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Major Tim waits to fly the Union flag in space

Jonathan Amos | 16:35 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010

The UK never expected to have one of its nationals selected in the recent intake of new astronauts at the European Space Agency (Esa).

Why should it have? The country does not contribute to Esa's human spaceflight programme; working on the principle that underpins the optional programmes at the agency ("what you put in, you get out"), the UK certainly had no "right" to an astronaut.

But Major Tim Peake was selected - on merit - and on Monday graduated from basic training. Hopes have been raised that we will finally see an "official British astronaut" in orbit soon.

Tim Peake receives his certificate on graduation

Tim Peake receives his Esa astronaut certificate from Michel Tognini, head of the astronaut corps

Remember, all those UK-born individuals who have flown to date have done so on private programmes (Sharman, Garriott) or as US citizens (Foale, Sellers, Patrick).

The closest thing to a government-sponsored Brit in orbit was when four forces personnel trained as Skynet payload assistants for shuttle flights in the 1980s. Sadly, they lost their chance in the fall-out from the Challenger accident.

So, Major Tim flies the flag. Literally? And when? Well, there are worst-case and best-case scenarios.

All are set against the background of the US retiring its seven-seat shuttles next year, reducing the flight opportunities for all nations' astronauts. From then on, the three-seat Russian Soyuz is going to be the sole route to orbit for several years ahead.

The next three European opportunities to go into space are already spoken for: Paolo Nespoli (Italy) goes to the ISS in the next few weeks; Roberto Vittori (Italy) will launch on the final Endeavour shuttle flight in February; and Andre Kuipers (Netherlands) will go to the ISS on a Soyuz at the end of 2011.

These are what you might call the "old-guard" astronauts: the agency's veterans.

How long will it be before a new generation of American capsules is introduced?

Once their missions are done, the baton is almost certainly going to be passed to the Class of 2010 - Tim Peake and his five fellow astronaut rookies: Samantha Cristoforetti (Italy), Alexander Gerst (Germany), Andreas Mogensen (Denmark), Luca Parmitano (Italy), and Thomas Pesquet (France).

The earliest any one of them can get into orbit will be the May of 2013. This assignment has got to go to an Italian because it is a flight granted to the country as an in-kind payment for its production of the MPLMs.

The Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules have been the packing boxes that shuttles have used these past eight years to take supplies up to the space station. It was a clever barter agreement the Italian space agency (Asi) organised for itself with the Americans.

It means that either Luca Parmitano or Samantha Cristoforetti would be expected to be the first to fly.

The next opportunity is a 2014 flight to the ISS. This is part of Esa's entitlement as an 8% space station partner. It has a right to fly one of its astronauts on the platform for a period of six months, every two years.

The third opportunity, in 2015, is another of the Asi-guaranteed slots (guaranteed to an Italian national).

Beyond 2015, no opportunities have been set in stone but on the current schedule, there ought to be at least a further two Esa-nominated seats on a rocket before the decade's end, perhaps in 2017 and 2019.

Now, there is a cynical view out there that says Major Tim must be at the back of the queue simply because he's British.

The French and Germans, who pay most towards the space station programme, will ensure "their people" go first - so the argument goes. But there is good reason to believe such pessimism is skewed.

For one thing, France and Germany are not the European Space Agency - there are 16 other member states, eight of whom also contribute to the ISS programme.

Tim Peake

Major Tim is prepared to play the long game

If France and Germany were really that persuasive, Major Tim would never have been selected in the first place. He's there because he's good - because he was an "exceptional candidate", as one Esa official involved in his selection told me.

In addition, there are noises that the flight opportunities can be increased.

Russia currently produces four Soyuz vehicles a year. The ISS partners are talking about increasing the production to five a year.

This is a prospect which could pay particular dividends for the Europeans, the Canadians and the Japanese, the three "junior partners" on the ISS, because their flight opportunities will never match those of the Americans and Russians.

This option has its complications, however. More astronauts at the station means a greater requirement for supplies. That would have to be managed carefully. Not all of the robotic freighters scheduled to take stores to the ISS this decade have proved their capability.

The other scenario that could increase particularly European flight opportunities is if the current six-month residencies Esa enjoys at the platform are split into two stays of three months.

And whatever your feelings about the course taken by US spaceflight policy in recent months, it is possible that the Americans will have introduced at least one new commercial crew taxi service by 2016, perhaps even two new vehicles.

Major Tim is philosophical. He knows the score, but tells me he's definitely in for the long haul:

"The space industry takes peaks and troughs, and in some respects the six new astronauts joined in something of a trough, with the cancellation of the US Constellation programme and the retirement of the shuttles. But it is like everything: you look to the future. Commercial transportation is a very exciting venture; there is the potential for Soyuz production to increase, and for the life expectancy of the ISS to be increased. The situation is quite optimistic. People are now looking not just to ISS but to the next step in the 2020s."



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  • 1. At 4:52pm on 22 Nov 2010, DavidFever wrote:

    Against all odds the lad finds glory.

    Dare I say.. very British? :x

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  • 2. At 12:09pm on 23 Nov 2010, Freeman wrote:

    Great news...especially for Major Tim. :)

    Oh for the day we have a government with a spine that will commit to manned space flight.

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  • 3. At 3:35pm on 23 Nov 2010, LucyJ wrote:

    Good luck, Tim!!! :)

    People say Why?
    Well, Why not?

