All About Space


The ESA’s first British astronaut reveals how space travel will develop, what life is like on board the ISS and why we need to protect our planet

- Interviewe­d by Ailsa Harvey

What is life like living aboard the Internatio­nal Space Station (ISS)?

As astronauts, we’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. And that includes life on board the Internatio­nal Space Station, using it as a platform for innovation and technology. On board the space station, we have virtual-reality systems where we can actually prepare to do a spacewalk, for example, doing it multiple times before actually going outside the space station. We’ve also got augmented reality, where Mission Control has come on board the space station, and it helps us in our day-to-day tasks as well.

All of this is absolutely essential in giving us astronauts greater confidence in what we’re doing, especially when we have complex tasks coming up, and helping to ensure mission success. When it comes to spacewalki­ng, probably an astronaut’s greatest fear is going tumbling off into the black abyss of space. Anybody who’s watched the opening scenes of the movie will have an idea of what that might be like – something that we are obviously quite concerned about in space.

But it’s not something that we put to the back of our minds. We really confront every risk that we might encounter. We try to mitigate those risks as much as possible, and in terms of spacewalki­ng, if we were to become detached from the space station then we actually have a number of ways of trying to stop that from happening, from tethers to putting down a small steel cable that keeps us anchored to the space station if all of that should break. And there’s a small jet pack. It gives us about 20 seconds worth of nitrogen propellant – just enough to stop us from tumbling. To try and reorientat­e ourselves to find the space station or give us that one-shot chance of making it back raises the question of how you train for flying a jet pack down here on planet Earth. It’s quite a tricky thing to do.

Are there any observatio­ns that you’ve gleaned from travelling in space about what humankind is doing to the planet?

Interestin­gly, when you go to space over a sixmonth period, it’s hard for us to see any long-term impacts of climate change. But when you see the photograph­s that we’ve been taking over 20 years from the space station, you can see clear evidence of the impact that we’re having. You can see evidence of climate change in terms of the volume of ice in the Antarctic, and the Arctic as well. You can see mass areas of deforestat­ion, and you can see glacial retreat. And what we do see on the space station routinely, when we fly over very populated areas, is large amounts of smog and atmospheri­c pollution. On the southern part of the Himalayas, for example, it’s a completely brown slate of smog. On the Tibetan side it’s crystal clear; it’s a very stark illustrati­on of what impact humans are having.

The other thing I think really strikes you as an astronaut is when you see every sunrise and sunset – we get 16 of them a day, plenty of sunrises and sunsets. There are a few moments where you can see the curvature of the Earth, and you see how thin the atmosphere is. It’s about 16 kilometres [9.9 miles] thick, so it’s tiny. And that’s what really brings it home, thinking wow, you know, that’s what makes it different to Mars and Venus. It’s just that thin layer of gas that protects all life on the planet.

When you see wildfires in Canada or California, you see how the smoke was spread over the entire continent of North America, or you see a sandstorm in the Sahara and see it spread out from France and Portugal to the UK, it again highlights just how thin that atmosphere is. Our pollution, whether it’s natural in terms of forest fires or sandstorms, or whether it’s human-made, it doesn’t have much room to move, it has to spread out. We’re all breathing the same air, and I think that’s the biggest impact on you that you have as an astronaut.

What was your first thought as you left

Earth’s atmosphere?

The first thought, I guess it’s kind of relief that you made it safely. Not that we expected it to go wrong, but actually there are many delays and problems. The first thought as you make it into orbit is a look between the crew members to think ‘yes, we’re here. We made it’. And then it’s a look outside the window. Absolutely phenomenal, that view of Earth from space. And certainly as a rookie astronaut looking at it for the first time is amazing. The sense of speed is unbelievab­le during third stage, as the rocket is getting you up to 27,500 kilometres [17,088 miles] per hour – ten times the speed of a bullet. And you don’t notice that the first couple of stages in launch are all about power accelerati­on. It’s about 9 million horsepower, doing four gs of accelerati­on, so eight minutes and 48 seconds is a long launch period. But the latter stage is just about accelerati­on getting knocked off orbital velocity. So when you take that first look outside the window, you can’t believe how fast you’re covering the planet’s surface.

