When he was working as a bartender in a traditional English pub, The Nag’s Head in Chichester, young Tim Peake could hardly have guessed at what the future would hold for him. Nor would he have been likely to suppose that, in part, his prospects would depend upon getting the right answer to a fiendish puzzle. But as we’ll see, that was exactly what the future had in store for the young man.
What Peake couldn’t have known back during his time at The Nag’s Head was that one day he would become the first Brit to be a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut. And with a prolonged and intensive program of training to go through – not to mention an arduous selection procedure – becoming an astronaut with the ESA is no walk in the park.
Unsurprisingly, right back to the days of the 1960s Space Race between the Soviet Union and the U.S., becoming an astronaut has involved a grueling selection and training regime. The first human to advance into space was the Russian Yuri Gagarin, and his training was rigorous to say the least.
Gagarin’s selection process started off with 3,460 handpicked fellow candidates, although this number was rapidly whittled down to 347. Among other factors to assess, the selectors considered the psychological profiles, physical health and professional records of the candidates. And theoretically, Gagarin should have fallen at one of the first hurdles, since he was only 5 foot 2 inches tall – well below the prescribed 5 foot 6 to 7 inches. Presumably, then, his qualities shone through despite his height.
In any case, the next step in the process saw the 341 possibles reduced to just 20 – including former fighter pilot Gagarin. And the training for this elite group included them being placed in a centrifuge to mimic the effects of gravity encountered at high velocities – which was apparently so rigorous that it was later dropped by the Soviets. Then there were periods of 10 to 15 days spent in an isolation chamber. Parachute jumping and enduring extreme heat in a specially designed steel chamber were other delights.
So from the very earliest days of space travel, training was designed to be tough and to weed out the less physically capable. However, that of course was only one part of the story. The intellectual qualities needed to become an astronaut were at least as important as the physical attributes. And we’ll return to those intellectual requirements a little later. First, though, let’s meet Tim Peake properly.
Timothy Nigel Peake was born in the English city of Chichester and brought up in the nearby village of Westbourne. He attended Chichester High School, where he was a keen member of the Combined Cadet Force – a kind of voluntary junior army. His enthusiasm for the military life then saw him enter the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which is the U.K.’s foremost officer training college. He’d squeezed in his time at The Nag’s Head between school and college, by the way.
After graduating from Sandhurst in 1992, Peake went on to command a platoon in the Royal Green Jackets. In 1994 he subsequently qualified as a helicopter pilot, becoming an instructor in 1998 and attaining the rank of major in 2004. In 2005 he then completed his course at the Empire Test Pilots’ School and began to work on testing Apache helicopters and other aircraft. And he successfully took a degree in flight dynamics and evaluation in 2006.
So far, so good for Peake: his career was certainly successful, and he’d proved that he had the qualities to be a test pilot. In fact, he quit the army in 2009 and went to work as a test pilot for a commercial company: AgustaWestland. But apparently he was still looking for fresh challenges.
Speaking to Portsmouth, U.K., newspaper The News in 2015, Peake’s father recalled, “He saw an advertisement online asking people, ‘would you like to be an astronaut’ – it was as simple as that. He thought it sounded exciting and would apply – but so did 8,000 other people – [so] the chances were very remote. The selection process took a year, and he got down to the final ten.”
Peake then had to take a battery of electronic tests designed to measure attributes such as mental strength and memory capacity. And next came an extremely comprehensive medical examination. Peake told The Guardian in 2015 that those medical tests were an ordeal in themselves, recalling that the examination period had been “the most invasive week of [his] life.”
Then after a final interview for each of the remaining ten candidates came the tense wait for Peake to find out if he’d been chosen. Speaking to The Telegraph in 2009, he remembered, “I was fairly certain that it was not going to be me who was selected. To receive that telephone call was a complete shock. I was stunned and delighted and experienced overwhelming excitement.” He had made it.
But after the trials of the selection process came the rigors of the training period. This started off with a 16-month basic training course, which included a comprehensive grounding in the scientific and technical knowledge necessary for space travel. There was also familiarization with the systems on board the International Space Station, which was to be the astronaut’s destination.
In addition, basic training included diving to prepare the astronauts for the experience of spacewalking. And next up for the trainee astronauts was advanced training, which lasted for a year and made considerable use of simulators. Peake also spent a week living deep underground in a cave system with five other trainees to prepare for the inevitable stresses of confined group living.
Then, finally, Major Peake was ready for space. On December 15, 2015, Peake and two others were launched into space on a Soyuz rocket, from the Baikonur base in Kazakhstan. The trio reached the International Space Station safely, and Peake subsequently spent six months aboard the station before his return to Earth on June 18, 2016.
On arriving at the space station, Peake exposed his British roots by starting his time on board with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. But his tenure in space wasn’t all tasty snacks. While on the station, Peake performed some 30 scientific experiments and helped with research conducted by colleagues. He even found time to effectively run the 2016 London Marathon on the space station’s treadmill, and he also went on a spacewalk.
Two years on from Peake’s return to Earth, he’s still a much-admired personality in Britain and around the world. He’s a regular user of social media, too – although this was already the case while he was on the space station, where he made regular posts to YouTube. And, in fact, a post he made to Facebook in October 2017 went viral.
The puzzle, Peake pointed out in his post, was “straight from [his] astronaut selection test,” and as he added, “They get harder!” Now at first sight, the problem looked straightforward enough. Readers were asked to imagine that they were facing a cube marked with a dot on the bottom. They were also to imagine the cube turning in a set routine of movements. And the puzzle was to identify where the spot ended up.
Yet while it may have looked simple, the puzzle had thousands of baffled people scratching their heads in bemusement. Many seemed to blunder off in the wrong direction. One commenter wrote, “This cube looks transparent. Could the dot be on the floor underneath the cube and therefore remain exactly where it is?” Nope.
Meanwhile, perhaps because he couldn’t understand the question, never mind get the answer, one responder sounded quite peeved. “Can’t follow ambiguous instructions, and making an assumption about them that might be different to the person who wrote them would be potentially dangerous.” However, eventually Major Peake came to the rescue of those of us not smart enough to make the grade as an astronaut. As he posted on Twitter, “I loved reading all your answers, and congratulations to all those who said it ended up back on the bottom of the cube!”