His first day in space was way beyond all his expectations. No, he hadn’t seen the new Star Wars film yet but all of them up there were looking forward to seeing it. He was looking forward to training – on a treadmill, harnessed to the spot – for the London Marathon.
He was absolutely blown away to get a tweet from Her Majesty the Queen. And he was looking forward to calling home on Christmas Day from this “wonderfully unique place to call friends and family from.”
Major Tim Peake, Britain’s first European Space Agency astronaut, was ready with a set of non-controversial answers to a procession of non-challenging questions during his first ever press conference from orbit. Seemingly upright in the Columbus science module of the International Space Station - until asked to do a back flip while crossing the surface of the globe at 27, 000 kilometers an hour - Peake faced the challenge of the media.
There was always a pause between question and the launch of an answer and at the close of each answer, he carefully let go of his microphone – it bobbed more or less exactly where he released it – and clasped it again for each answer. He looked forward a lot. He used telltale delaying phrases like “That’s a great question …” and telltale pause-words such as “absolutely” while he prepared his responses, but the smile barely faltered.
“It’s way better than I imagined. It is really hard to describe, ” he said, and then listed those things way beyond his expectations, including the view from the space station cupola. “The first 24 hours is pretty rough, ” he admitted. Yes, he found some aspects of life in space a little difficult: the vestibular system that controlled his balance and his visual system hadn’t quite caught up with each other, so every time he went round a corner or moved his head he felt disoriented and dizzy.
Yes, he had a good night’s sleep; on his second morning he woke up fresh and had had no problems since. He hadn’t needed to tether his sleeping bag and enjoyed floating gently around the dormitory. And yes, he had experienced one retinal flash as a cosmic ray passed through his eyes, but otherwise, no problems.
Oh, and the thing that most surprised him was how black space really was. And how small the world seemed. “It’s the blackest black and you realize just how small the Earth is in that blackness, and that was a real surprise to me.”
He had launched into a very busy programme and was delighted and thrilled at the phenomenal support for him everywhere in his role as a European astronaut.
He may or may not have felt relieved when the ground station and the television signal parted company and the press conference closed and he was allowed to get on and learn more about his new home and workplace. Nobody asked him that one.
In answer to some other questions not asked: Major Peake’s first mouthful in his new home was a hot bacon sandwich, from the hands of his resident station commander Scott Kelly; and his first task in space was to unpack cargo from a Cygnus-4 spacecraft that had arrived one week ahead of him.
Major Peake, born in Chichester, Sussex, and married with two sons, got ahead of 8, 000 other applicants to be selected for training within the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps. He left planet Earth by Soyuz rocket on Tuesday, and – after a nerve-wracking nine-minute delay as the automatic system aborted and the capsule’s Russian commander took manual control – he began his new career in orbit at 5.33pm GMT that evening.
He went aloft with another Tim from the US space agency Nasa’s astronaut corps, Tim Kopra, and with the Russian veteran cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko at the controls of the Soyuz capsule. The trio of new recruits were welcomed aboard by Nasa’s Scott Kelly and two Russian crew members, Sergey Volkov and Mikhail Korniyenko.
Both his travelling companions aboard Soyuz had been in orbit before, but this is Peake’s first chance to circle the globe in 90 minutes, every 90 minutes. His first scientific experimental work is to involve a study of the effects of radiation on bone marrow and his first formal questionnaire will be one about headaches (which, like nausea, are familiar afflictions in microgravity). His work timetable even includes a day’s housekeeping: Saturday is the day that astronauts vacuum and wipe down the space station’s surfaces.
Meanwhile, although he will be missing friends and family on Christmas Day he was, he said, “in a very privileged position.” And the feeling of zero gravity, he said was a bit like putting on a pair of skis for the first time: “It does take a while to become proficient.” In about another week, he thought, “I will be extremely comfortable working in this environment.”