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Mission Peake

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By Veronica Cowan. With the opening of the Tim Peake exhibition in Chichester this month we speak to Tim’s father Nigel Peake

If you met someone at a party who said their son was an astronaut who had orbited the earth, you would think they were off their rocket and dash for the nearest exit. But Nigel Peake seemed well-grounded when I spoke to him about his astronaut son, Tim’s momentous mission, which ended on 18 June 2016, so it must be true. West Sussex born Tim blasted off from Kazakhstan on December 15 last year, bound for the International Space Station, and orbited the earth for six months. The trigger for my space-talk with Nigel was the Novium Museum’s major new exhibition – ‘Tim Peake: An Extraordinary Journey’ – opening in his home city of Chichester on 15 December, the anniversary of the mission launch.

Visitors will be able to follow Tim’s astronomical adventure, from growing up in Chichester to becoming the first British European Space Agency astronaut. The UK Space Agency has given a £12,500 grant for the exhibition, which will also celebrate the work of Helen Sharman, the very first British astronaut and first woman in space. It is hoped Tim will visit the exhibition in person. His father, seventy-three-year-old Nigel, is very much part of the project group pulling the exhibition together, but we weren’t about to let him get away with just telling us about that: finding out about Tim is our mission, so how is he doing and is he still suffering from any of the after effects of being in space? “Bone density and muscles can be affected, but the only thing not back is bone density.” Nigel reports. Was that aspect worrying for him and his wife, Angela, I wondered: “No, because everyone had warned about that, so you don’t worry. The worst part only lasted a few hours after the landing.” The British astronaut has himself described this as the “world’s worst hangover”.

As to whether it is tricky being the father of a national hero, Nigel doesn’t sound at all spaced out by the media attention he and his wife have been on the receiving end of and gave a down-to-earth response: “We are very proud but it makes us laugh that we are now introduced to people as Tim’s parents.” He adds that 44-year-old Tim was delighted and has said it is the pinnacle of his career. Nigel noted that Tim had had 18 years in the Army, and that training for the space mission was so thorough, adding: “They have to cover every eventuality, even the docking and when another astronaut got water in his helmet outside the space station, they just switched into training mode.”

How have they coped with Tim’s fame and the
excitement and worry of having a son who is an astronaut, and did they have any nightmares about space whilst Tim was up there? “No, I can honestly say not,” said Nigel, continuing: “It was wonderful to watch
the space walk and we were reassured by the
training and kept in­formed. It was fantastic back up. It gave Tim a new perspective on
the earth and space”
adding: “He was probably safer up there away from all the traffic!”

Tim must be exceptionally resilient, both physically and mentally, I observed, so does he get that from you, I asked Nigel. “He has always had a positive attitude, and Tim has said he had a very stable family life”, Nigel said. Tim was selected from more than 8,000 candidates, who had applied online to become an astronaut, following a selection process that took a year, followed by five years of training. Was there anything about his childhood that gave any insight into the fact that he would want to go into space as an adult? “He was always interested in flying helicopters, and his main career path was flying helicopters” said Nigel, who recalls that most of the testing was psychological, to test for tenacity and irritability: “With six people in the space ship that is very important. They want to know how you interact with people.”

Chichester High School, of which Tim is a former pupil, must be on Cloud 9 with all the positive publicity, but can it take much of the credit? Nigel gave an emphatic “Yes!”, in response, adding that Tim has paid tribute to the teacher in charge of the cadet force, which focussed his mind and he knew then that he wanted to join the army. His physics teacher, Mike Gouldstone, was also very supportive of Tim, he added. On finishing school, Tim went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and started in the army air corps after that.

Is it true that Tim rang you from the International Space Station but got the wrong number? Nigel recalls: “He rang us but we were out, and he got our Ansaphone, but he also called someone – a pensioner – and she put the ‘phone down.” Well, it’s not every day that one picks up the telephone to be asked: “Hello, is this planet Earth?”

The mission was Russian so is Tim now a fluent Russian speaker? Not fluent, said Nigel, but he has a good command of the language. Tim’s sister, who studied Russian at university, helped by having conversations with him in Russian.

Since his return to Earth, Tim has been visiting major cities and speaking at events about what it’s like to live and work in space, joined by his flight crew member Tim Kopra, NASA and former commander of the International Space Station. But he has a more local engagement ahead of him: Tim has said he would be honoured to take part in a parade through Chichester, after eight-year-old Rufus Knight, a pupil at Oakwood School, asked him to take part in a ticker-tape parade through his home city. Has the parade occurred yet? “He is still trying to find a date.” Reports Nigel. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase: “I will look for a window in my diary.”