About the Book

About the Author

Title Page


List of Questions





Life and Work on the ISS


Earth and Space

Return to Earth

Picture Section

Afterword: Looking to the Future


Photography Credits




Q My first question is simple: How can I become an astronaut? – Alexander Timmins, Year 9, Chichester Free School

A Well, you’ve picked a brilliant career to pursue, Alexander!

Just as the Apollo missions in the 1960s took a giant leap for mankind, so we are now on the cusp of a new golden age of space exploration. In the coming decades we can expect to colonise the Moon, set foot on Mars and travel deeper into our solar system than ever before. These dreams of human endeavour are now within touching distance, and we can all be a part of this remarkable journey.

You might say this whole book is dedicated to answering your question. And that’s because the response is not straightforward, since there is no set path to becoming an astronaut. I was 43 years old when I arrived on board the International Space Station (ISS) on 15 December 2015. I felt enormously privileged to be there and to be following the same career path as men and women I had revered all my life. It was hard to believe I had been fortunate enough to join this exclusive band of spacefarers.

A total of 545 people from 37 different nations had reached Earth’s orbit before me, since Yuri Gagarin’s first intrepid launch on 12 April 1961. As a small cadre of space explorers, we hail from a wide range of careers and backgrounds – school teachers, pilots, engineers, scientists and doctors – and from every corner of the globe. The one thing we all share is a love of exploration and a passion for human spaceflight.

Of course there are certain skills and characteristics that you need to possess as an astronaut, or acquire during training, and I’m confident that by the end of this book you’ll have a clear idea of what is the right stuff for today’s astronauts. Some of these attributes may surprise you – being good at languages, for instance, is extremely useful. Equally important is what you do before you become an astronaut. It’s key to find a career that you’re passionate about, and to be as good as you can be in that field. As we shall see, academic requirements only get you so far. It is your drive, your enthusiasm and, above all, your personality and character that will enable you to succeed.

Shortly after landing back on Earth I was asked in a press conference if I had a message for the children from my old school. My own journey had begun in a small village outside Chichester, on the south coast of England. It had taken nearly 18 years in the Army and a career as a test pilot to put me in the right place at the right time to become an astronaut. I replied, ‘You’re looking at a boy who went to Westbourne Primary School, who left school at the age of 18 with three average A-levels, and I’ve just got back from a six-month mission to space, so my message is: don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do anything you set your heart on.’

Make no mistake, becoming an astronaut is not easy. In fact it has been the single hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it has also been the most rewarding pursuit by far – full of tremendous experiences that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

So what is this book? And what’s with all the questions? Well, since returning from the ISS, I’ve been amazed by the warm response from thousands of people wishing to know more about my mission and what it takes to become an astronaut. I’ve enjoyed answering intriguing questions on every aspect of my mission, from ‘Does space smell?’ to ‘Is there gravity in space?’ and ‘What’s the grossest thing about living in space?’. There have been novel questions for me, such as ‘Is there a formal protocol for first contact with aliens?’; and more sobering ones, such as ‘What would happen if you were hit by space debris during a spacewalk?’. And of course there are fun ones, such as ‘Can you have a cup of tea in space?’ (the answer is, thankfully, yes!) and ‘How do you go to the toilet in space?’, which is by far the most popular question I get asked, particularly by younger children.

I wanted to answer and expand upon as many of these questions as I could, in order to provide my own definitive account of what being an astronaut is really like – the personal, the profound; the adventure, the astrophysics; the fear, the fun. I hope both the science and the everyday details of life in space are entertaining and informative, and may provide a useful reference or handbook for the next generation of spacefarers. After all, the first person to walk on Mars may well be reading this book.

Using the hashtag #askanastronaut, the project was opened up to users on social media. Many of the wonderful submissions from Twitter and Facebook are included in the book, as indicated by the names after some of the questions. In other cases, where more than one person asked the same or a similar question, I have created an amalgamation. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed to the project. Even if your name is not included on these pages, your curiosity and thoughtfulness have played an enormous role in shaping the book, and I am hugely grateful for your inquisitiveness.

