At 16 I lived in a small rural village in West Sussex. All my thoughts were taken up with being in the cadets. I loved it. It had an army section and an Air Force section. I loved being in the army section, all the adventurous outdoor activities at weekends; camping, hillwalking, climbing. But I had a huge passion for flying. So I tried to sneak off with the Air Force at every opportunity and jump into a plane and go flying on a glider or a small tandem seat trainer. That burned up most of my time outside school.
I wasn’t a particularly gifted student, so school was often a struggle for me
At various stages I suffered from the usual teenage angst. I worried about school work. I wasn’t a particularly gifted student, I wasn’t at the top of the class, so school was often a struggle for me. Then I came to a crossroads when I was 18. I was set to go to university when I was offered a place at Sandhurst. I thought a lot about it, then I decided to go straight to Sandhurst and start flying. I couldn’t contain my excitement and desire. I think now if I hadn’t started my career in flying so early I probably wouldn’t have had the operational experience as a test pilot which turned out to be the key to me becoming an astronaut.
I was painfully shy with girls. I probably still am. The idea of going to ask a girl out was terrifying, far more frightening than going into space. I did have the odd girlfriend but it was never an easy experience, and it took me months to work up the courage to ask anyone out. Then I had a bit of real heartbreak. An early girlfriend of mine got leukaemia and passed away at the age of 21. She was much more than a girlfriend really – she lived two doors down from me and we’d been friends our whole life. Losing such a close friend at such a young age, having to face that, the emotions that brought out – it was very tough.
What’s quite surprising is that there is no military background in my family. My father was a journalist, my mother was a midwife. Both grandfathers were conscripted into the army in the Second World War, but they weren’t career military men. So my young interest in the army, and in flying, I have no idea where it came from. My father used to take me to air shows, that’s the only thing I can think of. Watching fantastic displays at those shows. And also, marvelling at the engineering. I loved building and testing model aeroplanes. I bought one kit, then I thought I could design and build my own better. So I spent many hours experimenting after that.
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I can still remember my very first flight. I was about 13. It was a Chipmunk aircraft. I remember that feeling of bumping along the grass, then accelerating, then the smoothness as it took off the ground. And you were in control, feeling it respond to your commands. That was just exhilarating. I always knew what I wanted to do with my life. I felt very lucky that way, seeing friends really struggle, wondering what they should study, what they wanted to do. For me, the Air Force stood out like a beacon as a route to follow.
Life became more complicated for me after I joined the Space Agency because that’s when my wife and I had our first child. For me becoming a father was a more life-changing experience than going into space. It completely changes your outlook and your perspective. If I’d been younger without children, going to live on the Space Station would have been no problem. And I did leave my dream job as a pilot to go to a situation where there was absolutely no guarantee that I’d ever actually be picked for a mission. That was a risk. But it worked out.
The hardest thing about living in the International Space Station for six months is the feeling of complete helplessness. If something were to happen to your family back on Earth you couldn’t be there. It’s not like you’re cut off from them. You could call every day if you wanted and you get a weekly video conference. And six months is just what you’d spend away if you were in the army posted overseas. But what I found hard is the idea that I wasn’t in a position where, if my family really needed me, I could be there for them.
To me the space station was never a lonely place. It’s an incredibly busy, vibrant place, always keeping you motivated and energised. The time goes by very quickly. You do feel very detached, but that’s not the same as lonely. You’re very aware that you’ve really succeeded in getting away from it all. You’ve left the planet. But that also brings a sense of peace and tranquility. Music can be very powerful. It can evoke strong emotions so I would be cautious about listening to anything too emotional on a space station. I used to listen to very lively upbeat rock when I was working out.
You do feel very detached on the Space Station, but not lonely
Becoming well-known would have been a shocking idea to the young Tim. We’re used to being quite guarded in the military. So to have a complete reversal of that, where you’re an ambassador interacting with all kinds of people, doing lots of public speaking, was strange. I was very nervous at first about that, but actually I’ve come to really enjoy it. I love telling the stories about the mission, it was a great experience and I like telling people about it.
Sixteen-year-old Tim would be amazed, shocked, delighted, if you told him he would end up going into space. I loved astronomy and looking up at the stars. And I was always questioning things, all the big questions about the universe, the sources of life and light. But I wouldn’t want him to know in advance. It’s a scary prospect and I think it would change his outlook on life. I’ve enjoyed the journey in my life, and I’ve never looked too far ahead.
The moment I’d like to live over again was when I was 21. I’d gone through the gruelling selection process for becoming a pilot – the medicals, the interviews, flying training. It’s a very tough process, especially for a young man. Then you have to wait to see if the Air Force is going to take you. I was called into an office and sat in front of the chief flying instructor. I’d seen people before me come out, some very happy, some very disappointed. The instructor was a man of few words, in true military fashion. He just said, ‘Well done Peake. You’re in.’
Ask an Astronaut by Tim Peake is out now, Century, £20