It was the moment Tim Peake had spent years training for, but in truth there was nothing that could prepare him for what he was experiencing at that moment.
“Nothing can prepare you for that feeling, for the full realisation that you are no longer living on Earth,” he says
“Staring into the inky blackness, I felt completely isolated from everything and everyone I had ever known. And yet at the same time I could not help feeling a strange sense of belonging.”
On January 15, 2016, Peake made history as the first man to complete a space walk wearing the British flag.
Yet, less than eight years earlier, he had found himself facing another challenge as he acclimatised to a very different environment – the curry houses of the West Midlands.
The son of a former Express & Star journalist and a Birmingham midwife, Peake spent 17 years in the Army before applying to join the European Space Agency’s astronaut training scheme in 2009.
And he describes his experiences of Space and West Midland baltis in his new autobiography, Limitless.
Peake trained as a helicopter instructor at RAF Shawbury in 1998, after four years serving with the Royal Green Jackets at Glutersloh in Germany.
He describes his time at Glutersloh as a time of endless high jinks and japes, where turning a comrade’s quarters upside down passed as one of the main forms of entertainment.
It was at Glutersloh where he met his future wife, Rebecca, although the downside to this was a previous girlfriend trashing his room with milk and cutting up all his CDs. And when some of Rebecca’s friends decided to give her the ‘upside down room’ treatment, Tim avenged her honour by removing the U-bend from the ringleaders’ sink.
But when Tim arrived at Shawbury, he knew he would have to put these frivolous ways behind him, and describes with great pride the way he adapted to his new surroundings.
“Bear in mind that I hadn’t lived in the UK for four years, so I was woefully out of practice and there was a whole process of re-acclimatisation to be gone through.
“Nevertheless, I knuckled down and put in the hard yards and my performance ended up speaking for itself.
“At the weekly Thursday curry nights in Shrewsbury, I went from being able to manage a mild chicken tikka masala at the beginning of the course, to graduating with honours with a hot jalfrezi by the time it finished. It only shows what you can achieve if you apply yourself.”
His time at Shawbury was spent with a group of seven other pilots, from the Navy, Army, RAF and Royal Marines, and one of his abiding memories is the infamous ‘lemmings day’ at the end of the course, where pilots learn how to land when their engines fail.
“You keep the rotor blades turning by using the force from the air as you descend,” he says.
Rebecca was expecting the couple’s first son when Peake spotted an advertisement by the European Space Agency “seeking new talents to reinforce its astronaut team”.
One of more than 8,000 online applicants, Peake and three others were presented to the media in Paris in 2009.
Peake is blunt about the reason for his selection, believing it was as much about money and politics as his own personal attributes.
“Funding and politics, that’s just the nature of the game,” he says believing that one of the reasons for his selection was to encourage the UK Government to contribute more towards the cost of the space programme.
“I’m sure I did OK, but I’m also sure any one of the 10 people in that last interview round would have made an equally good European astronaut.”
Peake spent five years in training, learning how to cope with G-force and zero-gravity living. He trained for his spacewalk, and how to live in isolation with his future crew mates, the American Tim Kopra and Russian Yuri Malenchenko.
In December 2015, it was time to leave, leaving Tim with the rather surreal experience of explaining to his young sons, Thomas and Oliver why he would be going away for six months.
“I felt it was important to help them understand what was going on, how I would travel to space and maybe do a space walk.”
He recalls the last, socially-distanced walk with Rebecca and his two sons – quarantine and social-distancing regulations were the norm for astronauts long before Covid-19 arrived – and the pain of leaving the children behind as he was taken on the bus to the launch site.
“It’s the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” he says. “I would smile out at my sons as hard as I could while thinking ‘Don’t let this be the last time that I see you’.”
The sense of mischief picked up in Germany appear to have stayed with him during the final moments before lift-off. With just 50 minutes to go, the crew’s pre-made choice of music was piped into the capsule to help them relax.
“Tim Kopra really hates Lady Gaga, so I asked our Russian instructor to make sure there is plenty of Lady Gaga in our final hour,” he says.
The Russian instructor, also had as sense of humour, it seems, sneaking Europe’s Final Countdown onto the play list, and Tim says it was these touches that eased the nerves as the trio prepared for their journey of a lifetime.
With five seconds to go, the rumble from below became a thunderous roar, the rocket swaying from left to right before starting to lift.
“As we begin to gain altitude, the acceleration really starts, as nine million horsepower drives us skywards,” he says. “This is the most exhilarating ride of my life.”
Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.
Tim Peake, Astronaut
World news – GB – Tim Peake’s tales from curry houses to space walks