I have tried to cover all of the key parts of my mission in this book, which is structured into seven chapters: ‘Launch’, ‘Training’, ‘Life and Work on the ISS’, ‘Spacewalking’, ‘Earth and Space’, ‘Return to Earth’ and ‘Looking to the Future’. As well as answering your questions, I have also answered some of my own. I have tried to share insights into my journey to space, from describing the training and preparation, to the science behind the ISS, the experiments on board, the beauty of Earth from 400 km up, the thrill of travelling at supersonic speeds through the atmosphere, the excitement and perils of walking in space, the camaraderie of the crew, and the change of perspective as a result of these astonishing experiences.

Writing and researching the book, and reliving my time on the space station, has been a fascinating experience. I hope that with such a variety of subjects covered, it will be of interest to readers of all ages. Some of the answers are quite long and technical, while others are much shorter. So to give you a taste of what is to come, here are a few quick questions and answers to get you started.

Q If you see 16 sunrises a day in space while orbiting Earth, when do astronauts celebrate New Year?

A Since the time zone on the space station is the equivalent of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the clock strikes midnight on New Year at the same time as in London. If nothing else, we need more British astronauts in space purely for this reason! However, each astronaut on board will usually celebrate New Year when it strikes midnight in their home nation.

Q Did you miss the weather on Earth when you were in space, and what did you miss the most?

A This is going to sound strange, but I really missed the rain. I had no access to a shower for six months and I love exercising outdoors, so when I was running on a treadmill, confined to a warm module on the space station, the idea of cold drizzle on my face sounded blissful.

Q What was your luxury item on board?

A The item that I got the most pleasure from was definitely my camera, since photography became a new-found passion whilst I was in space and a source of excitement, wonder and satisfaction. I treasure the photographs I took from space and, even looking back through them now, I can always remember exactly when and where the space station was when I took them. However, I wouldn’t describe our cameras as luxury items, since we regularly used them for valuable Earth observation science. In terms of pure decadence, I think the best luxury item was a small coolbox that arrived on the Dragon resupply spacecraft, addressed to the crew from the kind folk at SpaceX (which manufactures rockets and spacecraft), which just happened to be packed full of ice cream!

Q In the build-up to your mission, did you become less afraid of going into space, the more knowledge you acquired?

A During astronaut training (which we will explore in detail in Chapter 2), as you gain knowledge, it certainly helps to allay some of the concerns you may have about the higher-risk parts of a mission, such as performing a spacewalk, launch, re-entry and emergency situations. More importantly, knowledge gives you the ability to generate options to deal with difficult situations, and prevents you from making poor choices in the first place. As NASA astronaut and commander of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, once quipped, ‘A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skill.’

Our training is exemplary, and all astronauts owe a huge debt to the incredible team of trainers and instructors who dedicate themselves to ensuring that we are fully prepared to execute our mission safely and effectively.

I walked out to the launch pad feeling completely ready to go to space, eagerly anticipating the thrill and excitement of the best ride of my life. If you had asked me right then if I was afraid of going to space, my immediate reaction would have been to say, ‘No way!’ However, flying to space involves risks that no amount of knowledge, training or preparation can mitigate. All astronauts understand and weigh up these risks prior to launch, but no one can guarantee that something catastrophic (by which I mean loss of the spacecraft or crew) will not occur. Saying goodbye to my family just before launch was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. By strapping into a rocket you are voluntarily rolling the dice, and there’s a chance you will not be coming home.

Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger, and if someone doesn’t perceive a danger when sitting on top of ten storeys of highly flammable rocket fuel, then they probably don’t fully understand their predicament! A more accurate answer would have been to say, ‘Sure, there’s a part of me that’s afraid, but I’ve dealt with that and it’s not what I’m thinking about right now.’

This seems like a good time to introduce the first chapter: LAUNCH!



Q What does it feel like to sit on top of a 300-tonne rocket?

A 15 December 2015, Kazakhstan. 14.33 local time. Launch minus 2 hours, 30 minutes.

I was standing 50 metres above the launch site, at the top of the glistening Soyuz rocket, waiting to climb inside. It was a gloriously clear winter’s day. Looking out over the sprawling Baikonur Cosmodrome and the vast expanse of grassland that was the Kazakh Steppe, my senses were in overdrive absorbing the last sights, smells and sounds of planet Earth before I left for six months.

