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Waiting with wings. An interview with astronaut Tim Peake

Mark Thompson
Oct 25, 2012, 23:00 UTC

Sen—I first met ESA astronaut Tim Peake during the first series of BBC Stargazing LIVE back in January 2011 and remember exchanging flight experiences with him over a pint, him in his fast jets and me in nothing more complex than a twin engine propeller aircraft. As someone who successfully beat around 10,000 other applicants to secure one of ten coveted positions as an ESA astronaut, surely he can't have found my experiences of interest? I was delighted when I found out I had the opportunity of speaking with him again for Sen. I was keen to try and understand what made him tick, to learn about his experiences in the selection process and to find out what daily life is like as an astronaut waiting to go into space.

I caught up with Tim as he had just arrived in Houston for three more weeks of training. He was in room 307 - I wasn't sure if it was a hotel room or a conference room of some sort - but either way he seemed to be very relaxed and, I suspect, quite used to lots of travelling around. We spoke first about his experiences back in 2009 when he heard the great news that he had been finally selected to become an astronaut. Starting in 2008 he recalls "It [selection] was a year long process with lots of tests, interviews and psychological profiling questions. Because it was spread over such a long period of time, it was impossible to make up answers and cheat your way through."

The process started with an online application, after which the 10,000 applicants were whittled down to 2,000. There followed a cognitive skills test, followed by 2 days of personality testing, exploring each candidate's aptitude towards teamwork and problem solving. At each stage of the process candidates had to complete psychological questionnaires involving hundreds of questions, often repetitive themes but phrased slightly differently. The selection process also involved a week long medical assessment and an interview with several high level ESA staff. A final interview took place with ESA's Director General and Director of Human Spaceflight.

The selection process seems to be different for other nations, varying quite significantly in many cases, for example astronaut candidates from Canada endure much more rigorous physical testing than their European counterparts. During the entire process Tim explained how laid back he was: "I just wanted to see how far I could get. Being an astronaut wasn't something I ever envisaged doing, I loved flying and was happy in my career but then ESA applications opened up so I thought I'd give it a go!"

After successful qualification along with others from very different backgrounds, including scientists, engineers and teachers, the next step in the life of the newly appointed astronauts is basic training. This takes 14 months and is a mixture of practical exercises and classroom based theory, even learning Russian. Tim recalls "It was a boy's dream as there was no part of it I didn't enjoy. One day we were learning to strip down laptops or learning about medicine and the next we would be on parabolic flights to simulate weightlessness or taking survival training. I loved it." It seems the idea was to get everyone to the same core level of skill and expertise in a huge range of disciplines.

After basic training the new recruits were split up to start specialist training while a couple of Tim's colleagues were assigned straight to a mission and started training for that. Tim is yet to be assigned to a mission but there was no animosity to his lucky colleagues destined for space. Instead he found himself on more robotics training learning how to capture spacecraft with the robot arm and further training for spacewalks or 'extra-vehicular activity.'

Tim Peake during a zero-G training flight

ESA astronaut Tim Peake and EAC Instructor Gail Iles during a parabolic flight on Friday 7 May 2010. Credit: ESA/A. Le Floc'h

It seems the training for space walks has evolved over the years. Initially it was all about construction or installing new parts to the ISS all in zero gravity which was easy enough to practice and learn the procedures for. Often now astronauts engaged in space walks are called upon to fix and make repairs, which is very different and not something that can be planned or practiced. Its a high pressure activity and requires much more analysis of the situation and adaptation to the circumstances presented.

The closest Tim has got to space was in project NEEMO (NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations), where he spent 12 days living in an underwater habitat with no access to the surface. Most of the time was spent in a small cylindrical tube just under 8 meters in length, much like the inside of a jet airliner. The accommodation was submerged 63 feet under the surface of the Florida Keys and offered most of the 'comforts' of home including seating, beds and a kitchen sink. From their underwater base the team experimented with techniques and equipment that might be used to explore an asteroid in preparation for a future mission before 2025. They even simulated the challenges in communications that would be experienced with an imposed 50 second delay to see what impact it had.

After his experience underwater, which is the nearest anyone can get to simulating space on Earth, Tim is eagerly looking forward to his first space assignment, but for now it looks like it is a waiting game.  Budgets play a big part in space exploration so it may not be until 2016 or later that he gets assigned a mission. Until then, he will keep on training and working with teams at the Munich Control Centre where he works with crews in space to help and support them.  

We always read of astronauts being made of 'the right stuff' and no-one embodies this more than Tim Peake. He seems to approach the world with a boyish enthusiasm and wonder at the world tempered by military professionalism. The kind of man you can utterly rely on in a spot. When I asked him if he has any concerns or fears he admitted "No not really. The training is as good as it can be. If I went into it with negative thoughts I wouldn't be working at my best. I learned that from my test pilot days!"

One day it will be people like Tim that will carry the hopes of humanity further out into the Solar System and if they are anything like him, then our future is in safe hands.