Meet the adventurer: astronaut Tim Peake on failure, flying and the future of space tourism

In 2015, Major Tim Peake became the first British ESA astronaut to visit the International Space Station. Now an author and charity ambassador, he discusses the future of space travel, from sustainable jet fuels to putting a woman on the moon.

By Amelia Duggan
Published 6 Oct 2022, 15:00 BST
Major Tim Peake, who's clocked up an impressive 186 days in space.

Major Tim Peake, who's clocked up an impressive 186 days in space.

Photograph by Getty Images

Was there something in your childhood that set you on your path to space?

I’ve always liked to explore what's around the corner, to go into the unknown. Growing up there was a huge emphasis on extracurricular activities, such as Scouts and cadets, and lots of outbound activities and adventure training. I'm passionate about trying to give young people opportunities to do that, through the Prince’s Trust and now as an ambassador for the Scouts.

When I was 18, I went to Alaska on a Raleigh expedition and spent three months there, which was so powerful for me. We kayaked around Prince William Sound and went up into the glaciers of Denali National Park. I couldn't believe how precious and special this wild environment was, where there's so much wildlife. I think that sowed the seeds of my desire to explore, to just push yourself a little bit harder.

What would you recommend to anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?

I would say, don't follow my route! There’s an easy way, probably. I left school with poor A-levels and entered the Army Air Corps, spending 18 years as a military pilot. When the army were trying to pull me away from the cockpit, trying to send me up the career chain, I said, “No, I want to fly.” So, I became an instructor pilot and, later, a test pilot; and I got my degree, aged 33, in flight dynamics.

If I’d not stayed true to my passion for flying, I'd never have had the qualifications and the operational experience to go for astronaut selection in 2008 when the European Space Agency (ESA) decided to open the doors to all its member states [including the UK, which did not contribute to the human spaceflight programme]. So, life’s all about continuing to do what drives you, and being true and honest to yourself.

What’s been the most memorable moment of your career?

The spacewalk, without a doubt. There's something incredibly special about leaving the sanctuary of the space station. It’s probably the one moment in my life that I haven't fully processed yet. And I've spoken to several astronauts who say the same thing: we remember the experience, we know it's had a very powerful effect on us, but it's very hard to put it into words. It's almost as if the human consciousness is put in a position it was never designed to be in, looking down on the cradle of life, while floating in a space suit.

What do you think of the plans to put a woman on moon in the next few years?  

It’s fantastic and a long time coming. There are a few stages: what we're going to see this year is the first uncrewed rocket to the moon — that’s Artemis 1. The first crewed rocket is scheduled for next year, which will go around the moon, a bit like Apollo 8 — it won't land on the surface. And then Artemis 3, after that, probably in 2025 or 2026, will be boots on the moon again.

We're always aiming for more diversity in our astronaut corps in terms of gender, but also in terms of career breadth and experience, because what makes a fantastic team is having people who bring different pieces of the puzzle together. We've had teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, test pilots. We're probably about 30-35% women in the ESA (the NASA selection processes have been better, around 50%), so we're still trying to get more women to apply to become an astronaut.

Why is space travel important when there are so many problems to solve on Earth?

I think the first thing to address is the cost because a lot of people assume it’s expensive. As a UK taxpayer, you're paying about £1.50 a year. And it's not money that's being wasted out in space. It's all about amazing scientific research, focused on people on Earth: we're developing energy technologies like solar panel efficiency and carbon dioxide removal systems. We've got water purification systems that are now deployed all throughout Africa. We're looking at disease prevention, so drugs for Huntington's, Parkinson's, motor neurone disease. We've done vaccine research on MRSA, on HIV, on salmonella. Weightlessness is a brilliant environment to do a lot of this work. And we’re creating meaningful jobs in the UK space sector, too, whether it's Surrey Satellites, Goonhilly Earth Station or Airbus in Stevenage. The list is endless in terms of what space is giving to us. I think we get a huge amount of bang for our buck.

What do we stand to lose if space collaboration is affected by political tensions between Russia and the West?

We’ve been working with Russia for over 20 years on the ISS programme, and it's been extremely effective. And that still has to continue — right now onboard the space station, and at the control centres. If Moscow Mission Control Center isn't talking to Houston, then the Space Station’s not going to function. Collaboration has continued throughout other political difficulties; for example, I was training during the Crimea Crisis.

But what concerns me is the future. The space station will retire in 2030 due to engineering reasons, and Russia and China have already stated they will not work on the Artemis programme — they intend to conduct their own lunar missions.

We need to continue to collaborate and work together; space is a very hostile and difficult environment. At the very least we need to be in a position where all of the docking systems are common, so we can help each other in emergency circumstances.

What do you think about the future of space tourism?

Companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are simply popping up into space for five minutes of weightlessness and not achieving orbit, but Axiom Space are looking at building a new space station onto the ISS when in retires in 2030, which will be available for any fare-paying customers. When we travel to space, I think we should be trying to achieve something positive for everybody, like scientific research, and it needs to be done responsibly, in a regulated way that doesn’t introduce more space debris – and in terms of investing in sustainable fuels. And I'm working with a few companies who are looking at eco fuel, trying to make sure that we find a much cleaner, greener fuel. We need to move towards a net zero environment.

What type of travel attracts you on Earth?

I've always loved skiing and hiking, and diving, too. Our most recent family holiday was to Iceland, somewhere I'd never been before. It was so interesting from a geothermal perspective. We explored parts that are more remote, like the north west, and some glaciers. Earlier in the year, we were sea kayaking and camping around Cornwall — so a bit closer to home. I think it's important to introduce your children, if you can, to nature and to more simple ways of living. To appreciate living in the present and to look at what we've got around us.

What’s next for you?

I've got a couple of children’s fiction books coming out, which are about aliens and space travel. It’s my take on how we might make contact. I've got a live tour around the UK in September, and it’s brilliant getting out and meeting people. I also want to try and explore some of the areas of the planet that I haven't seen: it’s early days, but I'm looking at doing a South Pole expedition next year.

British astronaut Tim Peake was interviewed in conjunction with the release of Disney’s Lightyear (2022), available to stream on Disney+.

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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