Out of this world British invasion: Tim Peake prepares for spacewalk

Although the US and the UK don't have to go into space to work together, diplomacy is a part of preparation and operations on the International Space Station.

NASA/AP
In this image from video made available by NASA, British Flight Engineer Tim Peake of the European Space Agency, center, hugs Scott Kelly as Peake, Tim Kopra of NASA and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko board the International Space Station from their Soyuz TMA-19 M capsule on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2015. Peake, a 43-year-old former army helicopter pilot, is the first Briton to visit the International Space Station.

Tim Peake, known as "Major Tim" from the David Bowie song, "Space Oddity," is set for the first official British spacewalk.  

One month to the day since he became Britain's first official representative in space, Mr. Peake is set to leave the International Space Station's interior Jan. 15 to help replace a voltage regulator that has failed, NASA has announced.

The United Kingdom's residents are pretty excited about this, as well they might be. Peake will be the first Briton to wear the Union Jack outside in space, and space is – if the $57 million preview earnings of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" says anything – pretty cool these days. 

A space exploration project on the scale of the International Space Station has benefits besides its contributions to science and rock music, however. It can serve as both a vehicle for the national pride that leads to "Major Tim" nicknames and a microcosm for international cooperation.

"As programmes become more ambitious, like the ISS and human missions to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars, they require more extensive international cooperation, and this creates opportunities to strengthen the capacity for peaceful, globally‐coordinated activities in space and on Earth," according to a NASA paper on the "Benefits of Space Exploration."

When countries were just beginning to assemble parts for the station back in 1998, they predicted some of the project's diplomatic benefits, Brad Knickerbocker wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. 

"It serves as a constant reminder that Russia is not the enemy, and that's a good thing," John Pike, then-director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, told The Christian Science Monitor. 

The space station provides an outlet for foreign rocket scientists whose abilities might otherwise find purpose in the employ of other countries such as North Korea, he added. That is in addition to the direct diplomacy of various nations working together, which requires a skill set that the first astronauts may not have worried about. 

Space enthusiasts who aspire to a stint on the International Space Station can't be science geeks who love physics but don't like people. They work together as a crew of six inside a completely enclosed space, and they cannot allow cultural differences to get in the way of the mission, Pete Spotts wrote for The Christian Science Monitor:

This makes the process of choosing a space station astronaut more than science – it approaches diplomacy, with selectors attempting to build an orbiting family from a potpourri of astronauts from different cultures.

The task starts with selecting the appropriate people as new astronauts, says Duane Ross, who heads the astronaut selection office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Scientific and engineering know-how are a must, of course. But so are inventiveness, patience, and humility.

Once their respective nation selects them, the crew members often spend months together in training. They learn about each other's habits and background even before they enter the space station. 

"We know each other very well," said Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, according to The Christian Science Monitor. "We know what to expect from each other.... We're this big international space family."

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