Ground control to Major Tim

Anna Walker

12.55pm, January 15, 2016. Major Tim Peake floats nervously before the Quest airlock of the International Space Station (ISS) with a photograph of his two sons strapped to his left arm. He’s ready to boldly go where no Brit has gone before.

"You’ve done years of training. You’ve done virtual reality jetpack flying, you’ve analysed your routes, you’ve studied your procedures,” he explains. “But if you’ve never gone outside of the Space Station in a space suit, you just don’t know what it’s like.”  

“Hey, Tim,” radios ISS commander Scott Kelly. “It’s really cool seeing that Union Jack go outside. It’s explored all over the world. Now it’s explored space.”

While most of us might consider the prospect of venturing into an environment where at any moment you could be hit by a micrometeorite—or lose your grip and float into space—just about the most terrifying experience imaginable, Tim remained unshaken.

“As soon as the air lock opened and [fellow astronaut] Tim [Kopra] and I went outside, a wonderful feeling of relaxation came over me. It wasn’t fear at all, just a case of, Great, now let’s get on with the job that we’ve come here for.”


Tim lies in gypsum to create the perfect mould for his seat on return spacecraft, the Soyuz

This is typical of Tim, whose unflappable nature was surely crucial in ensuring his place on the ISS mission—a position he beat nearly 9,000 other hopefuls to secure.

The pair was tasked with repairing a faulty solar panel. After a relatively smooth four hours and 43 minutes—save for a momentary blip when Tim Kopra’s helmet began to fill up with water—they were safely back on-board.

“We had the suits drying out while we got changed and then we had a cup of tea and a biscuit. It was only later when I floated back to my quarters that I saw my inbox: it was inundated. Of course, for me it was a huge day. It was the biggest day of my life. But it hadn’t dawned on me how much of a big deal this had been back on Earth.”

“Big deal” may be something of an understatement. As Tim floated 240 miles above the Earth’s surface, millions tuned in to watch the first spacewalk ever conducted by a British citizen.


Taking part in a training exercise for his future spacewalk using a Partial Anti Gravity Simulator and harness

And the outpouring of national pride didn’t cease when his mission ended. Far from it.

“I was on a post-flight tour and during that time I answered thousands of questions. I was blown away by the interest so I decided to try and answer people as accurately as I could in my book, Ask An Astronaut.”

 From the serious—What are the long-term health effects of space flight? —to the silly—What does space smell like?—the book covers every curiosity a reader might have about Tim’s six months in space. 

"It was the biggest day of my life. But it hadn’t dawned on me how much of a big deal this had been back on Earth"

“It became a bit of a mammoth task. There was a lot of information out there anyway on my social media so I thought I’d just collate that, do a little extra work and the book would be done.” 

He chuckles at his own naivety. “Blood, sweat and tears have gone into this book. It was quite a therapeutic process though. It’s the right time for me to do it, while the mission is fresh in my mind.”

Now 45 and back living on Earth with his wife Rebecca and two sons Oliver and Thomas, Sussex-born Tim remembers where his passion for space began. 

“In my early childhood, I was fascinated with astronomy, with the stars and all the big questions that my own boys now ask me, like, ‘How far back does space go, Daddy?’ and, ‘Where does it begin and where does it end?’ Really space travel is a quest to try and answer those questions.”

Therapeutic outpourings such as Tim’s Ask An Astronaut project are presumably vital for astronauts readjusting to life on Earth. Six months of looking down at our home planet inevitably takes a psychological toll. Many cosmonauts have written upon their return of the way that a new perspective on our tiny planet permanently alters the way they perceive their own place in the universe. 


Tim rests his eyes in the crew quarters

Tim found his time in space allowed him to “reflect and see things differently. When you look at Earth from space you see it as a planet, not a mixed-up bag of different continents. You just see the geological features and forget about the political differences. It puts the need to work together and look after our planet into perspective.”

The damage the human race is inflicting upon our planet is another thing it becomes impossible to ignore.

