In an unexpected move, the European Space Agency (ESA) has selected a British army officer as one of its second-ever batch of astronauts. Major Timothy Peake, an Apache attack-helicopter pilot in the Army Air Corps, could fly to the International Space Station as soon as 2013.
“We are at a turning point in ESA’s human spaceflight activities," said ESA chief Jean-Jacques Dordain.
"Last year, with the launch of the Columbus laboratory and the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle, ESA became a fully-fledged member of the International Space Station partnership. We are now entering a new phase of utilisation of the unique capabilities offered by the ISS and preparation for international exploration of the Moon and beyond."
Asked by the Mail why Peake had been chosen, Dordain added:
"He was among the top candidates even if he is a Brit!... I hope this will stimulate the British Government and make them realise we at the ESA are good guys."
The selection of a British citizen was seen as surprising. While the UK is the fourth-largest contributor to the ESA, it has always put its money into unmanned missions. It has long been official British policy not to fund manned space exploration.
This policy has meant great difficulties for Britons wanting to go into space. Some have managed it nonetheless, by becoming US citizens and joining NASA or as space tourists. Scientist Helen Sharman went into space aboard a Russian rocket in 1991 as a result of Project Juno, a partnership between the Russian space programme and British private interests.
Major Peake is from the other background commonly represented, alongside scientists, among the astronaut community - that of military test pilots. He was commissioned in the British Army in 1992, and is now 37. He served in the Air Corps as a helicopter flight commander and helicopter flying instructor before training at the Empire Test Pilot School where he won the prize for best student.
Peake's selection will doubtless have caused some bitterness in the Royal Air Force, whose head said in 2007 that there should be British astronauts and that they should be from the RAF.
The other five astronauts chosen today were from Italy (two), Germany, Denmark and France. ®
Peake is the second British Army Air Corps major named Timothy to be selected as an astronaut. Major Timothy Mace of the AAC was chosen as understudy to Helen Sharman for Project Juno back in 1991, though he never flew in space.