2020. So we’ve got plenty of flight opportunities which is great.
AI: Once you are selected for a mission and a date known, how long would the mission specific training phase last? Run us though the pre-mission training process.
TP: It takes about two and a half years to go through the pre-assignment training. It depends on what qualifications and skills you may have. For example, Luca came straight out of basic training and went into about a two and a half year training programme. You have to get qualified at a certain level for all the segments on the Space Station, the Russian level, the US lab, the Japanese laboratory and the European Columbus module, as well as being a good operator on the robotic arm, the Canadarm2. That is very important these days because many of the modules that are visiting the Space Station do not have automatic docking capability. The European ATV and the Russian Progress do but, for example, the Japanese HTV, SpaceX Dragon and, in the future, Cygnus, will all have to be grappled with the robot arm and then manually docked with the station. So that’s a skill that needs to be learnt. Also, EVA – that’s another major task for an astronaut. In the days of the Shuttle when the ISS was being constructed, the crews would go up for approximately a ten-day mission, with several EVAs that they had practiced and rehearsed many, many times in the pool in Houston. We are now entering the phase where the majority of the ISS is built, (although there is always a couple of more modules in the pipeline). But we are into the phase where it is maintenance and repair and the EVAs that are coming along are those that are unscheduled, and the astronauts wouldn’t have specifically trained for. This presents a greater challenge because it also can occur towards the end of your increment. That was exactly the case last year with Suni Williams and Aki Hoshide who had to go on two EVAs in order to do an unscheduled maintenance activity. So it’s a very challenging environment and an EVA is certainly a very physically and mentally demanding skill to have. I went through the training last year, absolutely love it, but it’s by far the most challenging I’ve come across so far.
AI: The UK Government has reversed its long-standing official opposition to getting involved in and funding manned spaceflight – what do you ascribe this change of heart to?
TP: I think it just has been a gradual build-up. There has been an underlying momentum within the UK space industry. In the days of the BNSC, it really was a sort of hidden secret that our space industry was so successful. It’s given 7-10% returns throughout the years of recession and still continues to do so. I think its recognition of that successful area of growth as an industry, along with the BNSC becoming the UK Space Agency. That kind of gave everything momentum, then I was selected as an astronaut, we also had many UK scientists and researchers who were trying to advertise the merits of microgravity research. That was all coming to the UK Space Agency and to the Government from different directions. So it’s been a gradual build-up, a gradual momentum that has got us where we are now today. We’ve joined Ellipse 4, which is wonderful, so UK scientists and researchers can now lead experiments in microgravity, using all the facilities that ESA offers. The UK has invested into the Orion MCVP element which is great.
AI: There are still significant challenges in space medicine, long duration missions and the human factors aspects of space travel? Is this a niche area where the UK could contribute?
TP: Most definitely. I think that is possibly one of our strongest areas. It’s not an area I’m an expert in, by any means, but people I’m speaking to, for example when I go back to Kings College London, are. We have now a UK Space Biomedicine Consortium of over 30 members just within that space biomedicine area. We have people, for example, at Southampton University, studying intercrainial pressure, which is a very recent problem that has been identified with astronauts on long-duration spaceflight and which impairs vision. These are areas where the UK really can lead, we have lots of experts within the space medicine domain. Not only is this an area in which we can lead, but it is an area that gives great terrestrial benefit, to the elderly population in terms of osteoporosis.
TP: I think it’s absolutely wonderful, firstly that so many people are interested in space. Second, that commercial companies have found viable ways of making it a good business proposition to fly people to space. As soon as you start flying people to space, then we can start doing more scientific activity as well on the back of that. Virgin Galactic at the Farnborough Air Show were already advertising the possibility of launching satellites from their sub-orbital system, which will hopefully reduce the cost of access to space for schools, universities etc in the future. That means more people can have access to the microgravity environment in order to study it. I’m a huge fan of commercial endeavours – it’s a great direction to be moving in.
AI: You mentioned the variety of ESA astronauts’ background – so for anyone reading this who is desperate to go into space in the future, what advice would you give?
TP: That’s a really tough question actually because as I alluded to earlier, when you look around the office here, all the European astronauts have come from so many different backgrounds it’s impossible to say “this is what you need to do.” The only thing I would say is that every one of us has been very passionate about what we’ve been doing, to be as good as we can be. Really it doesn’t matter if you are a medical doctor, an engineer, a scientist or a pilot, you can enter into the space industry from all of these different areas. In many respects it is the psychological and social skills that you have that are very important for future long-duration spaceflight. It is those kinds of areas and aspects, almost the ‘non-trainable’ skills, that count. Anybody who is passionate about what they do and has got the ability to get on in an international environment, will be well-suited for spaceflight.
AI: Where do you think the next human footsteps will be on, Moon, asteroids or Mars? If you were able to select your own mission – where would you like to go?
TP: I still think the next human footprints will be back on the Moon, although there is clearly a lot of interest in the asteroids at the moment. I think Mars is something for the 2030s at the earliest opportunity, if not a little bit beyond that. I would personally, within what I would see as feasible in my career timeframe, love an asteroid mission, that would be my ambition. Especially having worked with NASA’s Exploration Branch last year on asteroid missions, that would be an absolutely fascinating mission to undertake.
AI: Some people say we can do a lot more science for less money with unmanned probes, rovers and robotics. What does a human bring to exploration?
TP: I’m not sure I agree with a ‘lot more science’ with unmanned probes. I think despite the success of rovers such as Spirit and Opportunity vastly outweighing their lifetime, the amount of science that could have been done by a human in one week, one month’s mission would have exceeded all of the science done by those rovers. As rover missions become more complex, they become much more expensive. You are now looking at multi-billion dollar missions to Mars. So the cost is now creeping up there towards the human spaceflight level. Having said that I think robots and humans work together the best. These days there is much, much less animosity between those branches than there used to be in the past. Obviously there is the same pot of funding that both areas are trying to draw from, but these days robotics and human spaceflight work closely together. Both areas understand that you each rely on one another. Robotics is definitely the best use for high-risk missions, paving the way, going to areas that humans can’t go to today, because of the technology, in order to derisk those missions and provide those initial bits of science. What the human brings later on is human ingenuity, initiative and decision-making. The ability to go and actually stand somewhere and do a lot more science using the human brain, which today is still far superior to any robot that can be built.
AI: What do your ex-Army colleagues and family make of you becoming an astronaut? When you are back in the UK do people in shops or at parties think you are having a joke when they ask ‘what you do’ and you say ‘I’m an astronaut’?
TP: Yes. I try not to say it actually! I try and avoid the subject as it can be a real conversation-stopper! My close family and friends are absolutely normal about the idea. They understand the training I’m going through and the fact that it is extremely intensive training, but also a long process. Hopefully at the end of the day I will get a flight to space, which is the ultimate goal. It can certainly be quite interesting when you tell people what you do!
AI: Finally, you might be flying on a Soyuz or even Orion, but what is your favourite fictional spaceship?
TP: I think it has to be the USS Enterprise! I’m not a huge Star Trek fan but certainly when I was young I used to watch it and just love the idea of exploring the universe at warp speed and going to strange places. Either that or the X-Wing fighter from Star Wars!