British astronaut Tim Peake says he’s “absolutely ready” for his very first space flight, lastly fulfilling a childhood ambition soon after two and a half years of intensive instruction.
The former military test-pilot has just passed his final practical exams and is due to blast off to the International Space Station on 15 December.
Along with Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko and Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra, he will devote 170 days in orbit, conducting scientific experiments and carrying out maintenance function on the vast flying laboratory.
“The launch, re-entry, the entire expertise of being in weightlessness, if I get the opportunity to do a spacewalk – these are all absolute highlights of the mission,” Mr Peake told the BBC at a Russian facility deep in a snowy forest on the edge of Moscow. It’s exactly where Yuri Gagarin also trained over half a century ago to be the first man in space.
Mr Peake will be the very first British astronaut on the ISS, flying from the European Space Agency. Considering that the US space shuttle programme was ended, the Russian spacecraft has been the only way up.
So final week, the major three-man crew and their back-up team were put via two days of gruelling practical tests, such as several hours squeezed inside a replica of the Soyuz capsule they’ll travel in.
Fully kitted-out in their space suits, the astronauts flew a simulation of the six-hour journey, tackling multiple malfunctions on their way.
“There are emergency drills to see how to act to save themselves and the spacecraft,” trainer Georgy Pirogov explained, keeping an eye on the crew through a bank of video screens in a mini mission manage.
“It could be a fire, loss of stress or an emergency landing,” he said. “But in reality, most of it is automatic and ideally they should just sit and fly!”
The intense education programme has included living in a cave and deep below the sea. But of all issues, Tim Peake says that it is understanding Russian that has been “a struggle”.
Now completely qualified, he says he has “no worries whatsoever” about his 1st ever spaceflight.
“Flown astronauts have offered me lots of tips,” he says, equating the expertise to understanding to dive or to ski.
He says there are a lot of mishaps as you adjust to a life in zero gravity, exactly where you have to tether yourself to the wall to sleep, and to the toilet.
“Soon after about two weeks they say you get into a pattern – how to eat, wash, use the loo – all the typical items we take for granted in our 1G [gravity] atmosphere,” he has been assured.
The crew will undertake a complete scientific programme on the ISS, conducting far more than 250 experiments over their six-month mission – numerous on their personal bodies. They include investigation on the human immune system and the ageing procedure.
Some of the crew’s baggage allowance will be taken up by that investigation kit. But as effectively as family members photographs, Tim Peake says he’ll be taking some individual items to be “flown in space”, that he plans to give to his sons when they turn 18.
And on the advice of former astronauts, he’ll also make space for one particular important item: sticky-tape.
“They say if you leave anything, you turn around and it will not be there,” he laughed, recalling the best tip for life 400km (248 miles) above Earth.
The final “graduation” ceremony at Star City takes place next week, attended by the astronauts’ households. Then it is into the obligatory quarantine, ahead of the launch.
“The whole experience is a massive privilege,” the British spaceman reflects, unruffled as ever. “But seeing that very first view of planet Earth from space is possibly going to be the most thrilling moment.”