“You come to appreciate the fragility of the earth’s atmosphere. It really is terrifyingly thin.” If the earth were a football, Tim explains, then our atmosphere would be the equivalent thickness of a single piece of paper.

“We can see the impact of pollution from the Space Station. You can see the haze clouds; you can see the deforestation. When you witness it with your own eyes, and you see the scale of it, you really think about what we’re pumping into our atmosphere.”

Reports of Tim’s youngest son Oliver sat on his grandfather’s shoulders crying “I want to go with Daddy” were widely circulated upon his departure. Tim considers saying goodbye to his family before launch the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, so he counts himself lucky that Christmas Day came so soon after his arrival in space.

“I’m really glad that it happened less than two weeks after launch. During that time Tim Kopra and Scott Kelly had already done an unplanned spacewalk so it was busy."

“I think if Christmas had come four months into the mission, when you’re at that low point and really missing friends and family, then it would have been a different story—but I was just still enjoying microgravity and getting to know my way around the station. Keeping busy is your friend in space.” 

"When you look at Earth from space you see it as a planet, not a mixed-up bag of different continents"

Despite the everyday joys of life back on solid ground (“Nothing beats just spending time with family when you come back from a space mission”), Tim still finds himself missing the camaraderie of his International Space Station crew. 

“When you come down from a mission you draw a line and go your separate ways and it’s sad to say goodbye."

“The good news is that it’s a tight-knit community so we’re still in touch but I do miss it. It’s a unique place to live and you grow very close.”

So close, in fact, that the crew of the ISS occasionally found time to play pranks. In one memorable hijink, commander Scott Kelly snuck a gorilla suit on-board and cajoled Tim into helping him distract crewmate Tim Kopra so he could hide in his quarters and burst out unannounced. 

Despite the crew’s easy camaraderie, certain topics stay off limits. “We definitely keep away from politics,” Tim laughs. “We don’t even joke about it. Throughout the majority of my training in Russia, we were going through the Crimea crisis and you just can’t let that interfere with what you’re doing. There’s definitely healthy banter whenever a national stereotype comes up though."


Waving farewell alongside his fellow astronauts on December 15, 2015, the day Tim first launched into space

“The best nights were Friday nights. We’d go down to the Russian segment and we’d all take some of our bonus food down there. We’d spend the entire evening listening to music and chatting and eating, just enjoying each other’s company.”

Bonus food makes up around ten per cent of an astronaut’s food allocation, and they can choose anything that will travel to space easily. In a stroke of genius, Tim had his made by legendary chef Heston Blumenthal—Michelin-star space grub.

“It was so funny the first time I was tucking into Heston’s bacon sandwich. Scott was just dribbling at the mouth. I hadn’t quite appreciated how luxurious that was in space.”

On another occasion, Kelly convinced Ground Control to stream the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, for an unforgettable movie night, after which Tim “was half expecting to see a TIE fighter when I went to close the window covers.”

"When you come down from a mission you draw a line and go your separate ways and it’s sad to say goodbye"

For now, Tim is focused on the next 15 years of space travel, and it’s surprising to learn just how soon his fellow cosmonauts will be leaving the Space Station behind in favour of more ambitious exploration.

“We have a very clear roadmap that takes us to landing on the surface of Mars in the mid to late 2030s. It’s not hugely in the public domain right now so people don’t realise how close we are, but when you go to NASA you can look at the hardware that’s being built right now ready for the first rocket launches."

“The ISS is 20 next year and that partnership has been rock-steady throughout all the political difficulties that have occurred in that time. In space, we have a unique ability to collaborate.”

Peake is contagiously optimistic when it comes to the future—“it’s no longer a question of if we will colonise the Moon and Mars, but when”—and it’s hard not to feel excited by the possibilities. When you reflect on the political turmoil and upheavals of the world in 2017, it seems as though we could all benefit from a cosmonaut’s sense of perspective.