It’s the freakiest job induction course you’ve ever encountered. Before Tim Peake is allowed to take up his new role, he’s had to spend six hours at a time submerged in 40ft of water; to board an aeroplane that climbs thousands of feet into the air and then plummets towards the ground; he’s even had to learn the basic techniques of surgery.
And then there’s his commute: it takes six hours to get to work – and once he’s there he knows he won’t be coming home for another six months.
Still, there are compensations. Tim Peake is an astronaut. In November next year, the by then 43-year-old former Army helicopter pilot will blast off in a Russian Soyuz rocket to take his place more than 200 miles above the Earth on the International Space Station (ISS). He’ll be making history, as Britain’s first “official” – government sanctioned – spaceman.
His only bad luck? That having achieved the rank of major in his military career, his appointment on the astronaut training scheme was greeted by a chorus of “Ground Control to Major Tim”.
Peake will feature in Astronauts, a series of three Channel 4 programmes this week and next week that conclude with live footage from the space station as it rushes above our heads at 17,500mph. Though Peake will be offering his insights from the comfort of planet Earth, of course, as his mission doesn’t begin for another 20 months.
There’s something incredible, even bizarre, about the fact that humankind has been around for approximately five million years and in space for little more than 50 of them. And yet, I suggest, haven’t we adapted to this utterly foreign environment with relative ease?
“Yeah, the human body is incredible. I’m always amazed,” says Peake. “If you think about the evolution of life on Earth, the one thing that has remained constant is gravity. When scientists first thought about going into space, they really did think the human body might just collapse in zero gravity. That’s why we sent out monkeys in the early days of space flight. But the reality is that the human body functions very, very well.”
Yet there is some readjustment to be done. Hence the unusual training programme.
Peake has been spending hours submerged in the world’s biggest swimming pool, at Nasa’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas, because water replicates some of the experience of weightlessness.
The pool measures 202ft by 102ft, and holds 6.2 million gallons of water. At the bottom of the 40ft-deep pool are massive, life-sized replicas of chunks of the space station, where Peake can practise any necessary maintenance while in a full, pressurised space suit. “And you can move around and turn yourself upside down,” he says, just as you would on a space-walk.
And the aeroplane that climbs into the air and then plummets towards the ground? Well, as the force of gravity pulls the plane down towards the Earth, its falling passengers feel weightless. “Though, you can only get about 20 or 30 seconds in the fall” – so Peake has to do it two or three dozen times over the course of a three-hour flight.
But how will Peake feel about being in space, away from his wife Rebecca and his young sons, Thomas, five, and Oliver, two?
“I was in the Army for 18 years, and when I first met my wife, she was in the military as well, so we’re both used to six-month deployments to Bosnia and Kosovo, Ireland and Afghanistan.” In fact, communication with those at home is much better from space than it would be from, say, Helmand Province. “I can pick up a phone every day from the space station. You can go to your private bunk and it’s easier to call than from some parts of the world.”
What about the food on board? “You can eat normal food, really. Anything in a tin, anything rehydrated, normal camping-type food.” Once every couple of months or so, an unmanned craft arrives with food, oxygen and water –and to collect the astronauts’ rubbish – “and they normally pack some fresh fruit and vegetables, so you get oranges and apples for a few days.”
He’ll sleep upright, but what about going to the loo? In fact, it’s no different to what happens on Earth, except you’re strapped on and a vacuum pump sucks the waste into a sealed bag to stop things floating away.
Silly question, perhaps, but if he’s whizzing around the Earth at nearly 300 miles a minute, won’t he get dizzy? No, says Peake. “From speaking to astronauts on the space station, you don’t feel as if you’re moving because there aren’t many windows. And certainly none that opens!
“It’s when you look at the Earth rotating beneath you that you get a sense that you’re travelling. I spoke to an astronaut who had to install an antenna on his very first spacewalk. He was underneath the space station holding on and he looked down and got the most incredibly powerful sense of vertigo. He had to really force himself to let go and believe that he wasn’t going to fall.”
Ah yes, the dangers of the spacewalk. Has Peake seen Gravity, the multi-Oscar-nominated blockbuster in which two astronauts doing a routine maintenance job in space are left spiralling into nothingness after their craft is destroyed by debris from a satellite missile strike?
He reveals that he went to see the film with a fellow ISS astronaut, the Italian Luca Parmitano, who had had his own unexpected adventure while on a spacewalk. His helmet had started filling with water – a mishap that left him unable to see the space station or to communicate with his colleagues. “It was an emergency that nobody had ever envisaged could possibly happen,” says Peake calmly. Mercifully, Parmitano had been tethered to the craft and managed to navigate his way back. And the film? “We both enjoyed it.”
There’s not a lot that scares you, Tim Peake, is there?
“You know, there’s a reason why we spend hours practising emergencies. You just let your training take over and try to come up with solutions. I think the day I’d get really scared is when I ran out of options.”
Astronauts: Living in Space is on tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4
Astronauts: Houston We Have A Problem is on tomorrow (Thursday) at 9:00pm on Channel 4
Lap of the Planet, a live broadcast from the orbiting space station, with dramatic views of Earth from the ISS cameras and contributions from Tim Peake, is on Sunday 16 March at 7:30pm on Channel 4