Even though Tim Peake is filled with “awe” every time he arrives at a space station, the first thing he needs to do is go to the toilet.
“There’s that juxtaposition, because on the one hand, you’re filled with a sense of awe and wonder,” the astronaut says.
“But on the other hand, as soon as you arrive on the space station, the first thing you need to do is go to the loo, then it’s the case of OK, here are the fire extinguishers. This is the emergency equipment, on with a job, on with normality, on with a routine.”
Peake, 51, would then get on with the all-encompassing job of being an astronaut, working 12-14 hour days.
“Space is a very busy place. It’s like going somewhere very remote and isolated like the Amazon Rainforest or Antarctica, where you leave your emails behind, the daily humdrum, and completely step outside of your life on [the] planet for six months,” says Peake, who is based in Chichester, West Sussex.
“I’ve been fortunate that there haven’t been any family emergencies whilst I’ve been in space, as that can be a constant worry, not being able to support them. I’d have to wait until the mission ends before coming home. And though I didn’t struggle with my mental health, it’s nice that space agencies give you access to a psychologist every two weeks, if you do need that kind of support.”
Before Peake was selected to join the European Space Agency’s (ESA) astronaut training programme in 2009, he was an Apache pilot, flight instructor and test pilot.
He admits becoming an astronaut wasn’t always the plan.
“I think that’s partly because I grew up in Britain, where we didn’t have astronauts and couldn’t be them. Now, that changed in 1991 when Helen Sharman visited the Mir space station [becoming the first British person in space]. But even then, that was a one-off.
“We weren’t part of any human spaceflight programme and didn’t have a space agency until 2010. To be an astronaut, you have to see it to believe it. It’s why I grew up thinking I was going to be a pilot.”
He realised it was achievable “later in life”.
“It’s why I still tell young people that space agencies are still looking for that STEM background, but most importantly they are looking for a level of commitment, professionalism, passion, dedication and all the soft skills that go into making a good astronaut. It has to be something you absolutely love with all your heart.”
In January this year, Peake announced he was retiring as an ESA astronaut, transitioning to an ambassador role for the agency.
Looking back, his favourite experience was in 2015, when he became the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station (ISS) and went spacewalking.
“You already get this amazing experience going into space, the rocket launch, rendezvousing and docking at the space station, living there, looking out over Earth and looking up at the Milky Way galaxy. But then to go outside the space station, it’s like another order of magnitude as to going into space.
“You just feel that freedom and exhilaration of floating in space with just a visor. It’s like going to the universe’s greatest IMAX movie theatre, and it’s all there. Right in front of you, to see this incredible sight, something that will change every astronaut forever. It’s hard to process.”
It’s why the cover of Peake’s new book Space: The Human Story — about the warmth, humour, humility and everyday lives of the 628 people who have left Earth — features the iconic photograph of a personal hero of his, the US astronaut Bruce McCandless during his remarkable untethered spacewalk, taken from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984.
“What Bruce did on that first spacewalk – going untethered out in the cargo bay and just disappearing for a few 100 metres off into the universe – that takes a huge amount of courage and faith in the equipment you’re operating,” Peake says.
“The photo is just so iconic. It’s a human who looks so small and fragile against this backdrop of the Earth and the blackness of space.
“For decades, humans have ventured off our home planet in search of answers. It reminds me of what we have achieved.”
But Peake believes that sometimes astronauts are put on a pedestal. “There was a ticker-tape parade when the Apollo astronauts came back after clearly landing on the moon. That was a life-changing event,” Peake explains.
“And I think as someone who has had the privilege to fly to space and spend six months living and working there, I thought it was important to tell the ordinary story of these people. The training, the mistakes that were made, the dilemmas with family back at home, to make astronauts more relatable — not diminish the work they have done. We are ordinary people who have the opportunity to do extraordinary things.”
So what do his two sons, Thomas and Oliver, think about his job? “We try and normalise family life as much as possible,” Peake says. “But occasionally I think they get surprised when people ask why they never told them that their dad was Tim Peake. And they would be like, why would I tell you my dad is Tim Peake? He’s just my dad.”
We’re in a new era of space travel, with the rise of space tourism and billionaires investing money into the sector. But Peake is still a firm believer that space should be for the benefit of everybody on Earth, with a focus on science and research.
“I don’t think there’s a huge appetite for watching high net worth individuals go and have a quick trip to space,” he suggests.
“Though I do think there is a greater number of the population who could potentially afford a flight to space in comparison to the 1920s and 30s. But often things start out because wealthy people invest money into it, so who knows where these things will end up?
“It just needs to be done in a sustainable and responsible way so we can protect the space environment for future generations, because I think we are going to start building big things in space like solar farms, printing live organs and manufacturing things in weightlessness.”
Space: The Human Story by Tim Peake is published by Century, priced £22. Available October 26.