Tim Peake: UK must be very careful Brexit does not negatively affect science

Written by Rajnish Singh on 25 January 2017 in Interviews
Interviews

Astronaut Tim Peake talks about his time on the International Space Station, inspiring the younger generation and why he hopes Brexit will not impact on Europe's scientific research.

Tim Peake/Stephane Corvaja

Tim Peake | Photo credit: ESA/Stephane Corvaja


With the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting 400km above Earth, and traveling at a speed of 27,000km per hour, when asked how he would describe his spacewalk Tim Peake said the danger was palpable. "You are very, very aware that you are operating at the extreme edge of human performance. That's why for me it was so exciting."

Peake, the UK's first astronaut to work on the ISS is speaking to the Parliament Magazine from the Nasa Space Centre in Houston, Texas. Even before his space travels, he enjoyed pushing himself to the limit. He has 18 years of military experience as a army pilot. He served in the Bosnian conflict, and later became a helicopter instructor training pilots to fly Apache attack helicopters.

Retiring with the rank of major, he went on to pursue a career as a senior test pilot for helicopter manufacturers AgustaWestland. It was during this period working closely with the space industry that he developed an interest in space avionics. Also at this time he completed a degree in flight dynamics.


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In 2008 he responded to a European Space Agency (ESA) advert on the internet, calling for applicants to train for their ISS programme. Until then European national space agencies would put forward their own candidates.

However in 2008 the ESA ran its first open selection process, where applicants from any European country could apply directly. Peake says he remembers that like many young children aged five or six, he went through a 'space phase.' "I was into Star Wars, and I enjoyed astronomy as a kid. I had a passion for space from an early age, which then developed into aviation."

He also remembers watching the first launches of the space shuttle in his teenage years, "but I never dreamed that I would be going into space myself."

In 2009, after a long and arduous selection process Peake along with five other candidates was selected from over 8000 applicants. 

He believes he was selected because he also had the required 'soft' skills to be a successful astronaut such as communications and problem solving, and also the "ability to work in a multicultural environment, as well previous experience of working for an international agency.

"When you finally get that phone call inviting you to join the European Space Agency's space programme, you have a feeling of exhilaration and overwhelming excitement." 

But he admits it was tinged with a sense of apprehension, "it's a major change in anybody's life, it's a major career change, it involves moving family to a different country, and it's a lot of time away from the family."

Peake is married with two young boys. Even after being selected there was another six years work before he was launched into space.

He admits that one of the hardest aspects for preparing to go into space was learning Russian, "I am not a natural linguist but to pick up Russian in your late 30's is not trivial, especially since I hadn't learnt a new language for 20 years." 

Another challenge was retaining all the information he was given. It was six years before he flew, of which three and half was intensive mission training.

Peake was not the first Brit to fly into space, there were others before him including Helen Sharman. He points out that one of his most memorable moments in 2009, when he was selected, was receiving congratulatory messages from Michael Foale, Piers Sellers, and Nicholas Patrick , (all British born but flew with Nasa), and 

Helen Sharman. "It was wonderful for me, as I had looked up to these people. They were my heroes and were hugely inspiring for me."

During his training Peake got to know Foale well, and he met with Sharman many times. She even lent Peake her copy of Yuri Gagarin's book 'Road to the Stairs', to read on the space station, which was not only signed by Gagarin, but also by members of the Mir Station that she served on.

The 'corps' of astronauts is naturally very small, "I got to know my Russian partners, Japanese, Canadian, European and American fellow astronauts, and we draw upon each other's experiences."

Finally in December 2015 Peake took to the stars. Asked whether he was nervous once the capsule door shut, and the countdown began, he replied, "At that point you are remarkably calm as a crew. We've done this so many times in the simulator that you are more than ready to launch."

Flying with Peake on his mission were Russian Yuri Malenchenko and American Timothy Kopra. 

In order to help the astronauts remain calm, the Russian space centre played music which they specifically selected. Peake's choice did not include David Bowie's 'Space Oddity', or Elton John's 'Rocket Man'. But instead he listened to Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' U2's 'Beautiful Day' and Coldplay's 'A Sky Full of Stars'.

Though the launch went smoothly, the capsule's docking to the main station hit technical difficulties. Broadcast live on TV, viewers saw how Peake's Russian colleague Malenchenko, had to override the automatic system to dock the capsule manually.

Peake, though not anxious about Malenchnko's abilities, was anxious about getting the capsule docked in the fading light. "Yuri had to back up as he couldn't see clearly, but we made a second attempt to dock and it was absolutely text book."

