Blog | Excerpt from Ask an Astronaut by Tim Peake
Scout Ambassador Tim Peake gives us a sneak peek (!) of his book Ask an Astronaut.
As a young boy I was a member of the Cub Scouts. This was my first experience of outdoor life and sowed the seeds of adventure and exploration that eventually set me on the path to becoming an astronaut. So, as you can imagine, I’m delighted to have been recently appointed as The Scout Association’s newest Scout Ambassador.
Since returning to Earth after six months living on the International Space Station, I’ve been asked many questions about what it’s like to be an astronaut and to live in space, from people of all ages living all around the world. I’ve been asked about the exhilarating launch and my fiery return to Earth. I’ve been asked about my daily life on the ISS, how we sleep in micro-gravity, eat, wash and, of course, how do we go to the loo. I’ve also been asked a lot of questions about what it feels like to see every corner of the earth from 240 miles up, to watch thunderstorms and the Aurora Borealis light up the planet, all whilst orbiting it ten times faster than a speeding bullet.
Ask an Astronaut is my personal guide to life in space. I’m very pleased to say that, as with my first book Hello, is this Planet Earth?, royalties received from the book will be donated to charity. Here’s an extract from the book. I hope you enjoy reading it.
My oldest child (who has career ambitions of being an astronaut) would like to know: how, when and why did you decide to become an astronaut?
That’s a lot to cover! In a nutshell, here is a short history of my route to becoming an astronaut. As you will see, there’s no single route to becoming an astronaut, but there are some areas to be aware of that may help to maximise one’s chances. Good luck!
1972: Early life
My father had always been interested in historical aircraft and took me to air shows from an early age. I was hooked from the very beginning – thrilled by the noise and the daring flying displays, whilst marvelling at the machines themselves, wondering what made them fly and why they were so varied in design. I was also fascinated by the stars and the universe. I loved looking up at the bright strip of the Milky Way and being able to pick out some of the major constellations. However, when it came to deciding my first choice of career, it was neither astronomy nor becoming an astronaut that was my driving passion – I wanted to fly. I loved everything about flying (I still do!) and could not wait to train as a pilot. At high school I enjoyed studying maths, science and graphic design, but outside the classroom it was being a member of the school’s Combined Cadet Force that really shaped my early years. Although I was drawn to the Army section, as opposed to the Royal Air Force section, I would always volunteer to go flying at every opportunity and I savoured my early forays in gliders and small, powered fixed-wing aircraft.
1994: Getting my wings
As someone who was more comfortable wearing Army uniform, but with a burning passion for flying, it was no surprise that I set my sights on joining the Army Air Corps (AAC) at the age of 19. Such was my enthusiasm for flying that I decided to bypass university and instead entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, graduating in 1992 as a Second Lieutenant. I began pilot training soon afterwards, first learning to fly the de Havilland Chipmunk. Built during the 1940s, this tandem-seat (one person behind the other), single-engine aircraft was often used to train pilots. I found the seating and tail-wheel arrangement somewhat reminiscent of a Second World War fighter, and it was a joy every time I flew in one. Having progressed to flying helicopters, I was awarded my wings in 1994 and shortly thereafter began an exciting four years flying reconnaissance missions all over the world, including operations in Bosnia during the 1990s Balkan War.
My aviation career rapidly progressed from being a reconnaissance pilot to becoming an instructor pilot, teaching new students how to fly. It was during this time that I was offered an amazing chance – to spend three years serving with the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, flying Apache helicopters in Texas. If you’ve ever seen the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, you may recall the surf-loving 1st Cav pilots flying low into battle, with Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ blaring out over loudspeakers. They seemed like an interesting bunch, and I didn’t need much persuading to pack my bags and head to the USA.
This was in 1999, prior to the Apache helicopter entering service with the British Army, and so it was a golden opportunity for me to learn everything I could about this new aircraft. On my return to the UK, I was promoted to the rank of Major and spent the next three years training British Army pilots how to fly and fight in this incredibly capable machine.
2005: Test pilot
In 2005, an opportunity opened up – one that was to set me squarely on the path to becoming an astronaut, although I didn’t know it at the time. Throughout my aviation career I had always been interested in testing the theory behind flying. I loved learning about new systems, discovering how aircraft really worked and exploring the boundaries of their performance. This was the work of test pilots, and so I set my sights on trying to join their ranks. I studied hard to pass the demanding selection for test-pilot training and embarked on an intensive year-long course, flying more than 30 types of aircraft, including helicopters, fast jets, heavy transport and pretty much anything our instructors could find for us that could fly. On graduating from Empire Test Pilots’ School at Boscombe Down, I became the senior test pilot for the Apache with the Rotary Wing Test Squadron – just as that particular helicopter began to be used in Afghanistan. It was a hugely rewarding time, knowing that frontline pilots were benefiting from the work we were doing, but most of all I loved pushing aircraft to their limits. In some experiences I had I was genuinely taking the aircraft somewhere nobody had taken it before, in terms of speed, altitude and manoeuvrability.
