BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening.
My castaway this week is Major Tim Peak, Army Air Corps officer and European Space Agency astronaut. He was the first British astronaut to complete a spacewalk wearing the Union Jack, along with his science experiments in his six months aboard the International Space Station. He became the first astronaut to present the singer Adele with a Brit award and to run along with the London Marathon. His cosmic adventures started a little closer to Earth. However, in the skies above Westbourne Common in Sussex there, his childhood fascination with model aircraft took flight.
He is, he says, an incorrigible pressure of buttons. His affinity with machines and love of the outdoors led him to life as an Army cadet and a successful military career. He had been an Army pilot for nearly 20 years and was looking for a new adventure when, in 2008, his wife, Rebecca, spotted the kind of job that you don't see every day for the post of astronaut. Over 8000 hopefuls applied. He was one of just six to make the cut.
Tim Peake, welcome to Desert Island Discs.
Hello, Lauren. It's such an honor to be on the show, so thank you for having me. Well, Tim, your description of the skills required to do the job you do be an astronaut is, ironically enough, quite down to earth. You you have to be a jack of all trades and hopefully a master of some.
And I know that personality is an important part of the puzzle. To what kind of temperament does the job require?
You've got to be somebody who's calm under pressure, somebody who gets on very well with other people, you know, good communication skills and teamwork. All of that is tested during the year long selection process. But ultimately, you know, when I was going through that, I was interviewed by Jean-Francois Voy, a French astronaut.
And I asked him afterwards, I said, why did you say yes? He said, Well, I always just asked myself a question, would I like to spend six months in space with this person? But if the answer is yes, then you get the tick in the box.
So, of course, the space walk that you did was your highlight of your time and space. I mean, I'm struggling to imagine the intensity of an experience like that. Can you describe it? It's incredible.
I mean, there's there's a lot of apprehension and nervousness beforehand. Clearly, I was going to the cupola window and I was looking out and I was trying to visualise my roots and think where I would be going handholds and how to get around this incredible structure. You've got to have so much concentration not to make a mistake.
The thing about the space walk is lots of things can go wrong in space and many times they're not your fault on a spacewalk. If something goes wrong, it probably is your fault because the scope for human error is incredible.
So you're worried about, you know, am I going to mess up?
But when you get out there in that environment, it's just so exhilarating. I mean, there are moments of adrenaline. Clearly, when you're, you know, dropping out the airlock hatch and you're looking down below 400 kilometres and there's planet Earth passing by beneath you. And you look the other way and you just see the universe stretching out to infinity is quite overwhelming.
I know that while you were on board the International Space Station, you started cleaning your teeth while looking out of the observatory windows. And that became a little kind of ritual for you. What was your view then?
So I just float to the window and just brush my teeth and look at the earth passing by. And it doesn't matter if you know, you're passing over somewhere you've seen before. Every time you look out, there's something new and something different to see different lighting conditions, different, whether Earth is just such a beautiful planet to look at from space. So it was never boring to look down.
Do you have any kind of favorite spots, things that you look out for?
I saw the Northern Lights or Aurora is incredible just because it's so mysterious and otherworldly.
It's a very eerie experience seeing that from above.
I fell in love with Patagonia. It's just so beautiful. The ice fields, you know, in South America, just wonderful. And and also deserts are beautiful. The Sahara, Australia as a continent, they're very orange. And so they're very colorful scene from space.
Did you listen to much music while you were in space to pass the time? I did. We would listen to music when we were working out either on the treadmill or the biking machine that we have up there. So I had a whole playlist that I had up there with me.
Well, better dive into your music today and find out whether any of that playlist is going with you to the desert island. Let's start with your first disc. Tim, tell us about choosing this one.
And what is my first disc is Queen. Don't Stop Me Now. Been a huge fan of Queen all my life, but we're allowed to choose three tracks before we launched to space. They're actually played into the Soyuz capsule. When you're sat there in the five minutes before launch and it's designed, you just take your mind off what's about to happen.
So I thought, you know what? It could be better than listening to Don't stop me now just before you launch into space. And it still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time I hear the superstar leap into the sky like a tiger by the laws of gravity racing. Passing by like Lady Godiva. I'm gonna go, go, go. There's no stopping me. To the degree to which the foreign. Now I'm having such a good time.
