Ground Control to Major Tim: Britain's first proper astronaut blasts off

Tim Peake, also known as 'Major Tim,' will be spending six months aboard the International Space Station.

AP Photo/Shamil Zhumatov, Pool
British astronaut Tim Peake, member of the main crew of the mission to the International Space Station (ISS), gestures, prior to the launch at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.

A rocket carrying a three-man crew blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Tuesday, carrying Tim Peake, also known as Major Tim.

The former army major is the first publicly funded astronaut to officially represent the British government in space, designated by the Union Jack patch on his space suit.

He is not, however, the first Briton to go into space. That was chemist Helen Sharman, who in 1991 travelled on a Soviet spacecraft for eight days on a mission funded by the USSR and private companies. Maj. Peake's mission to the International Space Station (ISS), for the European Space Agency, will last six months.

David Bowie's song "Space Oddity," which was released the same month as NASA astronauts landed on the moon, was seen by some as poking fun at Britain's space program. The song ends with its subject, Major Tom, adrift in space, but experts say that this real-life Major Tim is fully prepared for his flight into space.     

"Tim has trained for six years, so he will know the spacecraft and the space station inside out. Whatever situation is thrown at him, he'll be well equipped to deal with it,” Ms. Sharman told the BBC.

Peake is joined on this expedition by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, and NASA astronaut, Tim Kopra. Colonel Malenchenko is well-versed in long-duration space flights, having spent 514 days in space. He is also the first cosmonaut to have participated in a “space wedding”: in 2003, he married his wife while he was in space and she was still on planet Earth via a video linkup.

The three astronauts will return to Earth on June 5th. They are joining the three crew members currently on board the ISS, two of whom, Astronaut Scott Kelly and Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, are participating in the Year in Space program, designed to test the effects of long-term spaceflight on humans.

The flight to the ISS is estimated to take only six hours. The rocket will need to orbit the Earth about four times in order to catch up with its target. Once they climb aboard, the astronauts will host a public video conference, and eat their first meal since having left Earth.

Peake will be spending six months aboard the ISS, conducting research and creating educational projects designed to encourage young people to pursue science.

He also plans to run the London Marathon while on the space station, by strapping himself to a treadmill and running at the same time as the participants on planet Earth begin running on April 24th next year.

“The thing I’m most looking forward to is that I can still interact with everybody down on Earth,” Major Peake said in a statement. “I’ll be running it with the iPad and watching myself running through the streets of London whilst orbiting the Earth." 

Because he will be wearing a heavy harness to prevent himself from floating away from the treadmill, Peake does not anticipate setting any new records. He last ran the London Marathon in 1999, finishing in three hours and approximately twenty minutes.

“I don’t think I’ll be setting any personal bests,” he said. “I’ve set myself a goal of anywhere between 3:30 to 4 hours."

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