Could you be an astronaut? Tim Peake reveals what it takes

Technical abilities, language skills and a passion for communicationare are just some of the qualities sought by space agencies

By Oli Reed
Published 9 Nov 2018, 12:02 GMT
NASA astronaut Tim Kopra floats alongside the International Space Station during a spacewalk.
NASA astronaut Tim Kopra floats alongside the International Space Station during a spacewalk.
Photograph by NASA

Do astronauts still require a background as a military pilot?

The selection process has changed and will continue to change depending on the demands of the mission. The demand nowadays isn’t for military test pilots but it is for people who can spend long duration on a space station with a diversity of skills. That skill set opens up the selection to a greater number of people. When I was selected in 2008 it wasn't just Europe having a selection. NASA, Japan and Canada all had astronaut selections in that year. Out of all of those selected astronauts, 50 per cent came from military piloting backgrounds and 50 per cent from medical doctors, scientists, engineers, school-teachers and so on.

Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin plays a guitar in the International Space Station.
Photograph by NASA

Could we see poets, musicians, artists on the ISS?

There’s no reason why someone who has been a musician all their life shouldn’t go to astronaut selection and have all the qualities they need to become a very good astronaut; hard skills such as concentration, memory retention, spatial awareness, a bit of maths and engineering (everyone needs that), but also soft skills such as communication, cultural awareness, teamwork, leadership. If you have that skill set you can be a very successful astronaut, regardless of your background.

Is there a healthy future for British astronauts?

It's a very exciting future, in space in general. By handing over the space station to commercial [companies] it’s opening up all sorts of opportunities. The national space agencies are not going to be the only players in town. In fact, they don’t want to be the only players in town. We want the cost factor of space to come down and we want commercial companies to become more involved. This will open up opportunities for astronauts all over the world.

Scientific and technical skills are vital for astronauts to conduct experiments in space. Here, Tim Peake waters pea and corn seedlings.
Photograph by Esa, NASA

How important is it for astronauts to be ambassadors for their mission and space?

It was hugely important to me personally. When I was assigned to this mission I realised how important it was for the UK in particular. It had been over 20 years since Helen Sharman flew as the first British astronaut. I sat down with the UK space agency and said: ‘Look, this is such an important mission; we need to make sure we maximise it.’ One of the things we were trying to achieve was an educational outreach programme. It was no secret that we had a shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills in the UK of young people graduating without the necessary qualifications. Industry is crying out for more graduates with these kinds of skills. Also, space is such a fantastic, wonderful platform to get people excited, not just in STEM subjects, but in all sorts of areas. So we came up with a plan about how we would approach this from an educational outreach point of view. It came from a personal desire of mine but also a strategy in trying to encourage young people to look at science and space exploration in a different way.

The Mars Odyssey was designed to explore the composition of Mars, detect water and ice close to the surface, and study the planet's radiation; all vital knowledge for a human voyage to the red planet.
Photograph by NASA

What are space agencies looking for in an astronaut?

Right now we’re discussing the selection criteria for the next set of European astronauts that will hopefully be selected in 2020 or 2021. Whereas my class was selected for long duration on the ISS, this next set we’ll be specifically selecting for deep space missions such as LOP-G (Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway). Their career timeframes might even take them through to Mars missions as well. There are different psychological requirements for a trip to Mars than a six-month stay on board the space station.

Tim Peake (left) trains underwater with fellow astronauts at the Aquarius Reef Base.
Photograph by Mark Widick, NASA

What kind of training did you find most valuable?