Speaking of things going wrong in space… what’s the most dangerous incident that has ever happened?

When you venture on a spacewalk, you know that you’re doing the highest risk element of any mission in space, but probably the last thing you’d expect to happen is to drown. This actually nearly happened to my Italian classmate Luca Parmitano back in 2013. He was on his first spacewalk, and he felt water coming into his helmet.

Mission Control thought it must be coming from his drink bag, so they said, “Luca just drink it; the bag must be leaking,” which he did. The water feels very cold, and the drink bag’s now empty and there is still water coming in. They realised they had to get Luca back in a hurry, and by the time Luca got back to the airlock, the water had come completely over the top of his head. It cut out all of his communicat­ion systems, so he couldn’t hear. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t see because the water was in his eyes and coming over the top of his nose and mouth. It was the closest we’ve come to losing a crew member on the space station.

When we were out in space for about four hours, Tim Kopra pulled up and said: “I’ve got water coming into my helmet.” In fact, he was using the same spacesuit that Luca had used a few years prior, so we knew it was a dangerous situation. We had to get Kopra back into the airlock in a hurry and terminate the spacewalk. But, interestin­gly,

NASA had introduced two changes to the spacesuit since Luca’s incident. One was to have a breathing tube that went from the helmet down to the torso, so at least you could put your mouth over this breathing tube and breathe from a different part of the spacesuit. And the second was to have a nappy in the back of that particular helmet to absorb any water that could come again.

I thought you might like to know a snorkel and a nappy – it doesn’t always take a high-tech solution for solving a complex problem.

Did going into space change your thoughts on Earth?

The one thing that strikes me – and I know this is the same for all of my astronaut colleagues as well – is that the further we travel away from planet Earth, the more precious our home planet seems to be. From space it is startlingl­y clear to see that there is no planet B. Space is an enabler for so many technologi­es and innovation­s back on Earth – whether it’s conservati­on, monitoring the impacts of climate change and giving us the vital data that we need to have our finger on the pulse of our planet, or whether it’s tracking the logistics of things such as shipping and aircraft, providing navigation or communicat­ion systems or realtime data enabling us to make decisions such as what’s the weather doing. But in order to use the space environmen­t responsibl­y, we also need to consider the impact on the planet as well, which is why I’m really encouraged to be working and see companies which are developing very low-carbon fuel in order to get us into space – and, of course, developing these technologi­es which are enabling us to be more innovative and recycle and reuse parts of rockets and spacecraft, too.

We have to protect the space environmen­t for future generation­s. There are currently more than half a million pieces of space debris just in lowEarth orbit, so we really need to take responsibi­lity for cleaning up space, to remove the defunct satellites and regulate the new ones that are going up there, or else we’re going to risk losing this environmen­t, and our ability to operate in this domain. This is where technology and innovation really comes into the equation. It provides solutions for today’s problems.

As we shine the spotlight on transporta­tion and logistics, I for one am really excited to have learned more today, and to continue to learn more about how we can all contribute to a better and more prosperous future.

The Internatio­nal Space Station is being used as a platform for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). In terms of those VR and AR systems, we’re also using the space station as this platform for technology and innovation, using robotic technology more and more to explore hazardous or hostile environmen­ts, but also sometimes to conduct mundane, repetitive or time-consuming

The further we travel from Earth, the more precious our home planet seems to be

tasks. I was controllin­g what is now the Rosalind Franklin rover, which will be launching to Mars next year. I was controllin­g that from the space station in orbit down to Mars Yard in Stevenage. This was testing a command and control system that’s going to be absolutely essential for when we start doing those longer exploratio­n missions. My NASA colleague Chris Cassidy was using haptic feedback for humanoid robotic systems that can help us outside on a spacewalk – and even maybe one day fully replace us from a spacewalk to do certain tasks. These kinds of things that require a high level of fidelity and precision are absolutely essential to get the robotic technology right.

