After being fired out of the atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour, and spending six months floating around the International Space Station (ISS) before hurtling back down to Earth, you'd think there would be very little that could faze Tim Peake. Not so, the astronaut tells me.


He describes working on Channel 5 documentary Secrets of Our Universe as "difficult" and "demanding", but he's relished the opportunity to jump in at the deep end with his debut presenting gig.

"This is the first time I've been asked to be in front of the camera on a documentary. I've done some TV interviews and things before, but never on this scale. And it's a whole new skill set to learn, which I love – I just love learning new things," he told, crediting the small but "brilliant" team he's grown close to along the way.

"You learn about how to work under pressure and how to deal with challenges in spaceflight, and I just apply the same sort of principles to this.

"It's a case of, 'Okay, roll with the punches. What can we do? How can we turn it round? And how can we adapt, overcome and make something even better?'"

This pragmatic approach had to be implemented when Peake came down with COVID-19 shortly after arriving in Arizona, the US state famous for its stunning copper landscapes that resemble the surface of Mars. Cue a major shake-up of the crew's previously agreed shooting schedule - but they were still able to polish off the entire series in a matter of months.

Secrets of Our Universe is a continuation of Peake's admirable work to get children and young people excited about space.

Since his return to Earth, he has collaborated with Steve Cole on youth-oriented sci-fi novels Swarm: Rising and its sequel, which are inspired by space-age science and technology. Last year, he followed up that success with kids' non-fiction hit The Cosmic Diary of our Incredible Universe. His hope is that this latest project is another thing the whole family can enjoy.

"As a father of an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, we love watching all sorts of documentaries," he said. "We had this in mind when we were making this show. We want people who may have no knowledge of space, or exploration, or what we're doing at all to be able to sit down and just enjoy and be informed in very easy-to-understand language.

"Actually, we're talking about really complex things here, but my premise has always been if I can't explain something to a 10-year-old, then it means I don't understand it myself."

This approach is clear to see from the first episode of Secrets of Our Universe, which offers an introduction to the planets in "our own neighbourhood" – aka the Solar System – before looking further afield to more distant discoveries. Peake and his team attempt to find Earth-based parallels to the wonders of outer space, taking them to several spots across the globe.

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He feels "privileged" to have had a chance to film at the Grand Canyon's iconic Horseshoe Bend, while he was also thrilled to pay his first ever visit to Perth, Australia, which is regarded as a premier location for stargazing. But the series finale reflects on a period of Peake's life when he had an even better view of space.

Astronaut Tim Peake at the Grand Canyon for Secrets of Our Universe
Astronaut Tim Peake at the Grand Canyon for Secrets of Our Universe. Channel 5

Indeed, an exploration of space missions – past, present and future – left him "quite nostalgic" for his six-month stint on the ISS. He said: "I love looking back at it... I hope there might be a chance for me to get up again on a future mission and to go back to the space station. But if not, then those memories are incredible."

Looking ahead, a current priority for international space agencies is returning to the moon to set up a permanent habitation module for the purpose of cutting-edge scientific research and learning more about our universe. Peake doesn't expect to set foot on the lunar surface himself, but is nevertheless excited by the potential of the mission.

"For the generations today that didn't see the last moon landing in 1972 – I was eight months old, so I class myself as not seeing it, I was probably plonked in front of a television and maybe did – but wow, that is going to be incredible for today's generations to witness. I think it's very inspiring," he explained with palpable enthusiasm.

Of course, many still wonder whether we'll bump into anyone during our voyages into space. We put the question to Peake – is finding extraterrestrial life an 'if' or a 'when'?

"I'd like to think it's a 'when'," he answered. "My gut feeling is it's a 'when'."

Elaborating, he said: "I firmly believe life exists out there; intelligent, complex life exists out there. I think the universe is teeming with life at a single cell level. I think that complex life exists and it's probably much more rare. Just look at our own galaxy: hundreds of billions of stars, the planets we've already discovered.

"We know our sun is very ordinary, we know planets around stars are very ordinary, and we know that because they seem to form in the same way."

Tim Peake wearing a space jumpsuit with planets in the background
Tim Peake.

Peake gives a convincing pitch that we aren't alone in the universe – I'm certainly not going to argue with him – but he goes on to admit that there's no guarantee we'll ever make contact. In the entire time that humanity has been transmitting radio signals into space, they would have travelled only a "tiny, tiny distance" relative to the size of just our own galaxy.

"The human species may come and go without ever finding signs of life, and yet we could be surrounded by life, even in our relatively local area of the Milky Way," he said, in a statement which could be deflating or relieving depending on which sci-fi movies you've watched recently.

Now, back to Secrets of Our Universe. Sandwiched between The Planets and Space Missions is an episode titled Stars and Black Holes, the latter of which never cease to fascinate and confound. What makes these galactic enigmas so alluring?

"I think our curiosity is sparked by the things that we don't know about. Black holes, 70 years ago, were just a theory; just a mathematical theory on a board as to something that could possibly happen. And now we photograph them... but we still can't explain what happens inside them.

"Our maths will not tell us, our theories will not tell us what happens at singularity," Peake began.

"That is such a fundamental question, because it kind of also goes back to the beginning of the entire universe. How did the universe come from a singularity to what we see today? Well, how does a black hole take all that matter and collapse it down into a singularity? They're very much linked.

"So, basically, black holes represent some of the biggest questions that we all have as humans." Does anyone else have goosebumps?

Tim Peake photographed for Secrets of Our Universe in front of a large atrium
Tim Peake photographed for Secrets of Our Universe. Channel 5

Suffice to say, you shouldn't expect a definitive answer to every mystery of existence in Secrets of Our Universe. But you can easily see how these topics can spark a lifelong fascination with all things outer space. And future generations could conceivably have greater access to it than ever before.

Peake says that the current development of space tourism through the likes of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX provides an "absolutely amazing" opportunity for novices, although acknowledges these are locked behind an extraordinarily high price point for now. That may not be the case forever, though.

"If we're talking now about going on holiday to Florida to Disneyland to take your kids – okay, it's still a pricey holiday – but there's a much, much greater population who can afford that than back in the 1920s or '30s, when a tiny percentage of people would be able to afford a transatlantic flight," said Peake.

"So, in 100 years' time, we could be having a very ordinary conversation. We'll be having holidays on orbiting space stations and it will become completely normal for people to potentially do that. Or we'll have a suborbital transportation system where we can fly from London to Sydney in an hour because of the technology that we're developing now."

The hefty price of admission aside, Peake won't be rushing to board a commercial suborbital any time soon ("I'm not going to deny, that would be nothing compared to six months living in orbit from 400 kilometres"), but we could see him back on our screens in the not-too-distant future.

"I'd love to do more of them," he said, discussing Secrets of Our Universe. "There's a million things I'd love to cover."

Secrets of Our Universe premieres on Channel 5 on Tuesday 19th September 2023. Check out more of our Documentaries coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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