Queen, don't stop me now we have left off major topic. So Queen, I mean a perfect choice for going out into space. But actually, you were in contact with the band while you were out there.
That's right. Yeah. We're allowed to make a couple of calls from the space station to to people we really want to speak to. One of those for me was Brian May. So I rang him up from the space station. We had a video call me and my crew mates, and it was wonderful. It just been playing in a concert. We took him on a tour of the space station and he played a little music for us live. So fantastic.
Now, Tempy, there's a very poignant photo of you all decked out in your space suit. You'll know it, make it a heart sign with your white gloved hands through the window to your boys as you bid them farewell before your launch. I wonder what was going through your mind at that moment.
It's the hardest thing ever to do is to say goodbye. It's even harder when you know that you're putting yourself in harm's way. I knew it was going to be tough on Rebecca and my two boys, Thomas and all of that, with me being away for six months. And at that point you're just desperately thinking, let everything go smoothly and don't let this be the last time that I'm going to see you.
It was very strange seeing that photo now as well, because obviously it has that resonance. There have been so many images of of people trying to get messages to their loved ones through windows lately when we've all been isolated. I wonder about your experience of managing anxiety and managing isolation, and you must have thought about that in the past few months of lockdown.
I thought about an awful lot. And we're so fortunate as astronauts, you know, we have so much training and preparation to go and live in isolation. And of course, everybody's been launched into a year of various lockdowns with no preparation, no training, no guidance or advice as to what you can do to make your life easier. We stick to structure and routine on a space station to help us, to make sure everybody knows what to do, when to do it, to manage expectations, to avoid conflict.
We spend a week living in a cave, twelve days under water, all of this to help us deal with these circumstances.
So my thoughts have been with everybody this year has been trying to deal with difficult circumstances and also that separation from loved ones where you can't go and just have a face to face conversation. You can't have human contact with people.
Taxonomies. I know. Tim Peake, what are we going to hear for number two?
I have chosen madness. It must be love. And this was actually the first single that was given to me by my grandmother in 1972. It was a vinyl 45 r.p.m. and it wasn't by madness then. Of course, it was by ABC Phra who wrote the original It Must Be Love, obviously was a very special song.
And I love what madness have done with it, with their version. So this is my second track. I wake up every night and every day. Madness with their version of it must be love major topic. Now, Tim, you've seen the world from an extraordinary vantage point, but you were the wrong generation, I think, to be caught up in the space race of the 60s. You were only born in 1972. You missed all that.
What did you love as a young boy? What were your passions?
The love watching the shuttle missions. But it did seem something that we weren't involved in. You know, it wasn't something we were doing.
For me, it was all about flying, just passionate about aviation, not quite sure where it all came from. My father used to take me to air shows. I loved watching the world or to a vintage aircraft coming in and doing their display. So I think that's really where this passion for aviation grew from.
Your mom, Angela, was a midwife and your dad, Nigel, was a newspaper journalist at the local paper. How would you describe your childhood?
I've described my childhood in my book as ordinary, which I don't mean to be condescending in any way, because I think an ordinary childhood is very much underrated and actually incredibly hard to achieve, because I think what I mean is it was very stable.
It was very loving.
We lived in the same house all my life growing up, but we enjoyed holidays, camping trips away up to the Yorkshire Dales or the North York Moors.
You know, I had a very, very brilliant time growing up with lots of friends in my local housing estate.
And you also struck me reading about your description of yourself as a young lad, as just very game. You would give things a go. You describe yourself as quite an average student, but you would sense that you would try pretty much anything is an extra curricular activity. Yes. And when I was really younger, I was bouncing around, you know, doing lots of different things.
And I guess I was trying to find my way often following my older sister. If she was into something, I would give that a go to. And then in my teenage years, I found the cadet force at school and that was my saving grace, really. I think that packaged everything that I loved into one bundle and whether it was hiking or kayaking or going on adventure training weekends and even flying with the Air Force section. That was for me what set me off on the right path.
It's time for our next track. Tim Peake, what are we going to hear and why are you taking this with you today?
