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Thursday 27 October 2016

Tim Peake recalls sparks and flames of capsule re-entry and dreams of moon trip

John von Radowitz

Published 21/06/2016 | 20:05

Handout photo issued by the European Space Agency of Major Tim Peake sitting in a chair after landing in Kazakhstan, as the British astronaut has made a dramatic return to Earth after six months on the International Space Station
Handout photo issued by the European Space Agency of Major Tim Peake sitting in a chair after landing in Kazakhstan, as the British astronaut has made a dramatic return to Earth after six months on the International Space Station

British astronaut Tim Peake has spoken of his "really exciting" fiery ride back to Earth surrounded by sparks and flame and his dream of journeying to the moon.

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He also revealed how he maintained one very down-to-earth British tradition on the International Space Station (ISS) - by starting each working day with a cup of tea and bacon sandwich.

On Saturday the 44-year-old father-of-two returned to Earth from a six-month European Space Agency (Esa) mission on the ISS with American Nasa astronaut Colonel Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.

Speaking at his first press conference since landing, Major Peake said he was "feeling fantastic".

He was given a standing ovation by cheering members of the audience at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, where Esa human spaceflight operations are based.

The former helicopter test pilot gave a vivid description of the hair-raising journey through the Earth's atmosphere in a tiny Soyuz capsule measuring just over 6ft (1.8m) across.

He also spoke of his hope that the UK continues to fund manned space missions, and his relief at using a gravity-assisted toilet at last.

The "descent module" carrying Major Peake - the only part of the three-section Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft to complete the journey - parachuted on to a remote spot on the vast Kazakhstan steppe at 10.15am UK time on Saturday.

All three crew members are now undergoing an intense programme of rehabilitation and tests to help them re-adjust to Earth gravity and show scientists how their bodies have coped with 186 days in space.

The return to Earth began in dramatic fashion with the still-orbiting spacecraft literally blowing itself apart, said Major Peake.

Explosive bolts split the vehicle into three pieces with a sound like a "very heavy machine gun". Sitting in the middle section, the crew found themselves "tumbling" high above the Earth.

As it shot through the atmosphere, the craft's heat shield slowed its speed from 17,398mph (28,000kph) to 514mph (827kph) and raised the outside temperature to a scorching 1,600C (2,912F).

Major Peake said: "It's great being sat next to the window because you're able to look out ... I started seeing sparks and flames coming off because all the multi-layer insulation around the spacecraft is burning away."

Describing the plunge Earthwards, the astronaut added: "You're down at almost 100km and I looked out the window having spent six months watching planet Earth from 400km in a very controlled attitude.

"To look out the window and see Earth approaching at 100km in what looked like a fairly uncontrolled attitude was really quite surprising. You really get a very strong sensation that you are just falling back to the planet."

He told how the inside of the capsule got "extremely hot" as the G force pushing the crew members into the back of their seats built up to four-and-a-half times Earth gravity.

When the first parachutes deployed, the capsule was "completely flung around", he said.

Then came a heart-stopping moment when he thought the giant main parachute might not have released, because there was no jolt as expected.

"For a second I was concerned", said the astronaut. A quick glance at the Russian commander, Yuri Malenchenko, looking "relaxed and cool" put him at ease.

Major Peake admitted that re-adjusting to being back on Earth was harder than adapting to life in space.

But he added: "Even after three days, I'm feeling fantastic."

Asked if he would like to return to space, he said: "I would do it again in a heartbeat". He said he would be grateful for any mission, but top of his wish list was the moon.

"I think a dream would have to be a lunar exploration mission," the astronaut told the press conference.

Major Peake laughed when he was asked what it was like to use an Earth toilet again.

"Gravity is horrible when you come back to Earth, except in a few cases, and (when) using the loo, gravity is your friend," he said.

He also told how a traditional British breakfast helped to keep him grounded in space.

"The first thing you do on the space station is you make it normal," he said. "So you get up in the morning, you make a cup of tea and you have a bacon sandwich and you go to work .. "

The chances of other British astronauts following in his footsteps are likely to depend on what happens at the next Esa ministerial council meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, in December.

It is still not clear whether the British government will commit to providing further funding for the space agency's manned missions.

Major Peake said it was "extremely important" that the UK continued to play a role. "If we're not involved now then we are simply going to miss the boat," he stressed.

He was the first British astronaut to be sent on an ISS mission by Esa and only the second Briton ever to go into space.

The first was chemist Helen Sharman, who spent a week on the Russian Mir space station in 1991. Her trip was paid for by the Soviet government and a consortium of private sponsors.

Describing the spacewalk he made with Colonel Kopra in January, Major Peake compared it to rock climbing as he sought out handholds and tethering points on the Soyuz.

"Of course there's nervousness involved," he said. "You're apprehensive. It's an environment you've never been in before. So it's wonderful to be outside and executing the plan that you've trained so long for."

Esa's new director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, David Parker, also addressed the briefing.

Mr Parker, who began the job in April, was previously chief executive of the UK Space Agency.

He gave an outline of Esa's space plans, but offered no clue about British involvement in manned missions.

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