Science & Environment

Tim Peake: UK astronaut heads for space station

Tim Peake inside the Russian Soyuz rocket Image copyright @esaoperations
Image caption Images showed Tim Peake inside the Russian Soyuz rocket

UK astronaut Tim Peake is minutes away from his landmark flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

The ex-helicopter pilot - with American Tim Kopra and Russian Yuri Malenchenko - will launch on a Russian Soyuz rocket at Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan.

Mr Peake is the first official UK astronaut. Previous "British" astronauts have either had US citizenship and worked for Nasa or been privately funded.

On the ISS he will conduct experiments.

He will also carry out educational activities designed to get young people interested in science.

Fuelling of the rocket has begun ahead of the launch - set for 11:03 GMT - from Site 1 at Baikonur, the pad where Yuri Gagarin made the first historic human spaceflight in 1961.

Tim Peake Live: latest updates and video from the launch

The Soyuz space capsule is due to dock with the space station at 17:23 GMT.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The crew earlier attended a sending-off ceremony at the Baikonur cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan

Two-week quarantine

Helen Sharman became the first British citizen to travel to space when she visited the space station Mir in 1991. Her mission came about through a co-operative venture between the Soviet government and British business.

Ms Sharman told BBC News: "Launch itself is a day that you want to get on with, because finally, you're getting to do what you've been trained to do for so long. I trained for 18 months, Tim Peake will have trained for six years by the time he flies.

"You're part of a great big machine… by that stage, the team is so big - the doctors, the trainers - that you're not going to be able to go wrong."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Peake waved from a bus during the ceremony
Image copyright @spacegovuk
Image caption The crew also received a blessing from a Russian orthodox priest before leaving for the flight

The crew are placed in quarantine for two weeks before launch to ensure they do not become ill in space.

They woke up at 02:00 GMT (08:00 local time) for breakfast and after a farewell ceremony, they left the cosmonaut hotel in Baikonur for medical tests.

After a break, they got into their white "Sokol" suits - which are worn during launch and re-entry - before saying final farewells to their families.

Then, at about 08:00 GMT (14:00 local time), the crew boarded a bus to the launch pad, where they rode the lift to the top of the Soyuz rocket.

Mr Peake and his colleagues will then be strapped into their seats so that they can prepare for launch.

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At 11:03 GMT (17:03 local time), notwithstanding some unforeseen obstacle, the Soyuz launcher's five thruster units will ignite, blasting the astronauts into orbit for the six-hour journey to the ISS.

Mr Peake is the first Briton to be employed as a professional astronaut by the European Space Agency (Esa).

German Esa astronaut Alexander Gerst, who was selected along with Mr Peake for the astronaut class of 2009, told BBC News: "He's had 6,000 hours of training - a brutal amount over several years.

"He also went through preparation for launch earlier this year when he was on the back-up crew for another mission… so he's now completely ready."

Image copyright NASA
Image caption The crew will take about six hours to reach the space station

Mr Gerst added: "As an astronaut at this stage you're really relaxed. Mainly because your principal worry is that something will get in the way of launch; that you'll get ill or there'll be a technical problem."

Richard Farrimond was one of four UK astronauts selected to launch satellites from Nasa's space shuttle in the 1980s, though the missions were cancelled after the Challenger disaster.

He told BBC News: "Having met the man, I think he's quite superlative… I'm looking forward to seeing him up there on my TV screen."

The mission might never have happened, however, had then-science minister David Willetts not successfully argued for an end to the UK government's longstanding opposition to human spaceflight. The change came about through negotiations in 2012 with officials from Esa.

Mr Willetts told BBC News that Mr Peake had been on the training programme, but - at that time - not part of the manned flight programme.

"Sadly he was very unlikely to get a flight up to the space station. We moved into participating in manned missions. The fact he's going to do some great science while he's up there has justified that decision."

Follow Paul on Twitter.

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