Last week, Britons got some exciting space news. Astronaut Tim Peake has been selected to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015 on a five month mission. This isn’t exciting news simply because Peake is a Briton, it’s exciting because he’s the first Briton to make it through the astronaut selection process and secure a crew assignment as a representative of the UK.
Britain has a short history in space. The first Briton to fly was Helen Sharman. The then 27-year-old chemist from the Mars Confectionery company left Earth aboard Soyuz TM-12 on May 18, 1991, spent 11 days on the Mir space station, and returned to Earth on May 26. But her way up was non traditional.
In 1989, Sharman heard a radio ad: “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.” She answered the call and was eventually selected from over 13,000 applicants to become the British member of the Russian scientific space mission, Project Juno. She spent 18 months preparing for the flight at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Star City, a site about 30km north-east of Moscow, where she learned Russian and prepared to carryout science experiments in orbit.
Then she lost her ticket.
The project was nearly called off because the Juno consortium couldn’t raise enough money for the flight. In the end, the Russians stepped in. Rather than leave Sharman flightless, the Russian space agency decided to pick up the tab and sponsor the former Mars chemist. When Sharman went to space, she wasn’t quite a tourist and she wasn’t quite an astronaut. But at least she was there. That one short mission was the only one of Sharman’s career. She did apply to join the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) astronaut corps in 1992 and again 1998 but was never selected.
In the 22 years since Sharman’s flight, three more Britons have flown in space. Their paths were different: each became a naturalized US citizen and flew as NASA astronauts. Michael Foale was the first. Selected in 1987, he made his first spaceflight as part of the STS-45 crew (which was commanded by NASA’s current administrator Charlie Bolden) in 1992. Foale made five more flights: STS-56, STS-63, STS-84/MIR-23/MIR-24/STS-86, STS-103, and Soyuz-TMA-3. The second Briton was Piers Sellers, one of NASA’s 1996 group of astronauts whose first flight was on STS-112 in 2002. Sellers added two more flights to his career: STS-121 and STS-132. And finally Nicholas Patrick, who was selected in 1998 and made two flights: STS-116 in 2006 and STS-130 in 2010.
So four Britons have flown in space, but none has done so as British astronauts. And that’s where Peake, a former Army helicopter pilot who joined ESA’s astronaut corps in 2009, is set to break with tradition.
Peake’s flight assignment is being hailed as a major boost for the UK’s space industry. Fears that the UK astronaut would be assigned a short-duration mission owing to the country’s relatively modest contributions to ESA and the ISS were allayed when the five month mission was announced. And Peake’s path might be one that sky-watching Britons could hope to follow.
Since he was selected as an astronaut, Peake has gone through a rigorous, 14-month training programme that included visits to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, the Russian astronaut training centre in Star City, a stint at the Tsukuba Space Centre in Japan, and a two week survival course in Sardinia. And of course, the real training begins now. With about two years to launch, Peake will start mission-specific training with ISS partners before long.
Hopefully, it’ll turn out that Peake is the first in a long line of (officially) British astronauts.