You’re the first Briton to be selected by the European Space Agency, what does that mean to you?
I’m really delighted. First, I’d like to pay tribute to Helen Sharman, who was the first British astronaut to fly to the Mir space station in 1991. I’ve met with her several times, she’s a great lady and has given me lots of good advice about the upcoming mission. But what is different and important about this mission is it’s the first time the UK government has actually subscribed and become involved in human spaceflight. That opens up human spaceflight to our science community, to the UK industry and also to children, in terms of outreach and education, which is going to be a really important part of my mission. So, I’m really delighted that the UK is now involved in human spaceflight.
You’ve completed quite a bit of extensive training in preparation for your mission. Could you tell us a bit more about what was involved and how challenging it was?
[Laughs] Yes, training for a [seven]-month mission to space is very involved these days, namely because there are a lot of elements to it. We’ve got to get [into space] and we’ve got to be able to get back safely, so that means we [the crew] have to know everything about the spacecraft we are flying. For us, that is the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Training as a crew of three – with myself, Tim Kopra, my NASA crewmate, and Yuri Malenchenko, my Russian commander of the Soyuz – has taken a lot of time and commitment, but then we have also had to get to know everything about the Space Station where we will be living and that includes knowing about the various different modules – the Russian segment, the American laboratories, the European laboratories, the Japanese laboratories, and the various other modules that we will be using up there. We also have to know how to maintain the Space Station and keep it running safely, and we need to be able to do certain tasks such as robotic operations, which involves using the Canadian robotic arm to grab visiting vehicles and dock them to the Space Station – that’s how we keep the ISS supplied. That is a big task that astronauts have to be able to do, as well as the possibility of doing spacewalks in order to complete any maintenance outside of the ISS.
What different medical tests did you have to undergo, and do you have to be as fit as, let’s say, an athlete, to be able to become an astronaut?
You don’t have to be as fit as an athlete but it does help to be in good shape because the better the shape you’re in, the easier life will be for you in space. Your body is going to undergo a dramatic change in weightlessness and it’s probably going to take a good three to four weeks to go through that process. Various things happen – all of the fluid that normally pulls in your legs here in Earth’s gravity is shifted upwards in [microgravity], so you actually get puffy-faced and get higher intracranial pressure as your brain is trying to get rid of all of that excess fluid (or at least, it thinks it’s excess fluid). As your body starts to get rid of that fluid you will begin to lose calcium and lose muscle mass because your body is not getting the stimulus that it does here in gravity – it doesn’t need those muscles or that bone density, so it loses them.
In fact, the body is such a brilliant machine that it adapts too well to its new environment, which would be great if all we were going to do was fly into space but – of course – we need to come back to Earth and be healthy for our return. If we did not do all of the exercise that we do in space, then we would be in very poor shape when we came back to Earth, so that’s really why we stay fit and healthy, so that we’re in a good shape for when we return. Also, in terms of medical history, ESA needs to pick astronauts who are at a low risk of having any medical problems when they are on board the ISS, so that’s really what the [European Space Agency] looks for in an astronaut – a person with a low-risk medical history.
What are you most looking forward to during your time in space?
I’m most looking forward to the view [of Earth] without a doubt and the mission itself, just living in microgravity and getting used to that whole new environment. Eating, sleeping and working in weightlessness is just going to be brilliant. I want to take as many photos as I can and call friends and family from the Space Station. I’m also looking forward to the educational outreach programs that I’ve got planned – so lots of competitions with kids – and I hope to share the mission as much as possible.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for someone who wants to become an astronaut?
My biggest piece of advice is to definitely work out what you want to do and what you enjoy. If you want to become an astronaut, you can become an astronaut by being an engineer, a doctor, a scientist, a school teacher or an army pilot like myself. Don’t focus on the astronaut bit just yet, focus on what you are good at and what you enjoy. By tying those things together you will find your path.