Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 12:27 UK

Europe unveils British astronaut

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, Paris


The BBC's Alasdair Sandford speaks to Timothy Peake

Timothy Peake, a 37-year-old test pilot in the Army Air Corps, has been accepted into the European Space Agency's (Esa) Astronaut Corps.

The spaceman, who hails from Chichester, was unveiled at a ceremony in Paris, along with five other new colleagues from across Europe.

The other recruits to emerge from Esa's latest trawl for new candidates include a woman astronaut.

There are two Italians, a Frenchman, a German, and a Dane.

But it is the UK citizen who is sure to command a lion's share of the headlines.

Successive British governments have considered human spaceflight an expensive distraction, preferring to fund robotic exploration instead.

This policy has made it extremely difficult for British-born individuals to get into orbit.

"I hope it will now encourage the British government to contribute," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of Esa. "With such a good guy [in Timothy Peake], how can they not contribute?"

Major Peake currently lives in Salisbury, Wiltshire. He is a helicopter test pilot and has a degree in flight dynamics.

He has been in the armed forces for 18 years. He flies primarily Apache helicopters and has over 3,000 hours to his credit.

New recruits

The 37-year-old Briton thanked his friends and family for their support during the selection process. He said: "It has been quite a difficult year and the waiting has been quite difficult during the past few weeks.

"If it wasn't for the British Army, I wouldn't be in this position, so I'm very grateful for the training and support I've received from them also."

The first Briton in space was Sheffield-born chemist Helen Sharman. She had to secure private funding to fly to the Mir space station on a Russian Soyuz craft in 1991.

Four British-born astronauts have flown into space under an American flag: Michael Foale, Piers Sellers, Nicholas Patrick and Greg Johnson.

Esa astronauts (Esa)
From 8,000 to six: Esa announced its new astronauts in Paris

The most recent non-governmental British-born astronaut was Richard Garriott. The wealthy games developer paid for his trip, again through the Russians.

But the European Space agency says its new astronauts were judged solely on their ability to do the job, not on national government policy.

Timothy Peake and his new colleagues will now train to fly to the space station and with renewed interest in the Moon, they could conceivably also get to walk on the lunar surface one day.

He reflected on how he might feel, sitting on a launch pad atop a rocket waiting to blast into space.

J-J Dordain (AFP)

"I think it's going to be the most incredible experience in the world, without a shadow of a doubt. The adrenalin will be thoroughly flowing at that stage," he told BBC News.

The other new recruits comprise Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, Italians Samantha Cristoforetti and Luca Parmitano, Germany's Alexander Gerst, Denmark's Andreas Mogensen.

"One day hopefully I will have the opportunity to walk on the Moon. That's the biggest dream I have at the moment," said Mogensen, who has been working in the UK at the Surrey Space Centre.

The astronauts will begin their basic education in September for a period of 18 months. They will then get assigned to a mission for more specific training.

But it will be a minimum of 3.5 years before they can get into orbit.

Pressed about the selection of a Briton as one of the astronauts when the UK chose not to fund manned spaceflight, Mr Dordain said: "I have taken the decision after consultation and there was unanimity about the ranking of the candidates."

Mr Dordain named British-born officials who had taken prominent roles in the running of Esa's human spaceflight programme, adding: "You can contribute with something other than money... you can contribute with expertise."

Nick Spall, co-ordinator of the UK human spaceflight campaign at the British Interplanetary Society, told BBC News: "The UK astronaut campaign is delighted that a British candidate has been chosen by Esa to join the growing cadre of European astronauts.

"Despite its rich heritage of aerospace experience, for many years the UK has been absent from government-organised human spaceflight activity.

"As a result, the nation has missed out on the science, industrial, exploration and inspirational benefits that this international endeavour has provided for the rest of the developed world"

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