On 18 June 2016, after 186 days on the International Space Station – during which he carried out experiments, space walked and even read a CBeebies bedtime story from orbit – British astronaut Major Tim Peake returned to Earth. In August, the Soyuz TMA-19M capsule that brought him and his two fellow astronauts safely home will go on display in Peterborough Cathedral, alongside his space suit, the capsule’s parachute and a unique Samsung Space Descent VR experience. Moment editor Toby Venables talked to Tim about the capsule’s 250-mile journey back to Earth, the importance of education and how he hopes the spacecraft will help inspire a new generation.
Peterborough Cathedral is such a wonderful and unusual venue for a spacecraft – and one of the few places where people will be able to see the parachute fully deployed. Are you looking forward to its arrival here?
The Soyuz has been doing its national tour of the UK and has had such a wonderful reception from every venue. I just got back from Edinburgh last week where we launched it in the National Museums of Scotland, but to be able to display it in such a setting, with that juxtaposition between old and new and also what they represent – plus having the parachute in all its glory – is going to be quite spectacular.
How do people react to seeing the capsule? Do adults revert to being children again..?
A little bit – but it kind of evokes the same awe and wonder in both adults and children. Actually, when most people see the capsule what you get first of all is ‘Is that it..?’ It seems so small, and it’s charred, and it doesn’t look like most people’s idea of a spaceship – it doesn’t look shiny and sexy and sophisticated! The Soyuz capsule is a very basic piece of engineering that the Russians haven’t really changed since the 1960s. Then people think: ‘How on earth do three people fit in it..?’ And that really sparks the imagination, with them realising that you actually came back from space in it. And I think the beauty of the Soyuz is that it shows all the scorch marks. In fact, the Russians offered to clean it up and make it pristine before delivering it to the Science Museum in London, and the Science Museum said: ‘Absolutely not! We want it just as it is, as it’s come off the steppes of Kazakhstan, and for people to see the punishment that coming back from space entails.’ I think it really gets people thinking about what we’re doing in space and why it’s important – and attached to the capsule display we also have this fantastic VR Space Descent experience that Samsung have put together. That is incredible! Not only do you get to see the capsule there, you can actually then find out what it’s like to undock from the International Space Station and come back to Earth.
Well, you’ve actually done that, of course – so how does it measure up?
I was amazed by how good that VR experience was. We sit in simulators in Star City in Russia when we do our training, and we go through all the checks and drills and procedures, but what the simulator can’t do is give you the dynamic motion and feeling of what it’s like. But the VR experience really does that. In fact, I said at the time that this would be a great addition to our training, because we would then have a better impression of what we’re going to experience.
What was that return to Earth like as an experience? From movies we tend to think of space flight as taking a very long time, but this happens very fast…
The actual re-entry is around 8 minutes – about the same as launch. Our engines are burning for 8 minutes 48 seconds during launch, and it’s about 8.5 minutes coming back through the atmosphere. But that’s part of what is a 3.5 hour journey altogether, undocking from the space station, doing an orbit of planet Earth, sorting out the spacecraft and getting it ready for the ‘orbit burn’ as we call it. At that point, we’re just a normal spacecraft orbiting the Earth, but once we do the orbit burn, that’s when we put the brakes on. The point of no return. Once you’ve slowed the spacecraft down, Newton’s laws and gravity take over and nothing then is going to stop you from coming back to Earth… That’s why that engine burn has to be so precise – to the second. If it’s too long, then we come in too steep, and if it’s too short we go off too shallow. The orbit burn is quite gentle – a low rumbling noise and gentle deceleration, and of course after six months in microgravity, it’s strange to feel that. Then we wait. We go about a quarter of the way around the Earth and then separate into three parts; we lose our habitation module above us, then our service module beneath us. The separation is very explosive – 14 pyrotechnic bolts going off right next to your head. The Russians over-engineer everything; if they have a problem, they just build it twice as tough as it needs to be, so when something as strong and robust as that needs to separate, it’s a very very loud, dynamic event! Then it’s just this eerie few minutes when the spacecraft is tumbling end over end, really in a very uncontrolled fashion, just waiting for the top of the atmosphere to put the spacecraft back in the correct orientation. And that’s crazy… It’s that initial resistance that rights the capsule to come in heatshield-first. At that point, we regain control of the situation and can make sure we come in correctly.
Is it a rough ride?
It’s smooth but loud, with a gradual increase of deceleration, which is thankful because we’ve spent six months without gravity. You don’t want to go straight to 8Gs [8 x Earth gravity] of deceleration, which would be very punishing. The first couple of minutes it builds up slowly: 1G…2Gs…2.5Gs…3Gs… Then by the time you’re getting towards 6Gs, where you’re clenching the stomach and you’re really having to work hard to breathe and it feels like there’s an elephant on your chest, you’re kind of ready for it. We practice this in the centrifuge; they take us up to 8Gs for 30 seconds, but on a normal re-entry we don’t get up to 8Gs. It’s around 5-6Gs on a normal re-entry, but if things go wrong we could get up that high. The noise then is like wind rushing past a car at high speed. In the initial stages it’s not wind, of course, it’s plasma going past the capsule, but then as you descend it’s air – and that is slowing also you down from around 25 x the speed of sound to just about the speed of sound – slow enough that the braking parachutes can be opened. So, the atmosphere has a lot to do – getting rid of a lot of energy and speed. And that involves heat! We get very, very hot inside the capsule.
