Four years after his selection as a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut candidate, Britain’s Tim Peake has been formally named as a crewmember aboard Expedition 46/47 to the International Space Station. He will launch with Russian and U.S. crewmates aboard Soyuz TMA-19M in November 2015 and is expected to spend almost six months in orbit. Born in Chichester, England, Peake will not be the first Briton to enter space, but will be the first to officially represent the British government. News of Peake’s assignment was made public by the BBC and several U.K. publications Sunday, although the announcement from ESA was made Monday afternoon.
According to ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, the decision to select Peake was accepted by the ISS Multilateral Crew Operations Panel on Friday, 17 May. “When we recruited the six new ESA astronauts in May 2009, I made a promise to secure flight opportunities for all of them,” Dordain said. “Thanks to the decisions of the Member States at the Ministerial Council last November, we will be able to fulfil our commitment to fly all six newly-selected astronauts before the end of 2017.” Peake’s assignment makes him the fourth of the group to receive a mission. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano is scheduled to blast off from Baikonur aboard Soyuz TMA-09M on 28 May, followed by Germany’s Alexander Gerst in May 2014, and (under a separate contract with the Italian Space Agency) Italy’s first female spacefarer, Samantha Cristoforetti, in December 2014.
Launching in November 2015, Peake and his Soyuz TMA-19M teammates are expected to join incumbent ISS crewmen Scott Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergei Volkov. Kelly and Kornienko will fly to the station in March 2015 and will stage the first year-long mission aboard the ISS, whilst Volkov will join them in September-October and accompany them until the scheduled end of their tour in March 2016. Although several British sources—including The Guardian and the BBC—have speculated that Peake may perform an EVA, the flight is so far into the future that plans are almost certain to change. What is certain is the Peake will participate for the first time as a U.K. national, and with the Union Jack proudly displayed on the arm of his Sokol launch and entry suit.
Although several “Britons” have flown into space—the first being Helen Sharman, aboard Soyuz TM-12 to the Mir orbital station, back in May 1991—none of them have done so with the official backing and financial support of the U.K. government. Sharman’s eight-day voyage was a wholly commercial venture, conducted under the auspices of “Project Juno,” and will form part of a forthcoming AmericaSpace history article on the weekend of 25/26 May. Other astronauts, including Mike Foale, Piers Sellers, and Nick Patrick, were born in Britain, but were required to gain U.S. citizenship, ahead of selection by NASA. All three rode their missions into space with the Stars and Stripes on their sleeves, rather than the Union Jack. Still more, including Mark Shuttleworth and Richard Garriott, had dual nationality, but flew as paying “space tourists.”
Britain’s lack of a human space program has proven a surprise to many Britons—not least myself, for whom today’s news is tremendously exciting—when one considers that the U.K. was only the sixth nation to launch a home-grown satellite into orbit. Tiny Prospero was boosted aloft by a British-built Black Arrow rocket from Woomera, South Australia, in October 1971, and although the U.K. has proven a world leader in remote-sensing applications and satellite technology, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s virtually gutted any chance of a human space effort. At one stage, hopes were high that Royal Air Force officer Nigel Wood might fly aboard the shuttle in June 1986 as a payload specialist to oversee the deployment of the Ministry of Defence’s Skynet 4A communications satellite, but the loss of Challenger ended that possibility.
It came as a disappointment, but not a great surprise, when the ISS Intergovernmental Agreement was signed between the partners in January 1998 that Britain did not provide any financial contribution to the station. However, more recently, it was reported that Britain’s space industry currently provides around £9 billion ($13.7 billion) to the national economy each year and this provided David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, with an important leveraging tool to persuade Chancellor George Osborne to offer renewed support for ESA. In November 2012, at ESA’s Ministerial Council Meeting in Naples, Italy, the pan-European organization agreed a budget of 10 billion euros ($12.9 billion) over the next three to five years … of which 1.4 billion euros ($1.8 billion) would originate from Britain.
This contribution made the U.K. one of only three member-states to actually increase its financial commitment to the space program. As well as enabling ESA to press ahead with its plan to build the service module for NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration craft—based upon Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) technology—Britain’s investment also included a contribution of 14.6 million euros ($18.9 million) to the European Life and Physical Sciences (ELIPS) program, which has opened the door to actual research aboard the ISS … and to the flight of Tim Peake.
“This is a momentous day, not just for Tim Peake, but for Great Britain,” said Prime Minister David Cameron earlier today (Monday). “It is a great sign of our thriving British space sector, which has seen real growth thanks to our world-class research, and now supports nearly 30,000 jobs.”
With Peake now scheduled to take ESA’s next astronaut slot in November 2015, only two others from the new class—France’s Thomas Pesquet and Denmark’s Andreas Mogensen—remain to be formally assigned to upcoming missions. However, it has been known for some time that Mogensen will likely fly aboard Soyuz TMA-18M in September-October 2015, alongside Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and English soprano Sarah Brightman, but only for about ten days. With Pesquet then expected to pick up the next ESA long-duration slot in November 2016, this will make Mogensen the only member of the 2009 astronaut class not to draw a lengthy flight assignment. Earlier today (Monday), the website NASASpaceflight.com reported that the most likely reason for this is Denmark’s relatively benign financial contribution to the ESA budget. Still, when Mogensen flies, he will become the first Dane to venture into space.
For many Britons, today’s announcement of 41-year-old Tim Peake—a former Royal Army Air Corps officer and veteran Apache helicopter test pilot—comes as exciting and heartening news in a nation where human space flight has often been overlooked. The astronaut-to-be announced that he was “delighted” at the assignment, describing it as “another important mission for Europe and in particular a wonderful opportunity for European science, industry, and education to benefit from microgravity research.” Peake’s mission will undoubtedly enable him to participate in many outreach activities to enthuse fellow Britons to dream big and reach for the stars … though he has admitted he is a step or two behind Chris Hadfield in the musical stakes. “I do play the guitar, but very badly,” he said, “and I wouldn’t impose my singing on anybody!”
At the very least, we can expect a distinctly British accent—and hopefully a touch of British humor, too—to crackle across the space-to-ground airwaves in late 2015.
And I will certainly be cheering him along.
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