As I climbed aboard our tiny capsule, situated within the nose-fairing of the rocket, the vehicle felt completely alive beneath me. Cryogenic fuel was continuously boiling off, covering the base of the rocket in an eerie white fog. This sub-zero propellant caused a layer of thin ice to cover the lower two-thirds of the rocket, transforming the usual orange-and-green livery of the Soyuz into a dazzling white in the afternoon sunshine. We had enjoyed a close-up view of the rocket as we took the lift-ride up to our capsule. With it fully fuelled with 300 tonnes of liquid oxygen and kerosene, hissing and steaming within its metal support structure that held it in place prior to ignition, you get a real sense of the incredible engineering it takes to escape the force of Earth’s gravity. I’ve strapped into many aircraft in my career, but I’m certain nothing will ever come close to the exhilaration of climbing aboard a rocket prior to launch. I didn’t feel nervous; quite the opposite. I had waited a long time for this moment and, despite trying to maintain a calm, professional focus, I was only too aware of a boyish excitement building deep within me.

We always climb into the capsule in a specific order. The first one in is the left-seater (Tim Kopra in our case), then the right-seater (myself), then finally the Soyuz commander (Yuri Malenchenko). First, we had to enter the crammed habitation module through a horizontal hatch and then wiggle our way, feet first, down through a vertical hatch to enter the descent module. There’s no ladder, but there are footholds that help.

We had to be very careful squeezing past the vertical hatch as it contained the antenna, which would be needed six months later to transmit our location to the search-and-rescue crews after landing. It was a real squeeze getting into the seat. Unlike the Soyuz simulator back in Star City, Russia, where we had trained, the spacecraft was packed to full capacity with cargo. Initially I dropped down into the commander’s seat and then cautiously shifted across, feet first, into my right-hand seat. Everything had to be done very slowly and carefully. This was not the time to tear my spacesuit or cause damage to the spacecraft. I thought of all the times I’d been caving, during my training, and was grateful for having had some experience of working in extremely confined spaces.

As soon as I was in my seat, there were two electrical cables and two hoses that had to be connected to the Sokol spacesuit. The electrical cables were for my communications headset and medical harness, which I had donned earlier. All crew wear a medical harness next to their chest, which measures heart rate and breathing rate, with the data being transmitted back to our flight surgeons. The two hoses were for air (for cooling and ventilation) and 100 per cent oxygen (used only in the case of an emergency depressurisation). Having made these connections, the next steps were to connect my knee braces, which would prevent injury to my legs during any high g-loading that might occur during launch, and to secure my five-point harness. There was just enough room for one ground-crew member to help me strap in and hand me my checklists.

As I counted the minutes until launch, meticulously reviewing the checklist one last time and mentally visualising the crucial minutes and hours ahead, there was time for one final tradition to be observed, to get the adrenaline flowing. Each cosmonaut is allowed three songs to be piped into the capsule before lift-off. I had elected for ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen, ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2 and ‘A Sky Full of Stars’ by Coldplay. As the crew’s chosen compilation faded, and with only moments to go until ignition, there was one last surprise. Through our headsets, and drowning out the loud burr of the rocket, we heard the familiar synthesiser notes and guitar chords of ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe, chosen by our Soyuz instructor – who says the Russians don’t have a sense of humour!

The first time I watched a Soyuz rocket launch (other than on a screen) was in June 2015, six months prior to my own launch. Along with fellow Soyuz crewmates Yuri Malenchenko and Tim Kopra, I had travelled to Baikonur in Kazakhstan as backup for the Expedition 44/45 crew (the previous team of astronauts to visit the ISS). Our job was to mirror the prime crew and support them in any way we could. Although we were the backup crew and were ready to launch to space, having passed all the necessary exams a couple of weeks earlier, the likelihood of us actually replacing the prime crew was very slim. However, being in Baikonur gave me the perfect opportunity to see a full dress rehearsal, including watching my first rocket launch. I had tried to watch the Space Shuttle Discovery launch several years earlier, when fellow European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Christer Fuglesang launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But the first launch was delayed due to weather concerns, the second attempt was called off due to an anomaly in one of the Orbiter’s fuel valves, and days later, just as Discovery launched into space, I was on a plane heading back to Europe to begin my training at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany … Murphy’s law!

