Oration for Tim Peake

By Mr Nigel Siesage

47 years ago, when Neil Armstrong took that one small step and that giant leap, Tim Peake was not yet born. But there will be many in this planetarium today who have vivid – indeed formative – memories of that first human landing on the moon. Perhaps as sleepy children they were allowed out of their beds to watch those grainy pictures of the momentous occasion.

Pablo Picasso is alleged to have said of that event, “It means nothing to me”. But the great artist was for once behind rather than ahead of the times. The inspirational impact of space exploration and space science on successive generations has been and continues to be immense. When the University of Leicester conceived the idea of this National Space Centre as a fitting celebration of the millennium, it recognised that the fascination with space – felt by our ancestors since the beginning of human life - could be imaginatively employed to inspire young people to pursue science and engineering in many different forms; and this same ambition is perfectly reflected in Tim Peake’s remarkable Principia mission and six month voyage on the International Space Station.

This would have seemed an unlikely outcome when Tim was born, in 1972, in the Chichester area, the son of a midwife and a journalist. Britain at the time had no space programme worthy of the name, even though this University had already been actively involved in space missions for several years. All the running was being made by the USA and the Soviet Union. The possibility that someone from the UK might join the select band of astronauts and cosmonauts seemed remote indeed.

Tim, leading a normal schoolboy’s life in West Sussex, may have imagined going into space, but had no such expectations for himself – though there was a clue to his future career in an early fascination with flying, prompted by visits to air shows with his father. That interest became reality when Tim, having trained at Sandhurst, joined the Army Air Corps, qualifying as a helicopter pilot two years later. Tim describes this as “the start of a four-year adventure, flying reconnaissance missions all over the world”, including active service during the 1990s Balkans war.

By this time, the list of Brits in space was no longer empty. Helen Sharman had flown on a Russian Soyuz mission in 1991. The competition she won for selection had shown how much enthusiasm there was in the country for involvement in space exploration, but it remained an isolated achievement. Meanwhile, Tim went on to become a helicopter instructor, and developed an interest in aircraft performance, which led in turn to membership of the prestigious Empire Test Pilots’ School and a degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation. He became the senior test pilot for the Apache helicopter – a role in which he relished pushing aircraft where nobody had taken them before, in speed or altitude.

For many this career would have satisfied any desire for adventure, but not Tim. In 2008 he “happened to see” (his words) a European Space Agency advert for new astronauts. His extensive flying and other experience and his academic qualifications made him well placed to apply – but he was up against over 8,000 other applicants. He successfully negotiated the demanding assessments, spread over a year, testing his intelligence and skills, memory, spatial awareness and concentration, his personality and health, and was offered one of six new places in the European Astronaut Corps.

There followed a move to Cologne with his family, and an even more physically and mentally demanding period of training, some in the classroom, some more practical, including team working, long periods under water and underground, spacewalk training, and (for Tim apparently the hardest part) learning Russian.

Only after all this was he finally selected for a specific mission, becoming the first British ESA astronaut to live and work in space, and only the second person (after Helen) to wear the Union flag as a patch on his spacesuit. Tim’s 6 month mission on the International Space Station involved many other firsts, ranging from the first spacewalk by a British ESA astronaut and the first space participant in the London marathon, to becoming the first person to enjoy a bacon sandwich as his first space meal – specially created for him by Heston Blumenthal.

Principia was of course far more than an opportunity to fly the flag or enter the record book. Like all ESA missions, it had a serious scientific purpose. Tim conducted more than 30 experiments for ESA. More remarkable, the mission involved the largest education programme ever put together in support of a European astronaut. Activities, live links and resources designed for schools were outstanding features of the mission, covering biology, rocket science, fitness (that’s where the marathon came in) and food science (there’s that bacon sandwich).

And today, we’ve had the launch of Astro Academy Principia – a series of teaching experiments conducted in space, to illustrate fundamental aspects of physics and chemistry, comparing results in micro-gravity with those in classrooms on Earth. The full programme, including experiment kit, procedures, teaching films, post-flight analysis and support guides, was devised and built by the National Space Academy, qualified for spaceflight by the University of Leicester, and conducted by Tim on the International Space Station. It will support science students and teachers across Europe for many years to come.

55 years after Gagarin, space travel is still dangerous and immensely demanding. Tim’s own exceptional personality has played an enormous part in the outstanding success of his mission. Those who have observed him at work, both on the ground and in space, testify that Tim has the necessary characteristics in abundance: he is calm, cool and collected in the face of some of the greatest challenges an individual can encounter, a master of the detail of his tasks, and at the same time charming, relaxed and humorous.

Two thousand years ago, Seneca said, “Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate”. Tim Peake has demonstrated the value of the continuous urge to investigate, and has given us a model for how it should be done.

Mr President and Vice-Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Timothy Nigel Peake, that you may confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

Delivered by Mr Nigel Siesage, 14 October 2016

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