2006: Getting a degree
Test-pilot training involved a significant amount of academic work, in addition to demanding flying exercises. I had never been strong at mathematics, and so my first month was spent burning the midnight oil, bringing my maths up to first-year degree-level standard. I decided that, in addition to catching up on the maths, this was the right time to fill another gap in my education and gain a degree. I enrolled in Portsmouth University’s Bachelor of Science course in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation. As I would later discover, it was a combination of test-pilot training and having degree-level education that really opened the door for astronaut selection a few years later.
As a test pilot, you work very closely with the commercial aerospace sector. Part of your job is to broaden your knowledge and experience, learning about technologies to innovate and improve capability. Space is one of the most demanding environments that humans have ever lived and worked in, and so it was no surprise that, as a test pilot, I began to look at the space sector more closely with a keen interest in those cutting-edge technologies that were being used to drive scientific research and exploration off the planet.
2008: Right place, right time
There are some things in life where good timing is everything, and in that respect I consider myself extremely fortunate. When the European Space Agency held its selection for astronauts in 2008, you could either apply as a pilot with more than 1,000 hours’ flight time, or you could apply with degree-level academic qualifications in other fields. I was an experienced test pilot with more than 3,000 hours’ flying, a degree in Flight Dynamics and an unquenchable thirst for science, technology and exploration. Like so many others, I jumped at the opportunity. For me, becoming an astronaut was the pinnacle of what a test pilot could aspire to. To be a part of that small team of men and women fortunate enough to venture into space, pushing the boundaries of science, technology and exploration, really was the opportunity of a lifetime – and I was in the right place at the right time.
Are you more likely to become an astronaut if you join the military as a pilot or if you are a scientist?
This is an interesting question and one where the answer has changed over the years. When talking of astronaut selection, people often think back to the early days of human spaceflight. The first Russian cosmonauts and the US Mercury, Gemini and Apollo crews had many similar characteristics, with the vast majority of them being chosen on the basis of their expertise as fighter pilots. The earliest exception to this rule was Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Prior to her recruitment as a cosmonaut in 1962, Tereshkova worked in a textile factory and was an amateur skydiver. As the missions and objectives in space have changed over the years, so have the astronaut-selection criteria. It is still necessary to have the coordination, spatial awareness and time-critical decision-making skills typical of a pilot, but as an astronaut today you will spend a great deal of your time in space conducting scientific research, maintaining the space station and getting on with your crewmates. That requires a more diverse skill-set.
Today you are equally likely to become an astronaut having trained as a scientist or a pilot. Of the 20 astronaut candidates selected in 2009 by ESA, NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), exactly half did not have a background as a military pilot. In fact, you can become an astronaut as a school teacher, engineer or medical doctor, or from any number of varied careers. One of NASA’s latest astronaut recruits had previous experience as an ice-driller and commercial fisherman.
I think one of the most important pieces of advice, for anyone considering a career as an astronaut, comes from ESA’s website: ‘Above all: no matter what you have studied, you should be good at it.’ As we shall see from the next question, your academic credentials or flying experience may get you as far as the interview, but it will be your drive, enthusiasm, character and personality that will secure you the job as an astronaut.
What separated you from the other candidates who applied to be an astronaut?
This is a good question and one that I’ve asked myself. Ultimately, astronauts need to possess a number of skills. Some of these are natural abilities, such as coordination, spatial awareness, memory retention and concentration. However, as missions to space have become longer in duration, other qualities have become equally important, such as communication, teamwork, decision-making, leadership/followership and the ability to work under stress to solve problems. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to develop many of these skills during my military career, having worked in stressful environments, having undergone extensive leadership training and having practised good crew communication as a pilot for many years.
Each space agency has developed a slightly different selection process, designed to distinguish the broad spectrum of qualities expected of an astronaut. Unusually, when I applied to be an astronaut in 2008, ESA, NASA, CSA and JAXA were all recruiting new candidates, so the differences between each agency’s selection criteria were thrown into starker contrast. For example, the Canadians had applicants diving to retrieve bricks from the bottom of a pool, fighting fires and – a particularly demanding stress test – working as a team to plug leaks in a room that was rapidly flooding with cold Atlantic water! In contrast, ESA’s selection process was lighter on physical activity, but it did involve a high degree of cognitive testing and psychological profiling, to ensure that astronauts had the right disposition to head into space for several months at a time.
In addition to stringent medical requirements and several rounds of interviews, the selection process tested for a basic level of knowledge in areas such as maths, science, engineering and English language. These evaluations were designed to be stressful, with a minimum of breaks in between tests and a high degree of speed and accuracy required in order to pass.
Ask an Astronaut is available to buy now.
Win a copy of Ask an Astronaut
Do you or your Scouts have a burning question for Tim Peake? Want to win a copy of his latest book, Ask the Astronaut? All you need to do is send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 15 December 2017. The five best questions will each receive a copy of the book and as an added bonus, Tim will answer the number one best question. If you’re a section leader, why not ask your Scouts to come up with some questions themselves and enter the best ones?