Watching the Soyuz launch in June 2015 more than made up for any earlier disappointment. What made it more spectacular was how close we were when it lifted off the launch pad. Yuri, Tim and I were sitting on the roof of the search-and-rescue tower, about 1.5 km away from the rocket. It was gone 3 a.m. on a beautifully clear night and, when I saw the main engines light up, followed by a deep roar a few seconds later, a huge grin spread across my face. But my expression soon changed to one of astonishment. What I had heard so far was merely the engines at intermediate thrust, when there’s a brief pause for a checkout. As the main engines opened up to full power, the noise engulfed me – a powerful rumble of deep bass notes that reverberated around my chest cavity. Just when I thought it couldn’t be any more impressive, the Soyuz lifted off the launch pad and, as it climbed, a deafening crackle filled the air.

A few months later, sitting in my Soyuz seat at just past 5 p.m. local time, I was listening intently to our instructor’s voice through my headset, whilst my eyes were glued to the digital clock in front of me. Of all the times in your life when you expect a good old-fashioned countdown, a rocket launch would be one of them. Disappointingly, this is not the case! As the engines ignited to intermediate thrust and the turbopumps accelerated to flight speed, our instructor was announcing the stages of this final sequence, giving the crew cues as to when launch would occur, but there is no actual countdown. As we heard the call that the engines were at full thrust, which occurs five seconds prior to launch, the feeling of pent-up power from the rocket beneath us was immense. In the final seconds before lift-off, the noise and vibration inside the capsule are such that you have no idea whether you have left the launch pad or not. I felt the rocket sway markedly and noted the clock running over time. We were off! As I heard the distinctive crackle from the brute force of the rocket engines and the acceleration started to kick in, I reflected back to six months ago and how it must feel to everyone watching.

Oddly, the noise is not as impressive inside the capsule as it is outside. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still extremely loud. However, when you’re wearing a communications cap under a sealed spacesuit helmet, it provides a fair degree of sound insulation. What’s far more impressive inside the spacecraft are the sheer energy, vibration and acceleration that you experience; it feels almost visceral. But there’s no violent explosion, no ringing of ears, and you can’t see anything out of the windows, since the rocket’s nose-fairing is still protecting the spacecraft at this point.

In a matter of a few minutes we would be travelling at speeds of 8 km per second – the equivalent of London to Edinburgh in under 90 seconds. It was hard to contain the thrill; I couldn’t stop smiling.

This chapter chronicles the launch of the Soyuz rocket from the moment of ignition to the moment it docks with the ISS. Flying to space has to be one of the most amazing and surreal experiences, but flying to space with the Russians, as we did, is perhaps even more remarkable. The Russian philosophy of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies not only in their approach to engineering, but indeed to everything surrounding human spaceflight, which is steeped in history and tradition. If it worked for Yuri Gagarin, then it will work for the cosmonauts and astronauts of today. This means that the weeks, days and hours before launch are filled not only with essential operational tasks, but also with many important traditions and rituals that have to be upheld. We’ll pick up the specifics of launch day again a few pages later on, but first let’s examine the launch site in a bit more detail.

Q Why do astronauts launch from Kazakhstan?

A The Baikonur Cosmodrome, situated in the desert steppe of southern Kazakhstan, is the world’s first and largest operational space-launch facility. Ever since the American Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011, it has been the only launch site in the world used to ferry crew to the International Space Station. But this fabled Russian launch pad dates back to the 1950s, when it was built by the Soviets. The first manned spacecraft in human history, Vostok 1, was launched from Baikonur in 1961; and the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, even earlier in 1957. What makes launches at the Cosmodrome particularly dramatic are the visual pyrotechnics. Unlike at some other launch sites around the world, where water is hosed under the rockets at ignition to douse the flames and muffle the sound, at Baikonur they don’t use water, partly because of the desert setting. This makes for a fiery lift-off!

As you would expect, a lot of thought and planning goes into the location of such a launch site. If you want to optimise the efficiency of getting cargo into space, then you can actually use Earth’s west-to-east rotation to give you a bit of a free kick in that direction. This ‘free’ velocity is not insignificant and is at its maximum at the equator, around 1,670 km/h … that’s faster than the speed of sound! Of course when you stand at the equator you don’t feel this velocity because the air around you is travelling at the same speed. But when you’re launching into space, that extra punch really matters. As you travel away from the equator, the free velocity decreases, until it reaches zero at the north and south poles – the point at which the surface of Earth is just spinning on its axis of rotation.

