Tim Peake the ‘first’ British astronaut – what is that all about?


Major Tim Peake ex-army man is being lauded as making history this morning as a first British astronaut and the one to serve on the International Space Station (ISS) when he blasted-off in a Russian Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – but it is all a bit of a con really to make headlines, isn’t it? Yep, he is now indeed the fourth English person to make it onto the list of those who have journeyed into space (a flight above 100 kilometers / 62 miles). He may be the first person from the European Space Agency, but that is hardly anything to shout about, is it? And why exactly does that make him the first ‘official’ British astronaut, for goodness sake?

All those three people before him were English born, fully educated here (including higher education) and finally trained in their profession in Britain before heading off to the States to join their astronauts’ programme.

Certainly the first person to make it was Helen Sharman in 1991, a brave female top chemist and equally recognised as being a Brit, who deserves more credit for making British space history than to be overlooked today. Her mission was also to a space station, in her case Mir, which was the first modular form space station and created by the Soviet Union from 1986. When its orbit decayed its number was up, and it had to be replaced with the ISS constructed from 1998. Mir was finally put out of its misery in 2001.

The second of our people in space was Michael Foale an astrophysicist doctorate (Cambridge) who made his first of six trips in 1992. He had extended stays on both Mir and ISS and indeed still holds the UK record for the longest cumulative-time-in-space (about a year – 374 days, 11 hours, 19 minutes). While his father was also British, his mother was American so he is entitled to hold dual citizenship (which allows the US to claim him as one of their own).

Then we had Piers Sellers a meteorologist and the third Britain who undertook his first mission in 2002 and later two more into the bargain – all three of his were to assist in the assembly of the ISS, and gave him extensive experience of Extravehicular activity spacewalks (EVAs) – 6 in total covering over 40 hrs. He was desperate to become an astronaut but because he wasn’t American they wouldn’t let him – so he simply took out US citizenship and hey presto problem solved.

So clearly, whatever Tim Peake does on this mission in 2015, it is unlikely to be a first of any kind, is it? That is to take nothing away from his achievement in being selected as an astronaut from thousands of others, or his undoubted ability as being a good one. He has previously been a test pilot for helicopters here and as we all know they don’t actually fly, so he will feel comfortable in a space craft that doesn’t fly either – it just goes up and back down, eh? After the usual spectacular rocket launch, he and the other cosmonauts successfully got up to the ISS this evening, but then they faced a bit of a test when an on-board radar navigation system failed, so the Russian commander had to dock their module with the ISS manually – a bit of a risky business in a high speed (17,500 mph) orbit out in space – but they did well so the three of them have now transferred safely inside. Major Tim trip’s two expeditions are scheduled to last six months, so he is due to return to earth next May.


[We all salute the courage of Tim Peake and the others, and our thoughts are with him wishing him good luck, a successful mission, and a safe return home next year].

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