by Jo Barstow, British Science Association Media Fellow


Britain has its first ESA astronaut! Major Tim Peake lifted off yesterday from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, en route for the International Space Station. Together with NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and Russian Mission Commander Yuri Malenchenko, Major Peake will spend six months on board the space station.

Peake’s mission, named Principia after 17th century scientist Isaac Newton’s great mathematical work, marks the 128th flight of the Russian Soyuz launch vehicle.  Since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle in 2011 Soyuz has been the only route to the ISS, and has carried astronauts and cosmonauts from all over the world.

Peake beat 8,000 other hopefuls to become an astronaut and he’s now the first Briton on the ISS, matching the achievement of Helen Sharman who became the first British citizen in space in 1991. 

To celebrate the occasion, several members of the British space community were invited to witness the launch. Royal Astronomical Society president Professor Martin Barstow, who just happens to be my dad (!), is fortunate enough to be taking part in the festivities in Kazakhstan. Naturally, I’ve taken the opportunity to ask him all about it. “I am thrilled to be in Baikonur to see a Soyuz launch”, he told me, “this is fulfilling one of my lifetime ambitions”.

Professor Martin Barstow and the Soyuz rocket

Image Credit: Professor Martin Barstow

Any rocket launch is an impressive affair, but the stakes are higher when people are on board. Watching the rockets start to burn on TV this morning, I found myself clenching my fists, hoping desperately that nothing would go wrong. Dad told me he wasn’t too nervous, since the Soyuz is such a reliable launch vehicle, but, “The cheering and congratulations only started once it was confirmed that all parts of the launch, stage separation and orbit injection were successful.”

The crowds gathered in the Science Museum in London didn’t wait for that, celebrating as soon as the rocket pushed its way past the support structures. Groups of schoolchildren screamed and cheered as the Soyuz rose, inspiring a future generation of potential astronauts. The UK Space Agency and partners have produced a set of activities for schools to run alongside the mission, giving UK students a taste of life as an astronaut, and thanks to Twitter Major Peake will be in regular touch about the progress of his mission. 

The Soyuz rocket taking off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

Image Credit: ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2015

Peake seemed to enjoy his launch experience as much as the spectators did, giving a thumbs-up and flashing a wide grin in the direction of the onboard camera. Despite that, he was probably glad to stretch his legs when the Soyuz docked with the ISS after a cramped six and a half hours. Docking proved to be a little trickier than anticipated as Commander Malenchenko had to take manual control of the spacecraft, but after a tense few minutes (and some relieved applause from Baikonur) the manoeuvre was successful.

Tim Peake arrives at the International Space Station.  

Image Credit: ESA/NASA

Peake’s hard work really starts now, when he embarks on the range of experiments that will occupy his next few months. My personal favourite from the list is attempting to control a Mars rover prototype from orbit, which sounds like great fun. Major Peake will send commands to Airbus’s Bridget rover, located in Stevenage, to find out what it’s like to control a ‘Mars rover’ in real time. One day, the exploration of other planets may rely on these skills, so there’s a lot to learn.

My dad sees this launch as a significant milestone in the UK’s space programme. “This represents the culmination of a turn around in the UK’s attitude to human space flight”, he told me, “It used to be something we didn’t do. But following the Royal Astronomical Society report on the subject in 2005, the value and importance of being involved in this has been realised and supported by the Government.”

Does my dad wish he could go to space too? “Absolutely. I have always wanted to fly into space and am rather jealous of those that get the opportunity.” Personally, I’m content at the moment to be following Major Peake’s escapades from the safety and comfort of my sofa. However, I definitely feel some envy for the spectacular views from his new home.

Good luck Tim – see you in six months!

Find out more about the Principia mission and our Media Fellows