What is it like, opening braking parachutes at the speed of sound..?
It’s not pleasant inside the capsule! It hurts. It’s very aggressive, and the capsule is swinging wildly underneath the series of chutes – it’s a rollercoaster ride… Finally, when the main canopy opens, everything goes quiet and settles down, and then we have about 15 minutes before hitting the steppes of Kazakhstan. That is a hard landing, without a doubt. We have these soft-landing thrusters that fire about 0.6 of a metre off the ground to just try and cushion the blow a little bit. But it’s still a car crash when you hit. There’s no cushioning in that spacecraft, either – it just slams you into the ground. Before we fly into space we have the Soyuz seats specially moulded to our bodies; we lie in a bath of gypsum so that it can match our perfect body shape. The reason for that is not for the launch, but the landing. The launch is quite smooth in comparison. So we’re strapped into those seats as tight as possible, and the Soyuz commander has an altimeter that he or she wears on their wrist, and they can gauge the last few hundred feet so we’ve got an idea when the impact is coming. We cross our arms over our chests, make sure our tongues aren’t between our teeth, and we really do brace ourselves as if in an aircraft that’s about to crash. Everyone gets a bit winded, but if you’ve done it properly hopefully there are no injuries.
I’ve seen pictures of you being carried from the capsule after landing – is that normal procedure?
It is normal. It is slightly unnecessary, in that the crew are capable of standing and walking, but it’s not comfortable, because your balance is off and you feel dreadful, with your head spinning. But we have had crews that have landed in the middle of nowhere from a re-entry that’s gone wrong – what we call a ‘ballistic re-entry’ – and they’ve had to get themselves out of the capsule and even try to find help. But in order to minimise the risk of fainting or feeling unwell, they’re naturally cautious and carry us out.
What inspired you as a youngster? Did you dream of space flight or did the possibility creep up on you?
Early on I was inspired by being a cadet at school, loving adventure, exploration and outdoor activities. I loved everything the cadet force offered in that respect – but also it gave me the opportunity to try gliding, and as soon as I took my seat in that cockpit I thought: ‘This is for me…’ I was fortunate that I passed all the medical requirements and was then able to become an army helicopter pilot. So, my early inspiration was for aviation and flying – but I was always fascinated by the technology, too, questioning why the aircraft was doing something and how it could do it better. That led to me becoming a test pilot, which I absolutely loved. At the time, that was my dream job, being in a position where I could actually work with aircraft manufacturers, testing their products, making them better and safer, and taking aircraft to places they’d never been before in terms of height, speed and manoeuvrability. It was in later years that that transferred into working with the space industry, and then ESA had their selection in 2008 which really opened the door. Up until then, if you were in the UK, you didn’t really have a route to being an astronaut unless you were going to take up American citizenship and work for NASA.
Clearly many people will come to see the capsule that made this amazing journey. How important is it not only to educate, but to inspire young people?
It’s hugely important. It was a big aim of the mission to use it as a launch pad for a whole range of different subjects – not just the STEM subjects, which are the obvious ones, but also drama, art, music and literature; we had filmmaking competitions, and all sorts of things. We need to give our young people as many opportunities as possible, and in the UK in particular we’re facing a huge skills shortage in STEM subjects, so we really need to encourage young people to get involved in science and engineering. That has been a very big part of the mission, and continues to be an important focus for me. All the astronauts who flew to the ISS have been trying to make their missions more accessible to the public, and these days it’s so much easier to do that as we have social media and internet access from the space station. We’re really able to bring people – of all ages – on board the station. I think that’s really important. I remember growing up watching the space shuttle missions and being fascinated by that, but now you can see it on a daily basis. You can go on your iPad right now, go to NASA TV and watch astronauts working today. That accessibility is great. It hopefully makes people realise that we have had humans living in space continuously since 2000. It’s incredible that we have done that.
These are challenging times in the world – do you think the ISS and the missions around it are an important reminder that humans don’t just mess things up, that we really can achieve great things as well?
Absolutely, and that is something that ESA – and, in fact, the whole space community – has long stood for. As I said, we have been living in space on the ISS since 2000 but the first modules went up in 1998, and they were being designed in the early 1990s, and before that we’d been working together with the Russians since the Apollo-Soyuz missions in the 1970s. All through that, when you think about the political tensions there have been, we have worked incredibly well together and have been able to transcend political differences. I was training in Russia during the Crimea crisis and it had absolutely no impact on the people I was living and working with on a daily basis. And it still doesn’t today. Alex Gerst from Germany launched on 6 June so we have teams right now in Baikonur and Moscow working on the mission. We all have a common objective and sense of purpose, and we’re trying to achieve something that no one nation can do, so we have to work together. I think that can be used as a model to say: ‘Well, look… When everybody shares the same goal, then co-operation, partnership and unity does really work’.
Tim Peake’s spacecraft will be on display in Peterborough Cathedral from Saturday 11 August until Monday 5 November 2018.
This nationwide tour is presented by Samsung and the Science Museum Group.
For more information, visit: www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk