As he prepares for his first launch, Raleigh alumnus and astronaut Tim Peake explains how sustainability is at the heart of space travel.
At the tender age of 16, Tim Peake had his eyes fixed on a career path – to become an army pilot. Accepted into Sandhurst Military Academy at 17, he was advised to take a year out to gain some life experience. Already an active member of the cadets, Tim was used to spending his weekends wet and uncomfortable but his Raleigh Expedition to Alaska in 1991 took him well beyond his comfort zone.
“The cold was very challenging with deep snow on the ground and freezing temperatures at night which only crept into single digits in the daytime. We were working up to our waist in fast-flowing water monitoring salmon populations as well as repairing and building up dams. Half the group went down with mild hypothermia and medics had their work cut out delivering a flow of hot mugs of tea to people in sleeping bags. The places we were working were so remote: inaccessible by land, we were dropped off by speedboats into areas populated by black and grizzly bears to cut new forestry tracks. Living in harsh, demanding conditions makes for a great Expedition – otherwise it’s just a holiday.
During the second phase we kayaked around Prince William Sound to undertake research on the coastline. It wasn’t long after the Exxon Valdez oil spill so we were monitoring ecology and assessing the impact of the disaster. We were also tasked with mapping the coastline using huge Magellan GPS machines – brand new technology at the time – which were the size of housebricks. It hadn’t been accurately mapped before so this was important and exciting work – we frequently had humpback whales following our team and we saw sea lions and eagles. Getting to visit somewhere so remote with so little human impact was very powerful: I quickly realised how special this environment was and how important it was to work hard to keep it in that condition.
My kayaking instructor, who was ex-Parachute Regiment, had a huge effect on me – he was a very inspirational man who led us through tough times. Our kayak team only had 50% of the necessary food supplies for our time away and we were forced to fish every day to supplement our diet. It was the first time I had experienced the effects of real hunger in myself and those around me, how it changes people’s personalities.
On Expedition you have to work as a team, you have to work on getting to know people – you can’t just sit on the sidelines. That social interaction was a fantastic part of the whole experience. I still keep in touch with a couple of guys from the Falkland Islands who were on my Expedition – I found it amazing to speak with someone who had grown up in that distant environment.”
On returning to the UK, Tim began what would be an 18-year military career which took him all over the world. Logistics were a key issue once again: working as a resupply helicopter pilot, Tim provided humanitarian support, bringing vital resources to those in need and managing the local environment. “Both my time as a pilot and now as an astronaut have put me in a very privileged position, granting me a unique perspective on the world. Even though I haven’t yet set foot in space, I’m in touch with colleagues on board the International Space Station – which is primarily a research laboratory with equipment to monitor many different aspects of climate change, from glacial retreat to disintegrating lakes and erosion. In more recent years it has also become an incredible earth observation platform. Looking back at the earth, one of the most remarkable things that you notice is that there are no borders – just big continents and big oceans, and you just don’t see the borders between them. You see the world from a completely different perspective.
“We take sustainable technologies that have been developed for space and ask “how can we turn this around and use it for the benefit of people back on earth?”
Within the space industry, commercial companies are coming up with incredibly advanced products because of the criteria that space requires. One of our key ideas, and hopes, are ‘Technology Transfer Programmes’: we take sustainable technologies that have been developed for space, which are at the forefront of technology and innovation, and ask: “how can we turn this around and use it for the benefit of people back on earth?” The International Space Station, for instance, requires self-sufficiency in terms of recycling water, life support systems, having a clean environment and generating its own power. Last week in a class on Water Regeneration Systems, I learned that 75% of the urine produced on board is recycled back into potable water – which is pretty efficient! And that’s just urine – atmospheric moisture, water vapour and other liquids are also regenerated. The actual amount of pure water that we have to carry up with us is very little.
These are the areas that we can learn from – where people on the planet are struggling for drinking water, we can draw on these systems to help communities provide their own drinking water. We are constantly striving for better efficiency – 10 years ago solar panels were far too expensive and generated far too little power but today they are a very practical and efficient solution. The benefits from the Space Industry are slowly seeping into our lives back on earth.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield became famous when his version of the David Bowie song went viral but, before that, he had already generated over a million followers on Twitter purely from his photography: he has a very good eye for capturing images of earth which were like pieces of art, raising awareness of the beauty of the planet and addressing many environmental issues. Like many astronauts, Chris was also doing voluntary science education and outreach programmes to raise awareness in his own time. We are all constantly trying to raise awareness using all means available – channels like social media, through industry, through government, through education. That will form a large part of my mission as well – raising awareness across the whole of Europe about what we are doing on the Space Station, why it’s good and why it’s important – and how it actually reflects back and benefits Planet Earth.
I didn’t have a Twitter account until last year when I was assigned to a ‘Nemo’ mission where I spent 12 days living underneath the ocean in an underwater habitat as part of NASA’s exploration branch. We were researching an asteroid mission, using the ocean as a neutral buoyancy environment (as close to zero gravity as we can get) to give us a good idea about the kinds of tools and techniques and procedures that we’re going to need to use. It was such a fantastic, unique experience that I started tweeting then, in order to get that message out – and I’ve been tweeting ever since. I really enjoy it – the feedback is incredible and I realise that people are genuinely very interested and excited about what we are doing, about space and specifically about the technology. The process is having a fantastic knock-on impact in inspiring young people and adults to get involved.”