So a rocket launching nearer the equator has a head start, which means less fuel is required to get it to orbit, which in turn means that a heavier payload can be carried, in place of fuel. But take a look at a world atlas and you’ll see that Russia is not blessed with low latitudes. The vast majority of the territory is above 50°N and, having spent a few winters in Russia, I can vouch for its non-tropical climate.

Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, sits at 46°N. Not exactly equatorial, I hear you cry, but at least it’s farther south than most of Russia. Of course there’s more to the story than simply latitude. The site was originally selected in 1955, as a test range for the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. Only later was it expanded to include launch facilities for space flights. As a missile test range, it had to be surrounded by flat plains in order to ensure uninterrupted radio signals from the ground-control stations. Additionally, the missile trajectory – headed for test targets 7,000 km away in Kamchatka – had to be away from populated areas. Baikonur and the Kazakh Steppe fulfilled all these criteria, in addition to having a water supply from the Syr Darya river and the Moscow–Tashkent railroad not a million miles away.


There’s another reason for launching as close to the equator as possible, in addition to cashing in on Earth’s ‘free’ rotational velocity. It gives you a greater choice of orbital inclination. This measures the tilt of an orbit and is expressed as an angle between the equator and the axis of direction of the orbiting object.

An easy way to imagine this is to think of a rocket launched from the north pole. It doesn’t matter which direction you point that rocket, it can only go south. It will be inserted into a polar orbit (passing over the north and south poles of the planet), with an inclination of 90 degrees. Conversely, a rocket launched from the equator can point in any direction and can be inserted into any orbital inclination. For locations in between, the choice of orbital inclination is limited by the launch site’s latitude.

This rule can be broken by throwing fuel at the problem and doing an ‘orbital plane-change manoeuvre’. However, it takes an awful lot of fuel to tilt an object’s inclination, once inserted into orbit, and most mission planners try to avoid this at all costs.


Did you know?

• As Baikonur developed into the world’s premier space launch facility, its latitude later became a major constraint when deciding the orbital inclination of the International Space Station, which is 51.6 degrees.

• There are many other launch sites around the world. The United States have a long history of human spaceflight launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and two new spacecraft (Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon) are due to begin launching crews to the ISS from US soil once again, by the end of this decade. The Chinese use the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, located in the Gobi Desert, for their human spaceflight programme.

Q How long do astronauts spend in quarantine before launch, and can anyone visit them?

A The purpose of astronaut quarantine before a mission is to ensure that the prime crew remain fit and healthy, arriving at the ISS free from virus or infection. The length of time spent sequestered like this varies, but it’s usually around two weeks. As members of the Expedition 46/47 crew, we spent 15 days in quarantine, and this was a chance to complete some last-minute administration and final Soyuz training prior to launch. By this late stage there wasn’t much preparation left to do, so we also had the chance to relax and see family and friends who had come to watch the launch.

Being confined to quarantine didn’t mean that we couldn’t see anyone, but a strict regime was enforced by the Russian medical staff, which limited face-to-face visits to just a few immediate family members. These members all had to undergo a quick medical examination from the flight surgeon prior to each visit with a crew member. Unsurprisingly, this luxury wasn’t extended to youngsters under the age of 12, who have a tendency to be walking biohazards – especially during the winter months. Baikonur is rarely above freezing in December, which made it tough on my two young boys, who sometimes struggled to understand why they could only see their daddy sitting behind a big glass panel.

However, quarantine is most definitely a necessary precaution, and I sympathise with the medical staff who have to enforce it. This lesson was reinforced as early as 1968, during the 11-day Apollo 7 mission. First Wally Schirra, the veteran commander, and then rookie crewmates Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele all developed serious head-colds. That’s the problem with a spacecraft – the confined space, recirculated air, reduced ability to wash and frequent contact with common surfaces and other crew make for a viral Mardi Gras, and soon everyone on board has succumbed to the pathogen. We go to great lengths to ensure that the space station remains clean, sanitised and as healthy a place to live and work as possible – and that task starts in quarantine, prior to launch.

Q What do you do to prepare, on the day of launch?

