Xerocon London 2019 went out on a high with Major Tim Peake CMG, the distinguished European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, taking to the stage. Tim launched into space on 15th December 2015 and spent almost 200 days onboard the International Space Station (ISS). He knows first-hand the power of technology in connecting people, having tweeted to the Queen from orbit and read bedtime stories to over two million children in zero-G.
He spoke with us about the importance of inspiring interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – and, of course, space.
One small step
Even though Tim watched all of the major space launches on TV, he didn’t dream about becoming an astronaut because he assumed that only the US was sending people into space. Instead, he wanted to fly. Supported by his caring parents, as well as his scout and cadet leaders, Tim said that the most important lesson he learnt was that failure isn’t something to be afraid of.
Tim followed his dream of becoming a test pilot – pushing aircraft to their limits and beyond – before deciding to return to school. His personality, experience and education made for an impressive CV, and Tim was selected for ESA’s new astronaut training programme.
Training for space
As it turns out, you can’t just hop on a rocket once you’re selected. Tim undertook two years of gruelling training to prepare him for every eventuality because, in space, you can’t call for help. A large part of Tim’s training took place at the cosmonaut preparation facility at the appropriately named Star City. To train here – and to control his Russian Soyuz spacecraft – Tim needed to read Russian. This, he says, was one of the hardest challenges he faced.
In addition to the linguistic requirements, Tim learned a variety of other skills. He undertook G-force training to learn how to breathe through his stomach instead of his chest. And learned to use the emergency manoeuvring unit – which is essentially a jetpack – if he became separated from the ISS, and flying parabolic arcs on an aircraft nicknamed the ‘Vomit Comet’ to get comfortable in zero-G.
Tim also had to develop his soft skills to help him stay calm under pressure. He was put in a cave and deprived of sleep, lived for 12 days on the seafloor, and had to brush up on all of the systems on the Station.
3… 2… 1… Lift-off
When Tim finally did launch in 2015, he said that the power, noise and vibration of the launch were so loud that he didn’t realise immediately that he’d left the launch pad. That’s no surprise since the rocket engines reach over 9 million horsepower. The launch takes just over eight minutes, during which time you’re forced back in your seat by the acceleration, and then suddenly become weightless.
Once at the International Space Station, Tim made up part of a global team, the epitome of international collaboration, starting and ending every day with an around the world call.
Trusting technology in space
The ISS is a platform for some of the most cutting-edge technology, including robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Virtual Reality, all in the hostile and unforgiving environment of space. Tim says that AI is particularly crucial as we push further into space, but that we need to be able to trust it and understand what we can use it for. He also discussed the importance of sustainability – he was a part of a closed-loop life support system that reused 80% of the water on board. On the station, a common saying is that ‘today’s warm wee is tomorrow’s nice tea.’
From space, it’s the Earth’s natural geology that stands out most. Mountains and volcanoes are the most striking, lit dramatically by the 16 sunsets and sunrises that the crew saw each day as they orbit around the earth. Tim also took us on a journey of the Earth’s atmosphere – just 16km, which is responsible for maintaining all of the life in the universe that we know of.
Tim’s incredible experiences in space were the product of years of training and dedication, which we can all admire. He wants to pay his experience forward and is focused on encouraging the next generation to pursue STEM. He has already reached over two million children through his education campaign, and he has big plans to launch the next generation to success – both here on Earth, and beyond.