Without a doubt it was the NEEMO mission, which is NASA’s extreme environment missions operations; that's underwater. There’s a habitat called Aquarius, a small module which sleeps six people. It has a small galley table, a science area and a wet porch. It’s about 25 metres under the ocean, about eight miles off the Florida Keys. Key Largo. NASA used that to run space missions. In our case NASA were looking at going to an asteroid so we were using the surface of the ocean as a simulated asteroid surface; we were exploring techniques of how you can translate around an asteroid, how you can do scientific surveys of it, what kind of propulsion techniques you can use. It was absolutely fantastic. It was run with a mission control back in Florida, just as you’d expect a space mission to be run. We even introduced a 90-second time delay in all communications to simulate the distance to an asteroid. As a person who loves diving, I thoroughly enjoyed being there for 12 days. Every day we would dive out of the habitat and do all our experiments.

It's essential to have a good grasp of Russian to be an astronaut. It's the only language spoken at the Soyuz launchpad.
Photograph by NASA, Victor Zelentsov

What languages do astronauts need to speak?

We spoke English on the ISS. But we also have to learn Russian. Since 2011, when the Space Shuttle retired, everyone on the space station flew up there on the Soyuz and they will continue to do so until the American commercial vehicles come online next year or early 2020. For anyone who flies on the Soyuz, the only language spoken inside is Russian. There’s no English translation. Also, when we work in the Russian segment, I’m talking to mission control and to the Russian crew in Russian. We have to achieve an intermediate to high level of Russian before we’re allowed to fly to the space station.

The frustrating thing is you get extremely good at very technical Russian, then you go to the supermarket, thinking you’re good at Russian and you can hardly order your week’s groceries.

Astronauts need to be prepared for a lengthy spell in confined, sterile conditions on board the International Space Station. Here, Tim Peake works on an experiment.
Photograph by Esa, NASA

What is the most annoying/ uncomfortable/ irritating thing about being an astronaut?

The most frustrating thing is the monotony of the atmosphere: the lighting, the air, the temperature. As somebody who loves the outdoors, I never felt too claustrophobic or cooped up, but I did long for change. I missed the fresh air, the rain on my face, being outdoors. The space station is a very sterile, clinical environment. You’re surrounded by complex machinery and scientific experiments; you’re living in a laboratory.

Down in the Russian segment of the space station, I’m not sure why, they have carpeted walls and floors. They have a few posters up around the galley table of green fields, spring flowers, trees. We used to eat down there and it completely changes you. You feel you can breathe and relax if you see pictures of nature whilst you eat your meal. It was very nice psychologically to go into a different environment with softer lighting and a change of scene.

How important are the fun elements of a mission? You famously ran a marathon and presented a Brit Award from on board the ISS.

I can guarantee a huge part of the mission will be to continue the STEM and educational outreach. A lot of the things the mission became known for – like the marathon and the Brit Awards – were fun things thrown in there at the last minute. It wasn't part of some big strategy. But it helped people relate to the fact that we’re just normal people up there doing an extraordinary job.

Does an appetite for space and science fiction entertainment help?

I enjoy watching sci-fi movies. Interstellar I saw recently: an incredibly brave and ambitious movie in terms of trying to get across complex principles of astrophysics. At Stephen Hawking’s memorial I met Kip Thorne who was scientific adviser on that movie. To take on concepts such as wormholes, gravitational time dilation, and what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole – and still make the movie entertaining – was very ambitious. They did a great job of it.

I loved the book The Martian and the movie did a good job of portraying a lot of the scientific accuracy of how you could live for an extended period on Mars.

The movie Gravity fell down a little bit in the science fiction; it’s not the most accurate movie in the world but if you accept it’s Hollywood then there was some wonderful cinematography. In terms of being able to portray what Earth looks like from space, they did a wonderful job. I thought ‘Wow! That's very accurate. That's what I was seeing from the space station.’

And what about Star Wars?

Star Wars I loved and I’ve been a huge fan all my life; hugely entertaining. I think what’s great about these movies is they open people’s minds to the potential and possibility of what might be out there. It encourages people to think of the universe differently.

I prefer films where it’s almost believable because the science is almost there and it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination. That's where movies are very clever; they take what’s known today and stretch it a little bit.

Now read about the European Space Agency's next missions.

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