My next track is The Kinks, and this is Waterloo Sunset. And when I was eight years old, I gained a flying scholarship that was given to me by the Royal Air Force. So I went down to Compton, Abis Airfield and spent 30 hours flying Cessna aircraft. And I did my first solo just, you know, after a few hours. And I came back after that sortie and I was so elated on such a high, you know, taking the aircraft up 18 years old by yourself.
And I landed and this was playing in the bar next to the airfield. So I sat down with a cold beer with my mates and and listened to Waterloo Sunset. So this just takes me back to my first solo.
The Kinks and Waterloo, Sunset, Tempy, so you described yourself they're having a bit of an aimless phase at secondary school, you know, you were just about trying to find your way until you joined the Army cadets and that you just flew, you know, literally in the end, what was the appeal?
What did you like about it?
You know, it's pretty uniform at first thought. That looks interesting. Exciting. You know, the weekends I was hearing these stories about where they were going off to do camps and coming back and and going on trekking adventures and hiking and kayaking in our local canal next to the high school. And it just seemed to be such fun.
So you'd found the thing that you loved. I wonder what your expectations were about how you might pursue that. You love flying, but what do you do with it when you're a teenager in Sussex?
It's a difficult path to follow and there are many hurdles to pass. And of course, you know, many people who want to become pilots don't make it for for many different reasons. Medical being one of them. And I had no idea at the time if I was going to make the grade. I think it was brave of my parents to really push me down that route because I think they realised the odds were that I might not make it as a pilot, but I wanted to give it a best shot.
And because I was loving being in the Army cadets, you know, per army and flying together, then the Army Air Corps seemed a natural choice. And that's the path I decided to take.
And this is number four. What are we going to hear next? And why have you chosen it? This is yellow Mr Blue Sky. This takes me back to Sandhurst, actually, and just monumentally tough. And it was after one of those really difficult week long exercises. We'd been on Salisbury Plain digging in our trenches and we had very, very little sleep. It would be freezing cold. And we came back, I went to my room and this was on the radio and I just lay there fully clothed, listening to it with a smile on my face and closed my eyes and woke up several hours later, still pretty close to at least that's why you had to pay so long.
Is tell us what you had to. So. Yellow and Mr Blue Sky, so Major Tim, you went to Sandhurst to train to be an officer, as you mentioned. Despite its reputation to the contrary, you say it's not possible and that everyone's treated the same. And that's abysmally I think it is abysmal.
Tell us a little bit about arriving there.
And, you know, the training starts straightaway and 100 miles an hour by the sense that you all arrive and everybody's carrying an ironing board under their arms. It's one of the things that you have to bring with you. And it's really weird to see all these cars turning up and officer cadets coming out with ironing boards under their arms and being whisked away to their rooms. And meanwhile, the parents are being, you know, accosted with lovely coffee and cake and lectures by the commanding officer, telling them how wonderful this establishment is and how it's going to, you know, bring out the best of their young children.
And we're all being boosted upstairs, being told to get our red tracksuits on and down to the parade square in quick time. And it's a baptism by fire.
They're almost half a world away from the upbringing that you described. You know, that kind of very safe, very predictable, loving suburban environment. You do change an awful lot.
You're pushed to your limit. And that's the point. You know, anybody who's going to break, then they find that out at least in the first five weeks, if not during the rest of the year. And if you can't hack it, then it's probably not the career for you. So, you know, you do learn an awful lot about yourself, about how deep your reserves are and how much you can push yourself when the going gets tough.
And I always found that really interesting to just try and push myself further and further.
By 1992, Tim, you were 20 years old and you became Second Lieutenant Peak and you were then deployed to Northern Ireland. You describe the experience as Eye-Opening and difficult to handle. How did you feel when she got there?
You're quite nervous. You're aware that you've gone through this training. And of course, my end point, my ambition was to become a pilot, but this was all about leading men as it was back there, the Royal Green Jackets, an all male platoon. And you're going to be tested and you're going to be tested in an operational environment. You know, not that you're going to be tested somewhere where the results matter and people's lives are at stake.
So you have to step up to the plate. So there's a a degree of apprehension about what you're about to do and what you're about to undertake. But of course, you got brilliant people around you and you've got experience, platoon sergeants that can help you and a platoon corporals as well. So the green jackets were a fantastic bunch to work with, but very, very challenging as well. I mean, the soldiers were all very tough and very streetwise.
