British astronaut Tim Peake prepares for liftoff to International Space Station

Peake and his two colleagues are already on board Soyuz rocket as final countdown to liftoff begins

British astronaut Tim Peake will make his landmark flight to the International Space Station on Tuesday morning after two weeks in quarantine, six years of preparation and 6,000 hours of intense training.

Peake’s family, including his wife, their two young sons and his parents, will be watching from the observation site a mile from the launchpad at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as the Soyuz rocket lifts off carrying the first Briton to join the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps.

Final goodbyes have been said to the crew’s families, who waved flags from the pavement with the message: “Go Tim, go”, before the crew were taken to the 50 metre-tall 310-tonne rocket, which is carrying more than 270 tonnes of kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Peake’s youngest son, Oliver, who sat on the shoulders of his grandfather, cried as his father left. “I want to go with Daddy,” he said, clutching a flag and a soft toy as his mother consoled him.

On Monday night, Peake spent his last few hours on Earth before his six-month trip with his close family, though behind a glass screen, with his wife, Rebecca, posting a picture of their elder son wrapped in a union flag.

A fun and relaxed farewell visit. We've had such a great support crew with us.Thanks everyone & @astro_timpeake 🚀😘🇬🇧

— Rebecca Peake (@beckspeake) December 14, 2015

The British astronaut and his two colleagues rose at 8am local time (02.30 GMT) for their final medical tests and to change into their special Sokol suits, worn during takeoff.

ESA spokesman Juan de Dalmau told BBC Breakfast: “So far so good in Baikonur; we know the crew is ready. They are on top of the rocket and they should have liftoff on time at 11.03am London time for a six-hour trip to the International Space Station.”

Go Tim! @astro_timpeake family saying Bon voyage #Principia @OpenUniversity @OUstudents #xmaslectures

— Monica Grady (@MonicaGrady) December 15, 2015

Last tweet before launch - GO for flight! Thanks for all the good luck messages - phenomenal support! #Principia

— Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) December 15, 2015

@astro_timpeake, @astro_tim and Yuri just left the Cosmonaut Hotel. Time to put on the Sokhol suit! :) #Principia

— Romain CHARLES (@Romain_CHARLES) December 15, 2015

The astronauts have taken an elevator to the top of the Soyuz rocket and will be strapped in as part of the final preparations before launch. Liftoff is three minutes after the ISS soars over the Baikonur cosmodrome, reaching orbit in nine minutes.

The journey to their new home will take six hours, however, with the Soyuz orbiting the planet four times before their arrival at 5.23pm.

Rituals before liftoff are important, a Russian orthodox priest has walked around the rocket and cast holy water on to its fuselage and thrusters, a tradition that dates back to the mid-1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Peake and his crew also received a personal blessing before they left for the rocket.

In a more crude ritual, crew members urinate on the wheels of the bus taking them to the launch pad, a tradition said to have been started by the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, though it has never been witnessed by anyone outside an inner circle of astronauts.

Parents of astronaut Tim Peake: ‘We wanted him to be a banker!’

The European Space Agency often asks the public to name forthcoming missions to the space station. For Peake’s stint in space, more than 20 people suggested “Principia” after Newton’s seminal work in 1687 that laid out his laws of motion and gravity. The mission name was adopted, along with a mission badge that bears a falling apple.

Peake’s main role is to run or take part in dozens of experiments on the station, which orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 248 miles (400km) and speed of 17,500mph. He is trained to use equipment in Europe’s science lab, the Columbus module, but also on apparatus used for US, Canadian and Japanese research.

Some experiments take advantage of the weightless environment. Metal alloys solidify differently in space, and understanding why could lead to stronger, lighter materials here on Earth. Work on protein crystals that form in freefall could open up new avenues for vaccine development.

In other experiments, Peake will be a human guinea pig. He will have a portable gas mask to monitor molecules in his breath. In the future, it could be used to check whether astronauts on a lunar base are suffering from inhaled moon dust. Other tests will look at the effects of living in space on the immune system.

Tim Peake's journey to the ISS

Stress seems to be a factor that causes about half of astronauts to be sick when they return. In orbit, astronauts see 16 sunrises and sunsets every day. What that does to the body clock, and how its effects can be managed, will help future astronauts but also people who do shift work on Earth.

Before the mission, Peake threw himself into the role of ambassador for science, touring schools and colleges to discuss the mission with students.

At a packed briefing at the Science Museum in London before he left for Kazakhstan, Peake said the schoolchildren of today could be among the first humans to walk on Mars. During his mission, Peake hopes to use the station’s robotic arm to capture incoming supply vessels, and venture outside on one of the planned space walks.


Ian Sample and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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