A Unsurprisingly, on launch day everything is determined by the time of the launch. Although the exact time of each Soyuz launch will vary, the strict schedule leading up to launch is set in stone. Every Soyuz crew goes through the same precise routine – everything starts on time, everything stops on time. It’s an incredibly thorough process, which is executed with the utmost efficiency, with plenty of buffers built in to ensure there is never any rush. This not only prevents anything important being forgotten, but the whole process ensures that the crew is delivered, dressed and ready for the bus ride to the launch pad, in the correct frame of mind – confident, relaxed and raring to go. Here is the timeline of morning activities for our launch:

07.55–08.05 Wake up, hygiene procedures (10 mins)
08.05–08.15 Medical check (10 mins)
08.15–09.15 Special medical procedures (60 mins)
09.15–09.35 Hygiene wash (shower) (20 mins)
09.35–09.40 Microbiological control (5 mins)
09.40–09.50 Special medication of the skin (10 mins)
09.50–09.55 Putting on underwear to go under the Sokol spacesuit (5 mins)
09.55–10.05 Walk to the cosmonaut hotel (10 mins)
10.05–10.35 Meal, toilet (30 mins)
10.35–10.55 Cosmonaut farewell (20 mins)
10.55–11.00 Traditional signing of the crew-room door (5 mins)
11.00–11.05 Religious custom (5 mins)
11.05–11.10 Getting on the buses (5 mins)
11.10 Departure to Building 254 (to don Sokol spacesuit)

The ten-minute medical check was the same one we had been having each morning during our time in quarantine: basic vital signs, plus weight check. This was to try and ensure that we had not picked up a virus or infection and, of equal importance, that we had not put on (too much!) weight. The food was so good and plentiful in the days leading up to launch that this was not as easy as it sounds. Changes in crew weight affect a spacecraft’s centre of mass, which had been precisely calculated to ensure a safe and accurate journey into space. Fortunately, I managed to maintain my 70 kg … more or less.

I should take a minute to describe the ‘special medical procedures’. It will not come as a surprise to many to learn that most astronauts wear adult incontinence pants during launch (otherwise known as nappies, diapers or – as NASA likes to call them – ‘Maximum Absorbency Garments’ or MAGs). This has nothing to do with protecting against the excitement of being launched into space on top of a 300-tonne firework, but instead concerns the simple fact that you are in your spacesuit for about ten hours on launch day – and that’s a long time for anyone to hold on, even those with the strongest of bladders!

However, the ‘special medical procedures’ referred to on the timeline were not related to bodily function No. 1. They were, in fact, all about No. 2. As a means of avoiding any unwanted distractions on launch day, and to give the digestive system a day or two to get used to microgravity before a call of nature, astronauts are offered an enema before they fly. In fact I was offered the choice of a US-style or Russian-style enema (I can only guess the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies have yet to perfect their own styles!). For the life of me, I can’t remember what the difference was, and by that point I didn’t have much spare brain capacity to allocate to the decision anyway – all I can say is that the Russian style worked just fine.

Having been cleansed thoroughly internally, the next stage was for an equally thorough external cleansing. Following a shower using special antimicrobial soap and a dry-off with a sterile towel, our job was to remain stoically naked and call for the flight surgeon. You learn very early on, as a wannabe astronaut, to hang up your pride. The pathway to space is littered with indignities, such as sigmoidoscopies, endoscopies, enemas and no end of prodding and poking. To that end, a quick body wipe-down from the flight surgeon with special antibacterial towels was not hard to endure, and following this we were able to get dressed in our sterile white long johns and long-sleeved underwear.

The last meal before spaceflight is usually shared with the backup crew and the Russian flight surgeon. This was a great opportunity to relax and enjoy some good-hearted banter before things got a bit more serious. Traditionally this is a breakfast menu, with a choice of eggs, bacon, kasha (hot cereal, made with grains boiled in milk), bread, ham, cheese, jam or some fruit. There is always plenty of good Russian tea, too. I ate well, knowing that my next hot meal would not be for several hours – and there would be nothing fresh about it. Then, after breakfast, the formalities began. As prime crew, we met up with our partners in a small private room, along with the backup crew and senior management from the various space agencies that were represented. There was an opportunity for toasts to the success of the mission and to the well-being of family and friends left behind (I should add that the prime crew have to stick to water – not champagne or vodka, more’s the pity!). Then we said a quick farewell to our partners: the last chance for a few private words before stepping out in front of the cameras.