And as a young, fresh faced second lieutenant out of Santurce, that's a steep learning curve.
Yeah. How did you ascend it? I think you have to lead by example. You have to show people that you've you know, you've got what it takes and that if you can prove yourself to them, then you will find that people will follow you and they will respect you for who you are, as opposed to just the rank that you might have on your shoulder.
How dangerous is the work that you were doing?
It was very there are times when it was very dangerous.
You know, there were times when we were shot at across the border. There were times where we had bombs on the roadside next to us that hadn't gone off. So we were constantly aware that there was this threat that was, you know, underlying. And we said, you know, the terrorists only have to be lucky once and soldiers, you have to be lucky every day you're on patrol. So you were very aware that you were in this environment where you had to be as vigilant as you possibly could be.
Tim, we've got to take a break for some more music. This is desk number five.
What if your chosen desk number five is word up? But I've gone for the gun version of AC. Cameo did this in nineteen eighty six when I was growing up. I was fourteen years old, but I was listening to the gun version as I was driving over to go to sleep. And this was after I passed my army pilots course. I had my wings and I was going to my first posting. It needs to be a loud and it typifies the four years of partying that I did as a young army pilot.
You get to smoke. Gun and word up, Major Tim Peak. Now, after you qualified as a helicopter instructor, you then spent three years with the U.S. Army flying Apache helicopters. And I know that you were stationed there when 9/11 took place and volunteered to assist the U.S. Army. What are your memories of that time?
Professionally, that was amazing because, you know, this was a real step up going to fly the Apache. It was the most sophisticated helicopter that was around at the time and certainly far more sophisticated than the links and the Gazal that we were flying in the British army. So to be able to go and take my flying to a different level and also that cultural experience of operating with a foreign military and learning as much as you could about what they were doing so so professionally, it was incredibly rewarding.
And I was newly married at the time as well. So it was a big adventure that Rebecca, my wife and I were embarking on. Then, of course, to be there at 9/11 at the same time was an incredible moment for the whole of the United States when they went through this transformation, really, of realizing that there was this enormous threat on their home territory and that involved as US flying Apaches that involved us preparing for operations in Afghanistan.
The Apache is an attack helicopter. I mean, psychologically for you, was that a mental shift that you had to make?
It was a big mental shift. Yes, because my role before had been as a Gazal pilot reconnaissance helicopter, casualty evacuation and moving people around the battlefield under slung loads. And the Apache has one role, one role only. It's an attack helicopter. So you have to get into the mentality of that. And the Americans, of course, have a slightly different approach that and it's very gung ho and and it's all about being a gun pilot. But of course, the reality of that is you do need to prepare people properly for the role that you're expecting them to carry out.
And it's fair to say as well that it doesn't suit everybody. Some people will take themselves off the course because that's not the job for them to do. But I was there to learn as much as I could about this new aircraft and and knowing that we were going to buy this for the British army, it was also a valuable opportunity to bring that experience back to the UK.
How did you feel about what you were doing, the idea of a machine that exists to destroy things?
I never I mean, truly felt comfortable about having to do that role if push comes to shove, which thankfully it didn't for me. But I think I reconcile myself with the fact that if it had to happen, then I was there to do that. You know, when you joined the military, you make that decision very early in your military career, really, that you're there, as you know, to defend what you believe are the principles of democracy, to keep people safe, that your loved ones are safe and also our nation safe.
And so when you make that decision, you really put yourself in that mindset that's required, I think, actually becoming a, you know, a gun pilot, as we would say, attack helicopter pilot. It takes it to another level, but it really was something I decided earlier on.
You came back to the UK to train British air crew before eventually being selected onto the Empire Test Pilot School, and that only takes one candidate from the army each year. Your dream job and I would imagine a risky job.
It was my dream job. Yes. Being a test pilot is quite risky at times.
And when I was flying Apaches with the Americans, I was really starting to develop that passion for becoming a test pilot because we were introducing new things on the aircraft. It was cutting edge technology and I was loving that. I thought, hang on, this like this is this is wonderful. So and that really sowed the seeds for wanting to to go down this path. And was just delighted when I got selected being a test pilot. It's all about risk management, really.
You try and analyse the risk and you try and mitigate it as much as possible. But at the end of the day, somebody has to take aircraft up and find out what they can do.
