10 Things We Learnt About Space from British Astronaut Tim Peake

Discover the wonders and quirks of life on the International Space Station.

By Mark Bailey
Published 22 Nov 2017, 13:07 GMT
ESA astronaut Tim Peake during a spacewalk.
ESA astronaut Tim Peake during a spacewalk.
Photograph by Esa, NASA

1. Space smells like a British barbecue

Every astronaut has their own interpretation of the unique smell of space. Germany’s Alexander Gerst claims it smells “like a mixture between walnuts and the brake pads of my motorbike.” NASA’s Donald Pettit compares it to “sweet smelling welding fumes.” But whenever British astronaut Tim Peake opened the airlock of the International Space Station (ISS), during his six-month stay from December 2015 to June 2016, the scent reminded him of “a British summer barbecue” or “burning sausages on a charcoal grill.”

One theory is that this metallic smell comes from dying stars, which produce pungent compounds called ‘polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons’ that linger in space. Whatever the cause, Peake insists it was “a rather pleasant smell.”

ESA astronaut Tim Peake posted this stunning image on his social media channels, commenting, "Watching the Milky Way rising over the horizon".
Photograph by Esa, NASA

2. You can see the Earth’s atmosphere from space

Peake enjoyed a kaleidoscope of majestic sights from the ISS, including the green and red streaks of the aurorae, the sparkling glaciers of Patagonia, and a thunderstorm above South Africa which stretched for hundreds of miles. He could even see the Earth’s atmosphere, which appeared as a thin white band by day and a greenish-orange strip at night.

“I remember thinking, ‘Is that it? You’ve got to be kidding me! Life on Earth owes its existence to that thin strip of gas,’” recalls Peake. Most of the Earth’s air is contained in a narrow band just 16km high. “We’d do well to look after that precious band of life-supporting gas,” he reflects.   


ESA astronaut Tim Peake is pleased to receive fresh fruit with the arrival of his new crewmates on the International Space Station. Tim commented on the picture: "Thanks Soyuz 46S crew for the fresh fruit…nothing quite like a juicy apple!"
Photograph by Esa, NASA

3. There are over 100 items on the ISS menu

During his time on the ISS, Peake ate from a menu of over 100 dishes, including sausage patties, maple-top muffins and apricot cobblers. Some meals were freeze-dried. “They are a bit like military rations or camping food and don’t taste too bad,” he notes.

Ten percent of his daily calorie intake came from ‘bonus food’ which the astronauts could request prior to travel. Peake’s treats included bacon sandwiches and feasts devised by British chef Heston Blumenthal. “Canned Alaskan salmon with capers was an absolute favourite,” he writes. “Ingredients such as capers, which explode in your mouth with an intense flavour, work really well in space.”

4. Astronauts sleep like vampires

Crew on the ISS have their own sleeping quarter, about the size of a shower cubicle, where they can wrap themselves in a sleeping bag. Some prefer to be strapped securely to a wall, while others are content to float around. Peake admits he liked “to clip my sleeping bag very loosely to hooks in the wall, then zip myself into the bag and just let myself float.” He would fold his arms across his chest – like a sleeping vampire – within his sleeping bag to prevent them floating upwards as he slept.

ESA astronaut Tim Peake during a 4 hour 43 minute spacewalk to replace a failed power regulator and install cabling. The meticulously planned and executed sortie was stopped early after fellow spacewalker NASA astronaut Tim Kopra reported a small amount of water building up in his helmet. The two Tims worked in close cooperation with each other to return to the Space Station, with NASA commander Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Sergei Volkov waiting inside to help them out of their suits. Tim commented on this picture: "Today’s exhilarating spacewalk will be etched in my memory forever – quite an incredible feeling!"
Photograph by Esa, NASA

5. Space walks give you vertigo

On 15th January 2016 Peake took part in an extravehicular activity (EVA) – or ‘spacewalk’ – to perform repairs to the ISS. Despite working in a deadly void where temperatures can fluctuate from 200 to minus 200 degrees between sunlight and shade, he relished those magical four hours and 43 minutes, “marvelling at how fragile and beautiful Earth looked as it slipped gracefully into shadow.”