The first of several traditions on launch day was for each crew member to sign the door where they were staying in the ‘Cosmonaut Hotel’ in Baikonur. This was a very special moment – to be able to add my signature alongside so many inspirational men and women who had trodden this path before me. Next was the blessing of the crew by a Russian Orthodox priest, waiting at the end of the corridor. Following the blessing, we descended the three flights of stairs leading to the hotel foyer to a catchy Russian rock anthem by Земляне (Earthlings) played at full volume. Called ‘Трава у Дома’ (‘The Grass Beside our Home’), it tells the story of a cosmonaut’s love for Earth. Admittedly this was one tradition that didn’t date back to 1961, but was a welcome addition a few years later – you certainly felt pretty pumped about jumping on a rocket by the time you got to the bottom of the stairs! Waiting outside the hotel were friends and family to wave us off as we boarded the bus for the 30-minute ride to Building 254, which is where we donned our Sokol spacesuits. There was time for one final farewell to immediate family members from behind the glass, prior to walking out for the bus ride to the launch pad.


Did you know?

Here are some quick-fire facts about the Sokol spacesuit:

• It was introduced in 1973 and was designed for wear inside a spacecraft, not for spacewalking.

• It inflates using 100 per cent oxygen, to protect the crew in the event that the spacecraft loses pressure (there are two spacesuit pressure settings: 0.4 bar or 0.27 bar, for not more than five minutes).

• It is individually tailored to each astronaut.

• It can be self-donned in two to three minutes, although during suit-up on launch day the engineers will usually take around ten minutes, to check that everything is perfect.

• It has a rubberised neck seal, in the event of a water landing.

• It weighs only 10 kg.

• The pressure seal is made by wrapping two rubber bands around the main opening.

• It’s pretty comfortable to wear sitting down, but not so much standing up. That’s why astronauts always appear hunched over when they walk out to the bus that takes them to the launch pad.

Q Is it true that astronauts pee on the bus tyre, prior to launch?

A One of the many wonderful (and sometimes weird) traditions that the Russians follow, prior to launch, is to have a pee en route to the launch pad. Actually, if you are about to be stuck in a rocket for several hours, this makes plain good sense. Tradition has it that Yuri Gagarin was on his way to the launch pad in 1961 and needed to urinate one last time. Little did he realise, when he chose the back-right tyre of the bus for his bathroom break, that he would be setting in stone a ritual that has lasted for well over 50 years.

The only problem is that by this stage the crew is pretty much ready to go to space, fully dressed in a spacesuit that has already been made airtight and leak-checked. As the bus pulled up for the mandatory loo stop, I remember fumbling with the shoelace-type fasteners and rubber-banded pressure seals, undoing the good work that those technicians, with their protective masks and sterile gloves, had painstakingly done for us less than an hour earlier.

However, I was thankful for the opportunity to relieve myself one last time, and the whole experience was made more poignant by the fact that we were also headed to the same launch pad that Gagarin left Earth from, on 12 April 1961.


Did you know?

Other Russian traditions for the prime crew, prior to launch, include:

• A visit to Red Square to lay flowers at the graves of Yuri Gagarin and Sergey Korolev (considered the ‘father’ of Russia’s space programme).

• A breakfast ceremony prior to leaving Star City for Baikonur (in accordance with Russian superstition, everyone sits in silence for a few moments before leaving).

• Planting a tree in the Avenue of the Cosmonauts grove in Baikonur.

• Not watching the roll-out of the Soyuz rocket – that’s considered bad luck for the prime crew.

• Having the train that pulls the Soyuz crush coins on the rails, to invite good luck.

• Getting a haircut two days before launch.

• Watching the 1969 film White Sun of the Desert on the night before launch.

• Blessing of the Soyuz rocket by a Russian Orthodox priest.

• The Soyuz commander choosing the mascot – usually a small cuddly toy that hangs from the instrument panel and is the first object to float, on reaching orbit.

Q How did you all fit in that Soyuz capsule?

A Ha! There’s no doubt about it, the Soyuz is a tight squeeze – and that’s coming from someone who is 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 70 kg. It can also be painful sometimes, because you spend a long time in a kind of foetal position, with your knees bent more than 90 degrees, which is not comfortable. However, it’s a small price to pay for the ride of your life! Once you are in orbit, you can loosen your harness and float up a little bit out of your seat. It doesn’t sound like much, but I found that by doing that, life became a whole lot more comfortable.

