How the heck did I miss this? “Astronaut wanted,” ran the most exciting Sits Vacant there had ever been. Maybe, if I’d have spotted it I’d have presumed the ad was merely a sop to employment law and that the position had already been filled. Still, for a child of the Space Race, this was a shocking oversight.
Major Tim Peake didn’t miss the ad. He applied and got the job. Today at 11:03am (GMT) he will blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to become Britain’s first professional astronaut. Strapped on to the top of a 162ft metal tube known as a Soyuz FG and with 300 tonnes of rocket fuel igniting beneath him, he will reach a top speed of 17,500mph, requiring just eight minutes and 48 seconds to get into orbit and about six hours to reach his destination – the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth. There, the eighth Brit to venture into space will spend five months conducting a total of 265 experiments. Now, have I given you enough facts? Are you excited yet?
My wife is a bit younger than me. I say this not to boast, but to explain how we greeted news of this mission differently. While I think of Neil Armstrong, she thinks of Christa McAuliffe. While I remember Moon landings and thrilling talk of, one day very soon, Moon holidays in Moon hotels for everyone, she remembers a shocking explosion as the dream died along with the Challenger crew. “You’d never get me up in space,” she says. Me, I’d go tomorrow, or even today – what time’s the launch again?
I look at Maj Peake, a 43-year-old former army air corps test pilot from Chichester, and think, with more than a few tonnes of compressed envy ready to burn, why him? His head’s the wrong shape; it’s too long. It doesn’t appear to fit his space helmet, which is as beautifully, perfectly round as the Moon isn’t. But that apart I’m forced to concede he seems like a decent chap, and pretty much perfect for the role of modern British hero. Peake is not too dashing. I don’t know about you but I’m bored with James Bond. The over-sexed undercover agent, forever overdoing the understatement, has become over-muscled and underwritten.
Peake, when we’ve seen him undergo G-force training, is surprisingly skinny. And what a blow he strikes for gingers! He messes with the conventional wisdom which says that those responsible for jet propulsion should have jet-black hair with a reassuring touch of grey at the temples. Will a carrot-top have ever flown higher, both literally and metaphorically, than Peake?
He’s modest – outrageously so, given what he’s about to do. He’s a family man, notwithstanding that he’ll be missing Christmas with his Scottish wife Rebecca and their two young sons.
He’s quite clearly exceedingly brave, dismissing the dangers involved, although not in a self-regarding way. Other things frighten him more, he says, and although unspecified you can imagine like any dad they concern the well-being of his kids. Yuri Gagarin once said: “To enter an unprecedented duel with nature – is there any greater dream?” Maybe Peake’s words lack the lyricism of Gagarin’s; perhaps that’ll come when he gets to the Space Station and gazes back at his planet. Or maybe he’ll be inspired to find the words the first time – and this is bound to happen – that he hears “Ground Control to Major Tim”.
Before David Bowie’s Space Oddity for me, before Hawkwind’s In Search Of Space and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, there was Yuri, the original space hero, who also blasted off from the Baikonur. Did it matter that he was a Commie? Not to my primary school, it didn’t. We exalted the first man into space with crayon drawings of his handsome face, plus plasticine models of Vostok 1 and a few words of Russian by rote. Possibly this wasn’t strict education policy for the old Edinburgh Corporation, under benign Tory rule at the time, but then Gagarin had just done an absolutely stupendous thing.
Then there was Steve Zodiac, the jerky but unflappable pilot of Fireball XL5. Gerry Anderson’s early puppet series concerned a 300ft rocket which was launched horizontally and was best viewed with a toy ray-gun in one hand and a Zoom ice lolly in the other. The Space Race completely gripped small boys and I remember the crushing disappointment of discovering that Lost In Space’s Dr Zachary Smith, with whom I shared a name, wasn’t the hero of the piece but a fey, diabolical coward.
And then there was James Burke. Possibly after Neil Armstrong took his small step we got a bit complacent about the infinite possibilities of space travel. When disaster struck the Apollo 13 mission, Burke was on our screens, hoping against hope he wouldn’t be describing a tragedy. Patrick Moore, not yet cartoonishly eccentric, and Cliff Michelmore, the first autograph I owned, were there too but it’s Burke I remember, possessor of the grooviest specs on TV, head in his hands, fingers crossed, when he couldn’t bear to look as we waited for a glimpse of the capsule hurtling back to Earth.
Would it be in one piece? Would the crew be alive? How could we see anyway when the sky was grey and the sea sludgier still in those determinedly monochrome days? And suddenly there it was. And suddenly Burke was able to turn disaster into triumph, exclaiming: “It’s landed five seconds early!”
The 1960s, up there and down here, was a time of great optimism, a lot of it misplaced, some of it insane. But to re-work a hoary old phrase, if you remember the Space Race you truly were there and you won’t ever forget it. So, go Soyuz FG and go Tim Peake. I can almost forgive the fact you like Coldplay.