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  • 4. At 6:15pm on 23 Nov 2010, John Knight wrote:

    It seems we are short of crew transporters, so why doesn't an enterprising ESA or even, god forbid, UKSA, build one. After all there was talk about conversion of the ESA space truck being modified to carry astronauts.
    I've always wondered why Europe never bothered to developed its own transport and clearly there is a definite need. By offering it to other nations wouldn't it pay for itself?
    Anyway I'm really jealous of Major Tom(oh! sorry Tim, apologies I was into a David Bowie moment then!) good luck, you are living mine, and I suspect a lot of others, dream.

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  • 5. At 11:27am on 24 Nov 2010, Stuart wrote:

    You state "Now, there is a cynical view out there that says Major Tim must be at the back of the queue simply because he's British."

    NO - he is at the back of the queue because UK Gov't declined to invest in ISS or Ariane's 1 - 5 or manned space activities.
    He is lucky to be in the queue at all, since ESA work on a 'juste retour' principle ie. you only get out what you put in, and then only if you are good. (which I agree that Major Tim is)
    The questions to be asking are a) why didn't we invest in the past ? b) are we going to invest in the future ? (in both senses) c) when are we going to realise that we don't have an automatic right to a place at the 'top table' without paying for it. eg. a Permanent member of the UN Security Council.
    As usual the UK wants the benefits without paying for them. This is why Germany and France are cynical about the UK position.


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  • 6. At 1:55pm on 24 Nov 2010, melty wrote:

    "Remember, all those UK-born individuals who have flown to date have done so on private programmes (Sharman, Garriott) or as US citizens (Foale, Sellers, Patrick)."

    Jonathan, are you sure that Piers Sellers was the beneficiary of a "private programme"? I think you will find that his training was accomplished at the RAF and NASA.

    Major Tim -- somehow reminds me of David Bowie... oh wait, that was Major Tom.

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  • 7. At 2:50pm on 24 Nov 2010, Stephen Ashworth wrote:

    Yes, this is all very interesting, but I have to say it is irrelevant to long-term progress in space. With all due respect to Major Tim, what matters for the future is not when exceptional people, the best of the best with national flags on their shoulders, fly, but when relatively ordinary people can fly as private citizens. Richard Garriott is far more a pointer to growth in spaceflight than Tim Peake.

    There was a time when the UK should have put public funding into manned spaceflight by specialist government astronauts. That time is over. Those astronauts cannot achieve much more than they already have done. We now need to see public support for private-sector initiatives like Skylon, Spacebus and (in Germany) Sänger. The Americans are (reluctantly) leading the way with the NASA programmes in support of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.

    If Europe wants to be a player in the future of spaceflight, then it must know by now the formula to follow: seedcorn funding to get reusable spaceplanes flying, and public and commercial access to space, firstly for the ultra-rich, later for the not-so-rich, and later still for £99.99 on EasyRocket.


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  • 8. At 5:59pm on 24 Nov 2010, Jonathan Amos wrote:

    @Melty. Piers Sellers flies as a US citizen on a US government-funded programme - Nasa's space shuttle. Incidentally, he's back in the UK next month doing a number of public engagements, which will include a lecture at the RAeS [PDF]. He will also be honoured with the awarding of a British Interplanetary Society astronaut pin.

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  • 9. At 6:53pm on 27 Nov 2010, Mike Mullen wrote:

    Actually the commercial programs in the US are in danger of being impeded precisely because of a change of heart in the public sector. The decision to build a new HLV is taking away the seed money for commercial development, for entirely political reasons that have nothing to do with the development of space technology. This quote gives a flavour of the attitude:

    Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) [said] “I remain very concerned that NASA continues to delay the transition from Constellation systems toward the new heavy-lift program while they needlessly explore private start-up technologies that remain unproven, require more money and are unfit for human-rated space travel.”

    By no coincidence whatsoever Utah is the home of ATK, makers of the shuttle SRB, which has been mandated to be used on the 'new' HLV.

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  • 10. At 3:01pm on 29 Nov 2010, BluesBerry wrote:

    What you put in is what you get out:
    Major Tim Peake must have all the right stuff - on merit alone.
    Congratulations Class of 2010: Tim Peake and his 5 fellow astronaut rookies: Samantha Cristoforetti (Italy), Alexander Gerst (Germany), Andreas Mogensen (Denmark), Luca Parmitano (Italy), and Thomas Pesquet (France).
    How long?
    @ 2013, earliest, more like ESA-nominated seats in 2017 and 2019. Maybe Major Tum should spend his time learning Russian. Russia currently produces four Soyuz vehicles a year.
    It's possible that the Americans will have introduced at least one new commercial crew TAXI SERVICE by 2016, perhaps even two new vehicles.
    Something about this whole scenario reminds me of Zachariah Sitchin, in "THE 12TH PLANNET". When the icesheets dropped into the oceans, and the oceans rose by 60 feet, when flooding destruction was everywhere, the "gods" (read "elite) took themselves into orbit around the earthth and watched the death and destruction below. Some of these gods even wept. Some longed for beer. Eventually all were hungry...
    (This is the Sumerian/Akkadian version of Biblical Noah and the flood.)

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  • 11. At 4:27pm on 10 Dec 2010, U14717142 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 12. At 1:57pm on 13 Dec 2010, delarrn wrote:

    Come on Tim!

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