The British may have once been considered great explorers, but we haven’t had our own manned space programme yet, and it was thirty years after the first manned spaceflight before a British citizen first made it into space. Helen Sharman was a 27-year-old food technologist from Sheffield, who was selected to go into space as part of Project Juno, a privately-funded project to get a seat for a Brit on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. In May 1991, Sharman lifted off and spent a week working on the Mir space station.
In the years that followed, three men born in the UK – Michael Foale, Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick – would fly on the Space Shuttle, but they technically flew as United States citizens. Two men who held dual British citizenship also paid to visit the International Space Station as space tourists: South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth in 2002, and Richard Garriott, the son of former US astronaut Owen Garriott, in 2008. Then, in 2009, the first British astronaut to be officially funded by the government was recruited by the European Space Agency: Chichester-born Army Air Corps test pilot, Major Tim Peake.
On 15th December 2015, Peake – alongside cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and US astronaut Tim Kopra, both of whom were space veterans – was launched in a Soyuz on his first mission to the ISS. While there, he would work on various experiments, run the London Marathon on a treadmill, and perform an EVA, the first astronaut to do so with the Union Jack on his spacesuit. Peake returned to Earth on 18th June 2016, after nearly 186 days in space. Since then, he has published two books. Hello, Is This Planet Earth? is a collection of the photographs he took from the ISS, while Ask an Astronaut is a collection of all the questions people have asked him about his training and his time in space.
The format lends itself very well to covering both the big picture of life as an astronaut, and the little details that people might be interested in. The questions (or rather, the answers) are divided into relevant chapters; starting with the launch, then going over the training beforehand, then life onboard the ISS, before rounding off with the return to Earth. The old favourite, “How do you go to the toilet in space?” is in there, of course – but there are also more original questions like “What is your favourite button on the ISS?” and “Does space smell?” While some of the answers are simple facts, Peake also lends his individual experience and opinions to other answers, like recalling the funniest or scariest moments during his mission – he has a clear and genial writing style, much like Chris Hadfield.
If, like me, you’ve spent more time studying the earlier days of spaceflight than what happens up there today, this book is brilliant for telling you just about everything about how the modern astronaut works. Practically everything you can think of is covered, from the day-to-day schedule on the ISS, to how astronauts post those lovely photos onto Twitter, to the intricacies of holding onto everything during a spacewalk, to just what you need to maximise your chances of becoming an astronaut in this day and age. (Being fluent in Russian doesn’t hurt.) Peake goes into detail about some subjects that get generalised in other sources, like how the results of zero-gravity experiments are applied to help people back on Earth, or the effect that long-term spaceflight has on the human body.
Overall, Ask an Astronaut is another book that I would recommend to anybody who’s interested in spaceflight, whatever their age. Meanwhile, at some point this year, I’m hoping to see the Soyuz TMA-19M descent module, which brought Tim Peake to and from space, while it goes on tour around the UK!