Tim Peake, Britain’s first ESA astronaut, set for liftoff from Kazakhstan

Principia mission to International Space Station opens UK to serious involvement in human spaceflight

Three minutes after the International Space Station soars over Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the engines on the Soyuz rocket held fast on the launchpad below will roar into life and send British astronaut Major Tim Peake on his way.

The launch, planned for 11.03am GMT on Tuesday, marks the start of an inaugural six-month mission to the International Space Station for Peake, who in 2009 became the first Briton to join the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps. After six years of intense training, his turn to leave the planet has finally come.

From a standing start, the 50m-tall Soyuz can reach orbit within nine minutes and circle the planet four times before arriving at the space station six hours later. Barring any delays, Peake and his two Soyuz companions should dock at 5.23pm and open the hatch to their new crewmates and a far more spacious orbital home two hours later.

Watching from the observation site – an area of exposed land with spectator stands more than a mile from the launchpad – will be his wife, Rebecca, their two young boys, and Peake’s parents, Angela and Nigel. Standing with them will be Frank De Winne, the head of Europe’s astronauts, and the first from the member states to command the £150bn space station.

tim peake graphic

The last time a Briton flew in space without taking US citizenship was in 1991, when Helen Sharman visited the Russian Mir space station on the privately funded venture Project Juno. Now at Imperial College in London, she had a good luck message for Peake before launch. “Best wishes for a great mission,” she said. “Don’t forget to look out of the window and remember the colours you see!”

The rocket, a descendant of the Soviet Union’s R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile, was hauled to the launchpad by rail and erected under stunning blue skies at the weekend. A Russian orthodox priest walked around the rocket and cast holy water on to its fuselage and thrusters in a ritual that dates back to the mid-1990s and the fall of the Soviet Union. At launch, the rocket weighs 310 tonnes. More than 270 tonnes are kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Launches from Baikonur can be more visually dramatic than those from other sites, such as Nasa’s Kennedy space centre on Cape Canaveral, or the European Space Agency’s facility in Kourou, French Guiana. At those coastal sites, huge volumes of water are pumped under the rocket when the engines light up. The result is a cloud of white steam that erupts around the rocket base on liftoff. At Baikonur, situated in the middle of desert steppe far from the sea, there is no water on hand to dampen the flames, making takeoff a spectacular, fiery display.

David Southwood, a former director of science at the European Space Agency, recalls being taken aback during his first experience of a launch at Baikonur. “One sees much more in the way of flame and that can be disconcerting if one’s not expecting it,” he said.

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.

Charles Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at Edinburgh University, said Peake’s mission was an important moment that opened the UK to serious involvement in human spaceflight. That, he said, would allow researchers to do more science than was otherwise possible in fields as diverse as astrobiology and fluid physics. “This gives us access to the International Space Station and that whole experimental capability,” he said.

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.

“Human spaceflight is intrinsically exciting,” said Cockell. “It is still a great way to show what science can do. It inspires the next generation.”

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.

For some 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. 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.

Kevin Fong, who will give this year’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures on how to survive in space, wished Peake the best of luck for the mission. “We’ll be watching your launch with bated breath and both I and the audience here look forward to being part of your great adventure,” he said. “And if for any reason you need a stand-in at the last minute, do get the Russians to give me a ring.”


Ian Sample Science editor

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