The Soyuz descent module is slightly smaller than the Apollo command module (and way smaller than the Space Shuttle or the new Orion deep-space exploration vehicle). Despite being pretty cramped, we had spent so much time training in the simulator that the Soyuz had become a home-from-home. If anything, it felt kind of cosy, and the small space didn’t bother me at all. Having said that, I would have the luxury of a short journey to the space station, arriving in a matter of hours after launch. Some crews have to spend two days in that confined space, prior to docking with the ISS.

Q How much computing power does the Soyuz have?

A Our Soyuz was a version called TMA-M (Transport Modified Anthropometric), which first flew in October 2010. It replaced 36 obsolete pieces of equipment with 19 modifications from the previous spacecraft, such as seat changes, glass cockpit displays, parachute system, soft-landing jets and three-axis accelerometers. One of the main upgrades was to replace the Argon digital computer that weighed 70 kg (that’s not a misprint – 70 kg!). The Argon was a reliable computer that had been used in the Soyuz for more than 30 years. However, its performance statistics were not that impressive, being on a par with the so-called Apollo Guidance Computer used for the Moon landings. The new computer, called a ЦВМ 101 (central computer), whilst being several orders of magnitude better than the old Argon, still pales in comparison to the computing power of an average smartphone. Let’s take a look:


However, the Soyuz does have more than one computer. There’s also a TBM (terminal computer) and a KЦП (central post computer), but neither is going to change the fact that the Soyuz really doesn’t need a lot of computing power to fly to space!


Did you know?

• The Soyuz TMA descent module can actually accommodate someone as tall as 6 feet 3 inches, weighing 95 kg, or as small as 4 feet 11 inches, weighing 50 kg.

• The descent module is just 2.2 metres in diameter, with a habitable volume of 3.5 cubic metres.

• In addition to a crew of three, the Soyuz can return about 50 kg cargo back to Earth.

• The entire Soyuz spacecraft weighs about 7,150 kg, but the descent module itself weighs 2,950 kg.

• The Soyuz can remain in space for 210 days (docked to the ISS in hibernation mode).


Q How many ‘g’s do you experience on launch?

A The amount of ‘g’ (or acceleration) experienced during launch depends upon which rocket you’re riding – every rocket has its own g-profile, which describes the acceleration that you would feel on your body throughout the entire ride into space. At first glance, it can look a bit messy. Below is the g-profile for our Soyuz TMA-19M:

So why the three peaks on the graph? Well, getting into orbit takes an awful lot of energy. We use rocket fuel to provide this energy, but rocket fuel is heavy and has to be contained within solid structures. Once the fuel has been burnt, we no longer need the structure and so we jettison empty fuel tanks on the way up, in order to reduce weight. This is called ‘staging’ and the Soyuz rocket has three stages. What this means for the crew is that the ‘g’ we experience during launch will vary, depending on which stage we are riding and how much fuel we have burnt.

You can see that the greatest acceleration occurred during the first stage. This was when we had all four first-stage boosters firing in addition to the second stage, delivering about nine million horsepower and accelerating faster than a Formula 1 racing car. As we burnt fuel, the rocket began to get lighter, but it was still producing the same phenomenal amount of thrust, which is why the acceleration kept building, to a peak of just over 4g. This was an amazing feeling, being pinned further and further into my seat, tensing my stomach muscles, concentrating on the good breathing technique that I had been taught a few months earlier in the centrifuge … and trying not to laugh out loud at the thrill of it all.


When the first stage was jettisoned, there was a big jolt and a rapid deceleration. Inside the Soyuz, it actually felt like we were being pitched forward, and there was a sensation of falling. Soon the g-load slowly built again as the second stage started to pick up the pace, albeit a much more sedate ride than the first stage. It was during this second stage that I decided to give a ‘thumbs-up’ to the camera. One of the commander’s jobs during launch is to switch cameras so that Mission Control can observe all the crew members at different times. As Yuri switched cameras, we were only experiencing 1.5g, which is why it was easy to raise my arm and wave.


Another jolt and the second stage was falling to Earth, leaving behind the final third stage, with our spacecraft perched on top. I thought the third stage was the most exhilarating part of the launch. Although the acceleration wasn’t as aggressive as the first stage, the rocket was almost horizontal at this point, having already ascended into space. The feeling of pure speed was overwhelming and I remember thinking, ‘How much longer can this possibly go on for?’ When the third-stage engine cut out, there was another big jolt, except this time it went eerily quiet and suddenly objects were floating inside the spacecraft – we were in orbit.