How does this help space navigation?

Simulation technology helps us to de-risk our activities as well. I practised how to capture a visiting cargo vehicle, and we spoke about the logistics of delivering cargo to the Internatio­nal Space Station. We need cargo vehicles about four times every year minimum to resupply us all of our food, our clothing and all of the scientific experiment­s that we’re doing. But capturing a cargo vehicle in space is a really high-pressure moment for any astronaut. I must have practised this at least 100 times before actually going into the live capture itself. But when you’ve got $100 billion (£72 billion) of space station at stake and a couple hundred million dollars of a cargo vehicle, then those famous NASA words of ‘failure is not an option’ really spring to mind.

When you also bear in mind that both of these, when you go to capture a vehicle, you have to put the space station into what’s called free drift and the cargo vehicle into free drift as well, because you don’t want any unwanted thruster commands changing the orientatio­n of those vehicles. So the space station and cargo vehicles are just tumbling in space, and as astronauts we have a precious 90-second window to grab this robotic arm drive again, using free manual controller­s, and get hold of our cargo vehicle. This Dragon spacecraft that was cleaning up cargo, this is the one I captured in 2016 that actually had another interestin­g piece of cargo on board, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. It was the first flat-pack module to be flown and tested in space – maybe not quite like here in space, but not that far off. We actually use the atmosphere on board the space station to inflate it to its full size. This is being used now as a prototype for a larger space station for the future, and is still on board the space station right now.

Are there any habits you picked up in space?

In terms of structure and routine, it’s really helpful on the space station that everything runs to a very clear structure and routine. And that’s something I like to do in my life back here, because I think it helps, especially during lockdown. It really helps you just maintain that work-life balance. Exercise, for example, was something that was considered a luxury that happens when you get a few moments every day to go do something as opposed to being a scheduled routine activity that you need to set time aside for. On the space station, everything is scheduled, with time allocated for everything, and it really just ensures that you get the basics of work, rest, nutrition and sleep.

What do you think was the coolest experiment you carried out in space?

There are loads of really cool experiment­s. We’re looking at metal alloys, which are really cool. We also did some combustion experiment­s. Normally we don’t like to set fire to things in space, but we were actually looking at how a flame propagates in a weightless environmen­t. This is looking at combustion techniques which could help our efficiency of combustion engines down on Earth, so that was a really exciting experiment.

Another one we did was using the airlock to actually reduce the pressure, looking at airway inflammati­on. This is something that’s going to help asthma sufferers back down here on Earth.

And we had to go to quite a low pressure in the airlock. That was actually the first time we’d used the airlock as an experiment.

How do you see space travel evolving?

Electric is a strong possibilit­y. There’s all sorts of different methodolog­ies being investigat­ed. Ion thrusters, for example, looking at that as a slow but steady form of accelerati­on for a mission for a spacecraft. We’re looking at solar sail technology as well. All sorts of different technologi­es, even laserbased technologi­es – using lasers to actually assist with rocket thrust.

We’re looking at all sorts of different technologi­es as to how you can minimise the amount of carbon required to get objects into space, and that’s the main effort that’s been going on right now. Rockets take up a huge amount of energy, but if we can do it from a single stage to launch – something like the way Reaction Engines are trying to build this SABRE engine – the entire spacecraft will be able to land with no jettisons, a complete single-station launch, which will be an absolute game changer. So yes, the space industry is working towards that.

 ??  ?? Left: Floating with a view of his home planet in the Cupola module
Left: Floating with a view of his home planet in the Cupola module
 ??  ?? Above: Peake completes an extravehic­ular activity, venturing outside the ISS
Above: Peake completes an extravehic­ular activity, venturing outside the ISS
 ??  ?? Right: Peake exits his capsule after landing back down on Earth in June 2016
Right: Peake exits his capsule after landing back down on Earth in June 2016

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