Here’s a strange – possibly unnerving – fact, courtesy of Professor Brian Cox. “There has not been a single moment since the year 2000,” says the nation’s favourite TV scientist, “when all humanity has been confined to its home planet.”
Yes, really. Fifteen years ago, the first astronauts climbed on board the International Space Station, which whizzes round the Earth, 250 miles above us, at 18,000mph. Since that moment – and without a break – more than 200 space men and women have arrived at the space station, stayed for a few months (some for more than a year), then handed over to a replacement crew. But tomorrow, Tuesday 15th December marks a special moment.
At 11.03am, British astronaut Tim Peake, a 43-year-old former Army Air Corps officer, will blast off in a Soyuz rocket from a launch base in the Kazakhstan desert for a six-month sojourn – becoming only the second British person ever to go into space. (The first was Helen Sharman, who spent a week on the Mir space station back in 1991.)
It’ll take Peake 8 minutes and 48 seconds to reach the required orbit, and then another eight hours or so before a hatch opens and he makes his way from the capsule into the space station itself. Peake will be the 221st person to live and work on the space station, a microgravity laboratory created to seek answers to scientific questions that can’t be answered on Earth.
Peake trained for weightlessness at the bottom of the world’s biggest swimming pool. But is he anxious?
“The only fear I have at this stage is of forgetting something. I’m racking my brain as to what I might have possibly forgotten in my bag. In terms of the mission itself, I honestly don’t have any fears at all. And that really is a testament to the training we have.”
Tuesday’s programmes promise to provide amazing TV. There will be cameras not only on the ground looking up, and in space watching the docking process – but also inside the capsule as Peake blasts off, alongside two other astronauts, American Tim Kopra and Russian Yuri Malenchenko. Cox says that even though Peake will, of course, be wearing a helmet, we’ll be able to see his facial expression at the big moment.
And we’ll be watching live: the images from the space station will take less than a second to reach our screens – no different from pictures of a news correspondent talking live from Washington DC.
What’s the biggest risk he faces? “I’m most concerned about the radiation dose I’ll receive – and there’s not much you can do about that,” Peake confides. “During my time on the space station I will receive the equivalent of 1,200 chest x-rays.” Does that increase his risk of cancer? Yes, he says. But only by around three per cent.
Tim Peake in his simulator
His family aside, what will he miss most during six months in space? “Fresh air!”
Professor Cox, meanwhile, sounds as if he can’t contain his excitement. “Human history is the history of exploration and expansion,” says the presenter. “The hope is that never again will all humans be confined to Earth. It’s a wonderful thought.”
Cox believes Peake’s mission will so inspire young people in this country that it will lead to a new generation of young engineers and explorers. But a word of caution: though space station expedition launches are almost routine now, says Cox, space travel can never be totally safe. What if the worst happens on 15 December? Anyone who’s seen the footage of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster – it exploded 73 seconds after take-off – will not be able to forget the terrible images. TV viewers watched live as seven people were killed in the explosion.
In his capsule, Peake will be perched on top of 300 tonnes of fuel. Cox explains: “These rockets are the most powerful machines that we’ve ever built. And sitting on top of them you’re basically sitting on a bomb. If things go wrong, they go wrong. We don’t have an elaborate contingency plan [for the live broadcast], other than that we will talk about what’s just happened.”
But no one’s concentrating on that. Instead we’re invited to marvel at humankind’s curiosity, at the ambition of our species, at Tim Peake’s buccaneering spirit. And we will. Most of us, anyway… I ask Peake about his family. His kids – back home in Houston, Texas, home of the US space industry – must love it that their dad is an astronaut?
“They do,” he replies modestly. “But I’m just Dad. In fact, in Thomas’s class, two of the dads are astronauts but only one dad is a fireman. So firemen are far more exciting to them.”
Follow Tim’s progress online at bbc.co.uk/timpeake and on Twitter @BBCStargazing