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31 October 2023

Tim Peake’s Q&A: “Most of my career has been about how to manage risk”

The astronaut on the work of Carlo Rovelli, Star Wars and what he would say to Leonardo da Vinci.

By New Statesman

Tim Peake was born in Sussex in 1972. In 2015-16 he travelled to the International Space Station as a European Space Agency astronaut. He is now preparing to lead the UK’s first astronaut mission.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was going across a train track as a young toddler while on holiday in Cornwall. It was one of those steam railways that have the miniature trains. I desperately wanted to sit in one of those carriages and be pulled along.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, Luke Skywalker. I loved Star Wars and one of the first movies my dad took me to was The Empire Strikes Back. Now it would have to be David Attenborough. He has such a calm, authoritative manner, and what he’s doing in terms of raising awareness for the environment and our planet is second to none.

What book last changed your thinking?

The book I’m reading now: White Holes by Carlo Rovelli. It’s his theory of what happens inside a black hole.

Which political figure do you look up to?

As someone from my generation, it would have to be Nelson Mandela. He oversaw South Africa’s transition from apartheid into a multi-racial democracy.

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[See also: Richard Branson’s ship of fools]

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Risk management. Most of my career – as a test pilot and as an astronaut – has been about how to manage risk.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The future. As somebody who has a scientific brain, I want to know how we are faring in, say, 200 years. Did we get the climate sorted? In 200 years we should be well on the way to improving the situation.

What TV show could you not live without?

There is no TV show that I couldn’t live without. I don’t watch a huge amount.

Who would paint your portrait?

Leonardo da Vinci. We could have a brilliant chat about helicopters while he paints me.

What’s your theme tune?

The theme from Blue Thunder, the old television programme that I watched as a kid. I ended up flying the Gazelle helicopter for many years.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My chemistry teacher once said: “Life is like a dustbin. You get out what you put in.” I thought it was tongue-in-cheek at the time, but in many respects it was a nod to: work hard, and you will reap rewards. I think it’s a good piece of advice. You shouldn’t expect things to come your way unless you’re prepared to work for them.

What’s currently bugging you?

That we haven’t got clean, limitless energy. It’s something that we need to be working rapidly towards and that we should have started a long time ago.

What single thing would make your life better?

Clean, limitless energy!

When were you happiest?

Whenever I’ve been sat by a Scottish river with my family, cooking sausages over a campfire. I spend a lot of time away from my family so being with them makes me extremely happy.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A Formula One racing driver. I do like speed. I can’t hide that. 

Are we all doomed?

I don’t think so. I am an optimistic person. We’ve got challenges, but I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit as humans. I think we’re very close to the answers.

“Space: The Human Story” by Tim Peake is published by Cornerstone

[See also: Carlo Rovelli: “Einstein made more mistakes than anyone”]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts