Ground control to 'Major Tim'

Press conference "Major Tim" is presented to the media at the Science Museum in London

It takes the "right stuff" to withstand cosmic bursts of camera light and meteoric bombardments of questions, but Tim Peake is orbit-ready and passed the test of facing the massed media on Monday morning.

As Britain's first official, government-backed astronaut, his selection for a mission in late 2015 marks a pivotal moment.

Countries as far afield as Belgium, Mexico and Vietnam have already had people in space, but so far the only Brits to make it have either had to change nationality (and become American) or win a Russian competition (as in the case of Helen Sharman in 1991).

For decades, British governments regarded astronauts as a rather strange and pointless luxury - the weightless floating about irrelevant to life on the ground and the costs far too extravagant to contemplate.

This attitude was memorably summed up by Kenneth Clarke in the last Conservative government in the 1980s. When asked if Britain would contribute to the European Space Agency's role in the International Space Station, he replied that he didn't want to pay to put a Frenchman in space.

Since then, quietly and modestly, British space labs and companies have grown to become market leaders in key technologies and their business is valued at £9bn a year.

The UK astronaut tells BBC science editor David Shukman that it is a "true privilege" to be assigned to a long duration mission.

The sensors that bring you those amazing pictures of the Sun, the rocket motors steering spacecraft, the harpoons that may help clear up space junk - many are designed and built in Britain.

There are hopes that the space sector will grow - eventually to support as many as 100,000 jobs - and the figurehead of this renewed British effort in space is a former helicopter pilot from Chichester.

Science Minister David Willetts regards the £16m to secure Tim Peake's ticket as money well spent.

While Nasa wraps its astronauts in the rhetoric of fabled explorers - lots of "celestial destiny" and "bold endeavour" - the British take is far more mundane: the press release announcing Tim Peake's mission is mainly about British industry and jobs.

So when he dons his spacesuit, and checks the union flag's in place, there'll be a lot riding on his multi-layered shoulders.

Major Tim Inspiration, yes; but Tim Peake is also a beacon for the British space industry

I first met him when he was picked for the European Space Agency's astronaut corps back in 2009 - the start of a long road to orbit - and he appeared exactly how you expect astronauts to look: calm, measured, ready for anything.

He's got the straight spine of a military man and the sharp gaze that Nasa selectors have always favoured, and he turns his head in even, steady moves, not unlike those chisel-jawed heroes of Thunderbirds.

On Monday morning, after his news conference, his cheeks were flushed in a way that reminded me of Prince Harry, and his manner has the same relaxed air.

"I'm clearly delighted with the decision. It's a true privilege to be assigned to a long-duration space mission," he told me.

I asked about the much-pushed angle that his mission is partly about trying to boost economic growth.

"There's also the inspiration part - the true human exploration in terms of what we are doing.

"We are pushing the boundaries every time an astronaut goes up; we learn new things about ourselves, about our bodies."

Then the really big questions: yes, he does play the guitar, not well, but did actually once play with the legendary Chris Hadfield, the most musically famous astronaut of them all.

Via Twitter, I was asked if Tim Peake would introduce his fellow astronauts to the delights of a Full English Breakfast.

"I get to choose some of the European food that comes up with me, so a Full English breakfast might be top of the list."

So in November 2015, at the desert launch complex at Baikonur that saw Yuri Gargarin blaze a trail into orbit, Tim Peake will climb into the top of a Soyuz rocket.

The countdown will be in Russian. Tim Peake's training will make him comfortable with the language. And then the first jolt of launch will kick in.

Down below him, a blast of flame will send a wall of heat across the scrubby dunes towards the viewing stands and camera positions: this will make compulsive viewing in homes and schools across Britain.

Tim Peake will be given a vigorous shaking - "a moment nothing can prepare you for", he told me - as the rocket motors accelerate him into space, and a place in the history books.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Why was Jeremy Paxman so damned rude to the man on tonight's Newsnight?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I was surprised to see the Union Jack (or Union 'flag' if you absolutely must!) so flagrantly shown here, as I was beginning to think the general consensus in the manipulative media was to portray it as the new filthy shameful racist icon?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Voice of the Voyager
    UK companies such as British Aerospace sponsored the mission, the Soviet Union also contributed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Your article appears to play down the fact that the UK has already had an astronaut in space. Tim Peake will be the UK's SECOND astronaut So why not say so instead of making out he's the first. It's as though there is an underlying sexism - Women don't count.