Once on the space station, Peake noticed quickly the effects of zero gravity on his body. "I developed a very stuffy nose, as all the fluids shifts around your chest and head. You get increase pressure in your head, feeling like a dull headache."

His arms were constantly lifting upwards, resulting in shoulder pains. Another effect of zero gravity, was back pain caused by the spine 'elongating', which Peake fortunately did not suffer from. After five weeks, his body had adjusted and become comfortable with his surroundings. 

So much so that he ran the distance of a marathon, 42km, on a running machine, at the same time the London marathon was taking place on earth. His time was an impressive three hours, 35 minutes.

Despite the obvious dangers, the space walks were Peake's favourite part of the mission describing the feeling as "euphoric." 

"My lasting memory was being right on the edge of the ISS, waiting for the sun to go down as we were getting ready to install a solar panel, and we had a few moments to take some pictures of the sunset, which was a very special moment.

"I also enjoyed the mental challenge of doing something different every day. Being on the space station was a privilege. You can be working on an experiment that has been the culmination of six or seven years of work."

Apart from missing his family, he did miss fresh air, and the weather. Peake's ISS mission lasted six months, returning to earth in June 2016.

Peake is keen to stress the importance of continued financial investment in the space sector, despite the huge costs involved, believing "the space sector is extremely successful in terms of contributing towards economic growth and jobs, and therefore it will be extremely foolish for us not to be involved." He also stresses the need to work in partnerships with other countries. 

"If you are going to be involved of course you have to invest in large projects. This means one nation can only do so much with their funds. If we club together like we have for the EU funded Galileo and Copernicus programmes, or the many ESA projects, we can do an awful lot more with our collaborative funds."

He highlights the numerous exciting innovations and technologies that emerged from the UK's and Europe's involvement in space. 

"We are now doing DNA sequencing this year and are studying genetics. On the space station we are growing protein crystals that can be used to develop high quality drugs with reduced side effects. The pharmaceutical industries have jumped on board to support this research."

But following the Brexit vote, many in the science community are anxious of possible negative impacts of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, on scientific funding and pan-European research projects.

Peake says, "of course it is extremely important for the UK to work with its European partners, but I don't see that changing because of Brexit in any major way. Of course the Galileo and Copernicus programmes have their own complications, because they are EU programmes. 

"However as with anything surrounding Brexit there will be some delicate negotiations as to how we move forward concerning funding of EU projects."

Peake points out that the UK's membership of the ESA would not be affected by coming out of the EU, as the UK is a major contributor. "But obviously in terms of science research, we have to be careful that the scientific community is not negatively affected by our withdrawal, which has to be carefully negotiated."

When Peake was in space, he created massive amounts of media interest, especially on twitter where he has 1.42 million followers and from school children. 

Before launching into space Peake sat down with the UK space agency two years before his launch to come up with a plan as to how his mission could have a positive impact on science, business and education.

"None of us expected the effect the mission would have. We were shocked in a pleasant way how the education programme exploded, with so many young people getting interested in space. The legacy we are trying to leave is one of inspiration in terms of encouraging our younger generation of learning more about science and engineering."

Peake highlights how the UK, like many EU member states, suffers from a shortage of graduates in engineering and science degrees.

He believes the low take-up in the sciences, technologies, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects was caused by the lack of information and marketing to highlight the exciting and interesting careers people could have relating to these subjects. 

He also points out how many highly educated scientists and engineers were attracted to the banking and financial sector. 

He believes that governments and especially government ministers working with school teachers and universities can work better together to "start working on appealing to children from a very early age rather than university graduates."

His key message to policymakers and politicians on supporting the space sector is to build upon the successful model of the ESA, in attracting support and investment from member states. 

He also wants to see more cooperation between the ESA and the Chinese space agency. "Where we are doing something really ground breaking, as the US cannot really engage with China." 

Although he didn't see the Chinese participating on the ISS, he hopes "we can work together for the next stage of space exploration which I hope will be a return to the moon. We can work together to set up an international lunar base on the south pole of the moon."

Peake also believes getting to Mars is "doable" - it's just a question of timescale and funding. "Since everybody is working with limited budgets, we all need to join together with a commitment to a firm time line, which will be the tricky part."

Also if man was to go to Mars, Peake wants to see a permanent habitation module established, "but I personally believe we need to use the moon as a test base." He thinks a lunar base could be built by 2030 and that we could reach for Mars by 2040. 

However, even before we start on the moon, Peake believes there is a good chance he will be returning to the space station soon. "The ESA has a great track record of returning people back to space."

 

About the author

Rajnish Singh is commissioning editor of the Parliament Magazine

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