Until, that is, he saw Australia pass beneath him. “I felt a sudden tinge of vertigo,” he writes. “Instinctively I tightened my grip on the handrail … seeing an entire continent 400km beneath my feet caught me by surprise.”

6. You still have to do the vacuuming in space

Peake admits he spent his weekends in space doing the vacuuming. “A lot of dust collects in the return air filters of the ISS and it takes a couple of hours for the crew to vacuum them clean,” he recalls. The vacuum used was a standard commercial model - with an extra-long power cord.

Tim Peake with astronauts Norishige Kanai and Thomas Pesquet discover cave wonderland during their cave familiarisation. ESA’s cave training prepares astronauts to work as an international team in real exploration conditions. Sending astronauts underground to survive and explore Sardinian caves in Italy for almost a week is just one element of their long training. The Sardinian caves are isolated from the outside world. The astronauts need to get used to confined spaces, minimal privacy, technical challenges and limited equipment and supplies for hygiene and comfort - just like in space.
Photograph by Esa, V. Crobu

7. Caving is perfect preparation for astronauts

A surprising component of Peake’s astronaut training was a seven-day caving expedition to Sardinia, Italy, where he and five other astronauts wriggled through confined spaces while collecting microbiological samples. The expedition helped to simulate the stresses he would experience on the ISS and promote the critical value of teamwork.

Tim Peake using ESA's muscle measurement machine Mares on the International Space Station. Tim shared this image, commenting: "No, not testing a new rollercoaster ride - research into muscle atrophy and how this may help patient rehabilitation on Earth".
Photograph by Esa, NASA

8. You can cycle in microgravity

Exercise was an essential part of Peake’s routine on the ISS, where the lack of gravity can reduce muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness. The ISS gym features the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED), a weight-training machine which uses piston-driven vacuum cylinders to enable astronauts to perform squat thrusts, bench presses and bicep curls.

One advantage of microgravity is that the ISS’s bike machine (called CEVIS) doesn’t even need a seat. “Instead, astronauts clip their bike shoes into the pedals, hold onto the handrails to stabilise themselves and pedal away,” notes Peake.

9. Going to the toilet in space is easier than you think  

From classrooms to boardrooms, the most popular question Tim Peake gets asked is how astronauts go to the toilet in space. At the ISS, the toilets are about the size of a telephone booth. Both male and female astronauts urinate into a funnel attached to a hose which uses air flow to suck the liquid away. “Once you have suction going into the hose, it’s simply a case of maintaining good aim,” insists Peake.

When dropping their payload, astronauts use a small toilet fitted with foot restraints. The opening of the toilet contains a rubberised bag filled with hundreds of tiny perforations which are big enough to allow air to flow through (producing the suction required to remove the waste) but small enough to ensure no solids fall through. Astronauts then drop the bag into the solid waste container.

Urine is recycled on the ISS for drinking water but solid waste is loaded onto a resupply spacecraft that undocks at the end of the mission and burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. “Think about that, next time you wish upon a shooting star,” warns Peake.  

Tim Peake, Tim Kopra and commander Yuri Malenchenko land in the steppe of Kazakhstan in their Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft. The trio spent 186 days on the International Space Station.
Photograph by ESA–Stephane Corvaja

10. The journey home is a thrill a minute

When Peake returned to Earth in a Soyuz spacecraft in June 2016, it took just three and a half hours to travel from the ISS to the landing site in Kazakhstan – faster than a commercial flight from London to Moscow. Although the internal temperature of the spacecraft is regulated, when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere it can experience external temperatures of 1600 degrees. Peake likens the landing to “a minor car crash” but insists journeying home at speeds of up to 27,000kph is “the most thrilling ride of your life.”

Ask an Astronaut by Tim Peake (Century) is out now, priced £20.


A picture of London aurora taken by ESA astronaut Tim Peake during his six-month Principia on the International Space Station.
Photograph by Esa, NASA

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