Horizon: Tim Peake Special – How to Be an Astronaut review: a lesson in feeling inadequate

Major Tim Peake is Britain’s first European Space Agency astronaut and has all the qualities of a modern-day hero

Suddenly I feel inadequate, as a human being, as a father. In many ways, I have a lot in common with Tim Peake. We’re both fine physical specimens, at the peak of health and fitness. Brilliant at what we do, but modest, we’re also family men, great dads with a couple of small boys each. We’ve even both got a Thomas.

So, Thomas, what does your daddy do? Well, sometimes he goes to a boring office, but mostly he just sits on the sofa watching TV. And other Thomas? My daddy’s an astronaut, he trains in the United States and Russia, and on Tuesday he’s going in a rocket, to space.

Yeah, yeah … no, really, he is. Tim Peake is Britain’s first European Space Agency astronaut and tomorrow will become the first to clamber into the International Space Station. There will be a lot of him on the BBC in the coming months, regular updates of what he is up to up there. Can you hear me, Major Tim? (He was an officer in the army, before becoming a helicopter test pilot, and then an astronaut.) But first Horizon: Tim Peake Special – How To Be An Astronaut (BBC2, Sunday), which has followed him around as he gets ready for blast off. It’s fascinating and brilliant, of course it is; Tim is going in a rocket, to space.

So here he is at Star City in Moscow, cycling around the same 1960s Soviet buildings that Uri Gagarin trained in, being extra careful not to fall off; one small slip, a gravitational mishap, at this stage, could jeopardise Tim’s opportunity to overcome gravity big time later. Now he’s experiencing gravity big time – in a centrifuge, like a fairground ride from hell: 5G, 6G, 7G, 8G … “It’s like having an elephant sitting on your chest,” he says. Obviously, Tim is fine with an elephant on his chest.

To the launch site in Kazakhstan, for a launch. This time, Tim is just back-up crew, but he’ll be on the next one up. It’s his first up-close encounter with a Soyuz rocket, and it’s a significant moment. He has been told that they are shorter than you expect – Soyuz rockets are similar to celebrities like that. But Tim has prepared for this (I think Tim prepares for everything), so in fact it’s bigger than he expected, and he is the opposite of disappointed. He would probably be impressed by Tom Cruise in the flesh.

There is something very nice about Tim Peake; obviously he’s incredibly level-headed and balanced, as well as being fit and technically minded and all the other things you need to be if you’re going to be an astronaut. But he is also really excited and gets the wonder and the joy in what he’s doing, making him something of a boy dreamer.

To Houston, no problem, where his family – wife Rebecca, plus Thomas and Oliver – have moved, and where a lot of the training takes place. The boys are old enough to take an interest in what he is doing, even if they are most interested in what the loo situation is like on the ISS (I would like to have known more about that too, actually). Tim is training in the pool for a space walk, doing hours of simulated cable laying (that means laying actual cables, not having a massive poo, sorry boys). When he is craned out, his helmet removed, Thomas and Oliver run up to him, wrap themselves round his still-space-suited legs, jump up and down with excitement. I think Tim is pretty much guaranteed hero status for life with those two. I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit jealous; the rest of us with proper jobs – TV critic etc – have to work a bit harder at it.

I’m not sure Kenny Everett would have been natural astronaut material, though his dispatches from orbit would have been interesting. The World According to Kenny Everett (ITV, Sunday) is fairly standard tribute fare – you know, clips plus starry colleagues and friends saying how marvellous he was. I think how much you enjoy it would depend on where you stand with Kenny, and I never really got him.

I do like his wife Lee’s account of how they came to be married. He had always been her “little gay friend”, but one day John Lennon gave them some very strong LSD, which they took and decided they loved each other. They did love each other, just not in all the ways. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned about big life decisions and being on acid when you make them … though actually the marriage did last a surprisingly long time, so maybe not.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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