Tim Peake tells Etan Smallman about life on Mars, ageing in space – and being on Joe Biden’s to-read pile
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When Boris Johnson had to choose a gift to present to the US President at the White House last week, he opted for a book by Britain’s first official, government-supported astronaut.
Joe Biden received a signed copy of Tim Peake’s Hello, Is This Planet Earth? with an inscription expressing hopes that it “provides a reminder of what we’re fighting to save as our countries tackle climate change together”.
As Peake launches his next book – his first for children – this week, he is relying on the stamp of approval of two people much more important than either the President or PM his young sons Thomas and Oliver.
“They loved it,” he says of the environmental message at the heart of the novel, Swarm Rising. Peake bounced his sci-fi plotlines around with the boys on European camping holidays, “and they’ve also read every chapter as it’s been developed and given feedback”.
In the action-adventure story, co-written with children’s author Steve Cole, schoolboy protagonist Danny Munday is kidnapped by a “girl” named Adi (short for Alien Digital Intelligence). In fact, she is part of the Swarm, a super-advanced hive mind, which intends to protect the Earth from the environmental catastrophe caused by the human race.
It may sound far-fetched, but Peake’s real-life predictions are barely less fantastical.
He agrees with Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, that humanity will soon become a “multi-planetary species”.
“Yes, I think it’s going to happen relatively quickly. As a selfsustaining civilisation on another planet? I think we’re probably 50 to 100 years away from that,” he tells i from his home study in Hampshire, surrounded by space memorabilia including a model of the Soyuz TMA-19M rocket that took him into space. “In terms of landing your first humans on Mars, I think we’re 15 to 20 years away.
“But when I was writing Swarm Rising, what was interesting was thinking beyond that. Are we going to really travel beyond the solar system in a biological form, flesh and blood? Another solution of course is to upload, go digital and then travel at the speed of light as a signal, as a digital intelligence through the universe.”
These are ideas he has been mulling over for years, including while listening to the BBC podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage “when I was exercising on the space station”. He was absorbed by the prospect of uploading a human brain to a quantum computer. “That’s a potential for the future of humanity and a civilisation might have done that before us millions of years ago and already be out there.”
Peake is also concerned about the hazards for today’s space travellers.
Space junk is “a huge threat”, he warns. There are estimated to be 100 million pieces of debris bigger than 1mm across floating around the Earth, and a collision could shatter a satellite or spacecraft.
The chief of the Air Staff for the RAF suggested this year that Britain may soon follow the United States in creating its own “Space Force” to engage in what then-president Donald Trump said in 2019 was “the world’s new war-fighting domain”.
“Space exploration up until now has been very much an international peaceful collaboration,” says Peake. “Independent nations are now starting to have strategic assets in space that are vulnerable and those assets need protecting from other states. It’s an inevitable progression, unfortunately.”
In 2015, when Peake was preparing to blast off for his 186-day expedition to the International Space Station, a tabloid headline claimed he was the first ginger in space.
One thing he is happy to be is an interplanetary role model for a new kind of masculinity; a softly spoken foil to the stereotype of the macho spaceman of old.
“When people think of astronauts, they might think back to the Apollo era, the Mercury Seven, all fast-jet test pilots, and I think that now it’s very different, we’re a very diverse group. it’s good to be able to portray the reality of what the agencies are looking for.” Within the next four years, he also hopes to make one final, giant leap – as the first Briton to walk on the Moon.
When I mention that, in his fifties, his “dream mission” would also make him the oldest person to step foot on the dusty surface of the Earth’s only natural satellite, he chuckles.
“I’m not sure where you got that from. But yeah I’m certainly hoping for a second mission to space,” he says, adding that astronauts can put off retirement to 60 (though much will depend on the British government’s financial commitment to the European Space Agency).
“For a long-duration mission, we are looking at less than 60. If you are launching before that, then that’s fine. Beyond 60, it’s probably not advisable to be involved in the longer duration missions; not to say that it can’t happen but obviously space flight is physically and mentally demanding and it has a punishing effect on the body and the body’s ability to regenerate and recover reduces as we get older.”
So, I press, does he want to become the oldest Moonwalker? “Well, there’s plenty of older astronauts out there,” Peake says with another laugh. “So I’m sure some of them might get there before me.
“But, yeah, at the grand old age of 49, I’d like to still think I’ve got at least one more mission left in me.”
- ‘Swarm Rising’ by Tim Peake and Steve Cole is published by Hodder Children’s Books (£12.99) on Thursday