24 Aug 2009

Space cadet: travelling with a British astronaut

“You’re Tim Peake, aren’t you?  The new British astronaut?”

He’s going to have to get used to being recognised. He’s at the departure gate at Gatwick about to board a flight to Orlando to see the latest space shuttle launched from the Kennedy Space Centre to the international space station. Tim is one of six new European Space Agency astronauts about to see first-hand just what they’ve signed up for.

It’s the first time Tim has seen a launch and he’s excited. I’m travelling with him and I’m stupidly excited. I’ve been reporting science for 20 years and it’s my first launch too. All those Dan Dare comics I read as a kid have a lot to answer for!
Timothy Peak (Reuters)

But he’s cool, is Tim. He politely makes conversation with the family who spotted him. They’re travelling to Florida see the Shuttle launch too.

Over the next couple of days, until launch in the early hours of Tuesday morning – weather permitting – Tim will be meeting other astronauts who’ll tell him what it really feels like to sit on top of a rocket and blast off into space; what it’s like to live on the international space station in weightlessness for months on end. Don’t you get bored with the food? Doesn’t it smell just a little bit? Where do you go if a fellow crew member gets on your nerves?

He’ll go out to Launch Pad 39A, up close to Discovery, the Shuttle that is waiting to take the latest crew to the space station on Tuesday – including the Swede, Christer Fuglesang, the ESA astronaut on this mission.

Ironically, Tim will never actually get to fly in a Shuttle. NASA retires them next year and the space station will be serviced by Russia’s Soyuz craft until 2015 at the earliest.

But he might fly on top of NASA’s new Ares rocket. All its stages were assembled for the first time just over a week ago. Tim will be able to look up at it, all 327 feet of it. Along with the Orion crew module it forms the Constellation spacecraft that NASA hopes will replace the Shuttles ferrying crews to the space station and be the vehicles that puts men back on the Moon and ultimately takes them to Mars.

Tim’s only here because last November Britain persuaded ESA to drop its requirement that European countries that wanted an astronaut on the space station had to buy the place with a cheque. Britain pulled out of funding ESA’s manned spaceflight programme some years ago and that’s not changed. The UK will continue to fund ESA satellite and robotic missions only, on the grounds they give better value for money. ESA recognises that’s a useful contribution, so Tim got his chance to face astronaut selection on ability alone.

And Tim’s got the ability. For starters, he’s a former Army test pilot who put Apache helicopters through their paces. But I’ll bet even he’ll be gobsmacked by what he sees while he’s here. They say you first see a launch… then you hear it… then you feel it. A deep, roaring thunder in your chest. Well see. Both of us. 

Channel 4 News science correspondent Julian Rush is with British astronaut Tim Peake at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.