    Info on the UK's first astronaut Helen Sharman is at

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    "The first UK astronaut Helen Sharman did not fly as part of some "Russian Competition" as the article claimed. Her space mission Project Juno was funded by UK companies"

    Since when was Moscow Narodny Bank a UK company? And who met the shortfall on the project - the Russians themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    If he meets any Aliens up there , maybe he could tell them about a place on earth called the South of England. It's a place where people who vote Tory and UKIP moan about money spent on Africa and single mums but are quite happy to blow 16 Million on a space trip, or a Jubilee ,oh better not try and explain our Monarchy to an Alien because their head would explode like in Scanners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The article says "As Britain's first official, government-backed astronaut". It should say "As the UK's first tax-payer funded astronaut". The mission is being paid for by all United Kingdom tax payers not just those in Great Britain

    The first UK astronaut Helen Sharman did not "win a Russian competition" as the article claims her mission was paid for by UK companies at no cost to the tax-payer

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The sentence "As Britain's first official, government-backed astronaut" should read "As the UK's first tax-payer funded astronaut" all tax payers in the United Kingdom are paying for the mission not just those in Great Britain.

    The first UK astronaut Helen Sharman did not fly as part of some "Russian Competition" as the article claimed. Her space mission Project Juno was funded by UK companies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Union Jack on the moon!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    #9 But JayBee space is so expensive, it should be for positive things like exploration or ‘furthering humanity’. ;)
    We don’t need such fancy things to deal with the politicians - all it takes is a big catapult and a wall.
    I would add for ATOS employees- an electric chainsaw, gaffer tape, plastic sheeting, waterproof clothes, sound proof r..etc. :)
    (..//shortened due to 400 char limit :C )

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I hope they follow Tim's progress as Burke, Moore, Baxter and Michelmore documented the progress of project Apollo. We might get the kids of this country motivated because the reality is, British people have a real opportunity to become astronauts now. As a child of the 60's I could only dream of such things back then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Dumbing down? This piece of BBC drivel plumbs new depths. Why is David Shukman, BBC's so-called 'Science Editor', writing this piece in the style of 'OK' or 'Hello' or Mills and Boon?

    Hero Tim is 'calm, measured and ready for anything', gushes Shukman. He 'turns his head in even, steady moves' with a 'straight spine', 'sharp gaze' and 'chisel-jaw'.

    Tripe. A new Science Editor please. ASAP.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I didn't want to post this, but I have to, I think it needs saying. Post 9, JayBee, this is something the govt is doing well, for once, and if it wasn't for the pressures put on them by the purulent right-wing whiners so common these days they might do a lot more. UK space firms do well. US firms consider investing here. Times are hard, but THEY aren't whining. ENOUGH of that right-wing garbage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    16 Million to send an English man into space as a Brit! Anyone smell the poo AGAIN!

    Makes me feel like voting YES for Scotland next year!

    Only GB if you are English as per usual!

    Not for me, I'm off to be a SCOT and NOT so called Brit EH!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Far better to spend money on science and the search for knowledge than the other things the government does - bailing out useless bankers and killing people in foreign lands. Hope it inspires a generation to choose engineering and science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    As an Englishman who I can relate to,I am very proud of Tim one thing though,please please please tell him to stop raising the tone of his voice at the end of each sentence as if he's asking a question.It was started by Australian soap actors,became prevalent in USA,taken on by Chavs on the dole here and is becoming more au fait each day,it makes the major seem thick,stop it PLEASE Tim!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    It's high time a British explorer made it to the "final frontier".

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.


    I am so jealous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It makes refreshing change to see a helicopter pilot from the army up in space instead of the usual suspects consisting of former fast jet pilots from the navy or airforce.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @ 9

    Don't forget single mothers and 'elf and safety!

    If you're going to outsource all your thoughts to the Daily Mail, you may as well do it properly. Though I see your response to opposing opinions is 'extermination', which maybe gets you extra right wing points.


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