Most kids go through a fascination with space and I was no different. I loved studying the planets. But as I grew up, I became more fascinated by aviation. So my route back to space was after 18 years as a military pilot with the British Army Air Corps and Sandhurst.
There wasn’t the opportunity for British people to be an astronaut until very recently. You’d watch British citizens like Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick and Piers Sellers move to the US, change their nationality and become astronauts with Nasa. They recruit every year. Britain’s policy of no human space flights only recently changed.
When I was selected for the European Space Agency in 2009, the UK Government was still not contributing to human space flight, but the astronaut selection was open for Brits to participate. There was a huge take-up from the public. Over 10,000 put their application forward from across Europe and in the final 22 we had five Brits. With so much competition, I thought my chances were slim, so I just took it one step at a time. The first thing is an application form. After that, the first actual selection day is called “hard skills” and was the toughest part of the selection. We had to go to Hamburg and it was a long day: probably 11 hours in front of a computer, one test after another. Maths. Engineering. Concentration tests. Memory retention. You’ve either got those abilities or you haven't.
There was also a focus on psychological profiling with an emphasis on how you would perform in a group. After passing the medical, I was in the last 22. I thought, “There's a chance here.”
The UK has always been huge in telecommunications, satellites and robotics, but I think that’s become more widely known now. When the British National Space Centre became the UK Space Agency in 2010, that had a lot of momentum behind it. My selection was part of that. When you picture an astronaut with the Union Flag, it does have a very visual appeal to it. Some astronauts wait more than 10 years for their first flight – and for some it has never transpired. So when I heard I had been assigned to a mission, there was a feeling of relief, mixed with a renewed focus.
I will join the International Space Station at the end of 2015. There’s going to be a lot of science going on up there, medical research is quite high on the agenda and a lot of this has got a direct terrestrial benefit, especially for the ageing population. Space is a very good environment for vaccine research. Viruses become much more virulent in space.
As an astronaut, you’re an operator more than a scientist. We operate payloads so we need to know how to carry out the experiments more than the detailed science going on in the experiments themselves. The most important thing for the astronaut is to know how the Space Station operates and how to maintain it. You’ve also got to know spacewalking in case you need to do repairs outside the Space Station.
There’s probably 2,000 people who are operating the Space Station 24/7 from control centres around the world. As the astronauts work, they’ll be talking to the ground all the time about what they’re doing. There’ll also be a lot of cameras on board, so the ground team can see what’s going on and monitor the experiments themselves.
That was one thing that was very accurate in the George Clooney film, Gravity. You have a hot mic so everything you say is transmitted to your fellow crew members outside the Space Station and transmitted to the ground, so you’re all working and talking together. As for all that flying debris… there is actually debris and several times a year the Space Station has to adjust its orbit in order to avoid it. But the amount of debris in that movie was exceptional.
Between now and then, I’ll be spending a lot of time in Russia, learning about the solar system and the Russian segment of the Space Station. Russian language training is undertaken, so that we can converse. I’ve been learning it for four years and it’s still quite alien to me. Apparently, it’s only the first 10 years that are hard.
As an astronaut, you move around. I spent four years living in Germany, where the European Astronaut Centre is based. We did all of our basic training there and that’s where European astronauts live when they’re not assigned to a mission. Once assigned, you’re going to spend an awful lot of time in the US and Russia. It’s the astronaut’s choice where to live, but with my circumstances with a small family, it made sense to be in Houston.
My children are aware of their daddy’s job. Well, my boys are two and four, so the junior one doesn’t really get it. But my four-year-old certainly does. He’s seen me when I go into the swimming pool wearing a spacesuit, to simulate buoyancy. Our friend, the Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, has just returned from a six-month tour of the Space Station, so he had an opportunity to talk to him when he was on-board. The trouble is he thinks it’s normal. You know, “Daddy’s an astronaut and everybody gets to speak to the Space Station on a Sunday.”
I try and maintain a work-life balance. I keep what I do quiet. When a taxi driver asks, I just say I work in the space industry.
Major Tim Peake is the first British citizen to be selected as an astronaut by the European Space Agency. This week he set off on his journey to join Expedition 46 to the International Space Station. His stay at the 415km-high outpost will last for five months.
This article originally appear in Esquire's Big Black Book in 2014.