British astronaut relives fretful moment of re-entry journey from ISS as he calls on UK to support human spaceflight
Tim Peake has spoken of the fleeting moment when he feared his spacecraft’s main parachute had failed to open as he plummeted back to Earth.
Crammed into the tiny Soyuz capsule with two crewmates from the International Space Station, Peake watched the clock tick past the time when the main parachute was meant to deploy with a reassuring tug.
The drogue chutes had opened 20 seconds earlier. The drag they produced caused the spacecraft to swing like a toy on a string. “You just have to hold on and wait for it to stop,” Peake told reporters at a press conference at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne on Tuesday. “I was told that it would stop with a big jolt as the main chute opened, but in our case, it didn’t.”
Before the spacecraft re-entered Earth’s orbit on Saturday, explosive bolts blew it into three pieces, making a sound like a heavy machine gun, Peake said. As planned, the jettisoned orbital and service modules burned up in the atmosphere, leaving the crew capsule to continue its fiery descent.
“The clock was running and I’m very aware of exactly what should happen at exactly what time. And the time had gone beyond the point at which the main chute had opened,” Peake said. But the spacecraft, piloted by the Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko, was in no danger.
Tim Peake attends a news conference during his first public appearance after returning to Earth.
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Tim Peake attends a news conference during his first public appearance after returning to Earth. Photograph: Rolf Vennenbernd/AP
“For a second I was concerned, and I looked across at Yuri. He was just sitting there so relaxed and cool as he always is. So I thought, well if we didn’t have a main chute, he wouldn’t be looking as cool as that,” Peake said.
The main chute had deployed on time but had opened so gently that Peake had failed to notice it. “I wasn’t even aware it had opened,” he said.
Dressed in a blue flight suit and steady on his feet, Peake said he was feeling much better than on Saturday lunchtime when the Soyuz capsule slammed down on the Kazakh steppe. In the few days since his return, he has begun rehabilitation to build up the muscles and bone he shed in space. “After three days, I’m feeling fantastic,” he said. Would he do it again? “In a heartbeat,” he answered.
In May, the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman, marked the 25th anniversary of her trip to the Mir space station. Speaking at the time, she expressed hope that Peake would not be the last UK astronaut and urged the government to make a further commitment to human spaceflight.
With the International Space Station nearing the end of its lifetime, the European Space Agency has its sights on missions beyond low Earth orbit. From a “base camp” in deep space, it hopes to put humans back on the moon, where astronauts will work alongside robots and test technologies for future missions to Mars.
Peake after he arrived in Kazakhstan.
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Peake after he arrived in Kazakhstan. Photograph: NASA via Getty Images
Peake said it was extremely important for the UK to play a role in human space exploration. “We need to be involved now. We need to give our industry a chance to develop what they need to support human spaceflight, and we need to give our scientific community a chance to get onboard with the microgravity science and the other research that we are doing for these future missions,” he said.
“If we are not onboard now, we’ll miss out on the things that will be happening in the 2020s and 2030s and at some point we’ll be too far behind to get onboard.”
During his 186 days in space, Peake took part in 250 scientific experiments ranging from human physiology and fluid physics to materials science. He will now be studied with MRI scans, muscle biopsies, blood samples and more to monitor how well his body adapts to life back on Earth.
Peake’s educational projects reached more than 1 million schoolchildren in Britain. Asked what message he had for students, he dispelled the myth that you have to be exceptionally bright to be an astronaut. “You’re looking at a boy who went to Westbourne primary school, who left school at the age of 19 with three below-average A-levels and I’ve just got back from a six-month mission to space,” he said. “So my message to them is, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do anything.’”
Peake said his priority now was to spend time with his family. Getting his body used to life on Earth again was harder than adapting to life on the space station but being on terra firma has its upsides. “Gravity is horrible when you come back to Earth except for in a few cases,” he said. “When it comes to using the loo, gravity is your friend.”
A picture caption in an earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra as Tim Peake. The picture has now been changed.