Fifty four years since the first (Russian) man in space, and forty six years since the first (American) man on the moon, this December Tim Peake will become the first Briton to live on board the International Space Station.
It seems bewildering that in the seventeen years the International Space Station (ISS) has been in orbit around the Earth, no British person has ever visited it. However this is all set to change on the 15th December when Tim leaves the Earth on a course set for the ISS…
Many of us will have grown up wanting to be an astronaut (myself included!), but what does it actually take to become one like Peake? Like many astronauts, including retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, Peake started out as part of the armed forces; attending the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst before serving in the Army Air Corps flying Apache helicopters.
His flight experience landed him a job as a test pilot; coupled with his degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation from the University of Portsmouth it made him an ideal European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut candidate.
The yearlong application process involved numerous personality, intelligence and health tests. In 2009, Tim Peake was one of 6 out of 8413 applicants chosen to join the European Astronaut Corps.
The training for his mission tested not only his survival and fitness, but demanded additional scientific, engineering and medical skills, as well as knowledge of the Russian language. Although becoming an astronaut does not guarantee you a trip into space, luckily for Tim in 2013 he was assigned a space mission which was named ‘Principia’.
Once on board the ISS, Tim’s ‘Principia’ mission will involve two main tasks; running scientific experiments and educating school children. Tim will be starting many new experiments as well as continuing old ones; including experiments studying the effects of zero gravity on the human body, developing new metal alloys and investigating the behaviour of plasma. Tim will also be involved in controlling robots from the ISS, which has potential implications for astronauts controlling Mars rovers from orbit around the planet. All of these experiments are of vital importance in furthering human knowledge, and many scientists across the world will benefit from Tim’s work.
The latter element of ‘Principia’ is outreach for school children.
One such project sees 2kg of rocket seeds transported to the ISS, which after several months will be sent back to Earth and distributed between 10,000 UK schools.
School children will then be able to compare the growth of the space seeds with rocket seeds that remained on Earth; developing analytical and scientific thinking, and more importantly, the scheme will help to engage the younger generation with science.
Tim will also be recording video tutorials and communicating with school children via radio links whilst on the ISS. Outreach is an integral part of the mission because it is so essential in inspiring children to study science, technology, engineering and maths, and what better way to inspire than being involved in a space mission? The 1969 lunar landing is often cited by scientists to be the reason they first wanted to pursue a career in science, and so the outreach that Tim will be involved in will make a tangible difference to the youth of today.
Years of training on Tim’s part, thousands of hours of work by the ESA team, and millions of pounds of scientific research and equipment have culminated in this space mission. The magnitude of this combined effort of everyone involved highlights the importance of the need to further our scientific understanding as well as inspiring the next generation to get involved in science. Tim’s mission has been a long time coming, but we’ll have to wait a bit longer to fully appreciate the consequences.