First UK astronaut Tim Peake embarks on ISS mission

It was a sight that would have been unthinkable in the godless Soviet era, when progress was the only recognised religion.

A Russian Orthodox priest blesses the media and well-wishers after a service at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Picture: PA

A Russian orthodox priest walked around the 49-metre high rocket about to carry British astronaut Tim Peake into space, sprinkling holy water on its fuselage and boosters and muttering prayers.

Meanwhile, on the eve of his historic launch to the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday, Major Peake said he was eagerly looking forward to his first glorious view of Planet Earth from space.

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He said: “I don’t think anything can truly prepare you for that moment and that will occur in the Soyuz spacecraft once we get injected into orbit I’ll be able to look out the right window and see the beautiful view.”

Maj Peake, 43, is the first British astronaut to be sent on a mission to the ISS. He is also the first fully British professional astronaut. Previous Britons in space have either had US or dual citizenship and worked for Nasa or been on privately funded or sponsored trips.

His wife Rebecca’s hometown is Comrie, Perthshire, and the couple live with their two sons, aged six and four, in Houston, Texas, the home of many astronaut families.

Maj Peake revealed Christmas had nearly slipped his mind in the hectic run-up to the launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Speaking alongside his two crew member colleagues from behind a glass partition, he said: “We’ve been so busy focused on this mission that I kind of forgot Christmas was just over a week away.

“Of course we’ll be enjoying the fantastic view of Planet Earth and our thoughts will be with everybody on Earth enjoying Christmas, and with our friends and family, of course.

“We’ll thankfully be able to give them a call on Christmas Day. I also hear a Christmas pudding went up on Orbital Four [a supply mission to the space station], so we’ll have some treats.”

He is employed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and wears a Union Flag on his sleeve. He smiled as he was introduced at the press to loud applause.

He said he had his colleagues to thank for preparing him psychologically and emotionally for the challenge to come. His intense training, which included living in a cave with other astronauts for seven days and spending 12 days underwater, had also played a key role.

“These missions really are analogues and they helped us prepare for space missions, but more importantly it’s the more informal casual discussions with your friends and colleagues who have flown in space,” he said. “That’s what really prepares you for what’s to come.”

During the Cold War, Russian space activities were cloaked in secrecy. Today, they are steeped in tradition and superstition. Blessing the rocket is a ritual that dates back to the mid-1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Yesterday’s ceremony took place at the spot from where Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, blasted off in 1961. The blessing is one of many Russian space travel rituals. Not all are religious, and one is bizarre.

On their way to the launch, the crew step off their bus at a hidden location and urinate on its wheels. One insider said: “Yuri Gagarin did this the first time, and that is why it has carried on.”

Whether Maj Peake observed this particular tradition may never be known.