Last-minute glitch, but British astronaut Tim Peake docks with space station

Failure of automatic docking system gives hair-raising end to otherwise perfect voyage for Peake and crewmates to ISS

Britain’s first European Space Agency astronaut, Tim Peake, has docked with the International Space Station after a tense, last minute glitch with the Soyuz spacecraft forced the crew to make an unusual manual approach to the orbiting outpost.

Veteran Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko took control of the Soyuz capsule for the final stretch to the station after the automatic docking system failed to operate properly.

The three crew inside the capsule reached the right orbit to rendezvous with the station after a clean launch from Baikonur cosmodrome on Tuesday morning, but a last minute problem with the spacecraft meant the docking was delayed.

Tim Peake arrives at International Space Station – video

The fault made for a hair-raising end to an otherwise perfect ascent to the space station, though the failure of the automatic docking system is a fault the astronauts train well for. “We were a little bit worried on our side,” said Moscow mission control. The cause of the problem is not yet known.

The Soyuz used its onboard radar system to lock onto its destination before the space station was visible to Peake and his crewmates. Having docked, the crew had two hours of checks to run before they can open the hatch to their new home.

Peake blasted off on the six-month mission with Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra, and veteran Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko. By the time the trio arrive at the space station, they will have been cooped up in the Soyuz capsule for more than eight hours.

Peake says goodbye to his children from a bus before boarding the Soyuz rocket.
Peake says goodbye to his children from a bus before boarding the Soyuz rocket. Photograph: Reuters

It was a perfect launch that saw the Soyuz lift into the sky on a tower of flame at 11.03am GMT and give chase to the space station, which had soared overhead three minutes earlier. A camera in the capsule showed Tim Peake give a thumbs up as the first stage fell away from the rocket. Minutes later, a gravity indicator in the capsule began to float as the crew became weightless.

The 26 million horsepower rocket engines burn 270 tonnes of kerosene and liquid oxygen to catch up with the space station which circles the planet at 17,500mph, 400km above the surface.

Before takeoff, Peake said farewell to his wife, Rebecca, and their two young sons from behind a glass screen that protects the astronauts from picking up infections ahead of their trip into space. He later waved and gave a thumbs up to his children from the bus that takes the astronauts to the launchpad. Sitting on the shoulders of his grandfather, Peake’s youngest son cried: “I want to go with Daddy.”

As the crew suited up and got ready for launch, wellwishers sent Peake messages of good luck for the mission. Elton John, who released the track Rocket Man in 1972, said on Twitter: “From one Rocket Man to another, good luck @astro_timpeake with your launch and mission!”

Meet Tim Peake

Peake’s wife and children, and his parents Angela and Nigel, watched the launch from the VIP observation area more than a mile from the launchpad. Friends and relatives on the ground hugged each other with relief as the news that the craft had entered space came through. According to the Press Association, Rebecca was heard to say: “Wasn’t it an amazing sight? I had the biggest smile on my face.”

Peake, 43, was born in Chichester and worked as an army helicopter pilot and later a helicopter test pilot before being selected for the European astronaut corps in 2009. Until his selection, the British government had a policy that opposed the funding of human space flight. His trip to the space station comes 24 years after Helen Sharman, a chemist from Sheffield, became the first Briton in space at the age of 27. She flew to the Russian Mir space station as part of a privately-funded venture.

David Southwood, former director of science at the European Space Agency, watched the launch from London. “It was terrific. To my eyes it looked close to picture perfect. A lovely day with bright blue skies. It was really emotional. The whole of the tradition echoes right back to Gagarin,” he said.

Peake’s mission, Principia, centres on dozens of scientific experiments to explore how the body adapts to space, how advanced materials form in weightless conditions, and trialling new technologies, including remote control systems for operating rovers on planetary surfaces.

Piers Sellers, a Sussex-born scientist who moved to the US and flew three missions as a Nasa astronaut, said: “It’s wonderful to finally see an official UK astronaut go into space – something that all the rest of us have hoped for for years. I sure that Tim Peake will do a great job on station and that thousands of British kids will follow his adventure and be inspired by it. The Apollo programme did that for me.”

On arrival at the International Space Station, Peake and his crewmates will be greeted by the Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergey Volkov and Mikhail Korniyenko, who are already onboard. A keen photographer, Kelly captured the moment the Soyuz burst through the atmosphere en route to the station.

Tim Peake's amazing day


Ian Sample Science editor

The GuardianTramp

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