It's time for your next test. What are we going to hear? Aerosmith. I don't want to miss a thing. And this takes me back to spring 1999, when I was recently engaged to Rebecca and she had got posted out to Macedonia. She was part of the Kosovo operation. And so I was sending her a care package. And this kind of, I guess is a bit cheesy, but it's our song. And of course, I don't want to miss a thing was all about missing Rebecca and the time that I wasn't getting to spend with her.
Aerosmith and I don't want to miss a thing for your wife, Rebecca Tempy, and she has an Army background, too, doesn't she? So does that make it easier for her to understand, you know, the periods that you have to spend away and your commitment to training?
She was with her raw logistical core. So I think that does help. You know, she had been through the same training I had been through at Sandhurst and she met me as a pilot. So so she knew and understood the risks that I was taking. And that has definitely helped as I've gone through my test pilot career, my astronaut career.
Now, Tim, as well as being an astronaut, you're a qualified aquanaut. And as part of that training, you spent 12 days underwater. Now, I'm going to quote you here, if you don't mind, on some of the detail on this, because it is worth it. You wrote Rare was the trip to the gazebo from which you didn't return with either a bloodied finger or a shredded butt cheek, things that you simply don't expect you've signed up for when you apply for a job in space.
Yeah, it's funny. This underwater habitat Aquarius is really a 30 metres down on the ocean floor and we dive down, popped up through the wet porch and we were being shown around and there was a portal. And so everybody assumed, well, that's that's great. We've got the portaloo. And then they said, you don't use that until the very, very end when we're doing our decompression, because otherwise it's going to stink the place out.
So in order to go to the loo, you have to do this duck dive to a gazebo like an upturn sort of eggshell that was a few metres away from the main habitat. And it's just a case of putting a swimsuit, often going for it in the ocean.
It turns out that not all of the underwater creatures are reticent about avoiding someone who's doing that.
Yeah, yeah. If that wasn't difficult and unpleasant enough, you've got the distraction from many, many different types of fish. You find fecal matter rather attractive and get very aggressive when they're coming in there. So it was always an adventure going to the loo.
Oh, man. Now tell me about the other end of your journey, so to speak. Having been away from Earth for six months, you'd orbited it, I think two thousand seven hundred and twenty times you came home. What struck you first when you landed first year?
You're relieved because the parachutes have opened and it's all gone well, but you're feeling dreadful. There's a lot of vertigo, dizziness, and you're being dragged out of this capsule.
So people talk about, you know, those wonderful kind of first aromas of Earth after six months. The reality is the hatch opens and the first aroma is scorched burning grass because you capture the set fire to the prairie and and then you get this big, hairy Russian coming in to drag you out. And it's only really about 10 minutes after landing when you're sat in the chair and your head stop spinning slightly, that you can really embrace, you know, the fresh air and the lovely smells and being reunited with planet Earth again.
What does gravity feel like after six months away? Incredibly heavy. It's unbelievable. You know, we just don't notice it. We're so used to it on Earth. But when you haven't had it for six months, you realize everything is so heavy. Somebody just passed me an iPad. I had to do a routine test on it. And this thing felt like a brick and sleeping at night was really uncomfortable. You know, you feel the pressure on your body.
So it took a lot of getting used to. It's almost time to send you to the island. But a couple more days to go before we do that. What's number seven and why are you taking it with you?
Track number seven is Bush and it's glycerin. And this, again, it's one of those iconic moments where I was just about to deploy to Bosnia on a six month mission. And my great Irish friend, Phillip McCabe and I decided to take an impromptu holiday to California just before deploying to Bosnia. And we were driving along the California Highway on the way to Santa Barbara and Bush glycerine came on. And this just brings me back to those happy memories. Bush and glycerine, a major topic you have, as we've heard today, achieved many things that few people will ever get to do, ever get to experience.
I wonder if you have any advice for people out there who might be listening to this, who have set their sights on a dream that statistically seems pretty distant, almost impossible.
The important thing, and it's great to have dreams and it's great to be able to set your sights on them is to never give up, to constantly work towards it, but also to enjoy the journey that takes you there. That's probably the most important advice I would give, because then it doesn't matter even if statistically, you know, it's very unlikely you're going to make it. If you're enjoying the journey there, then you will have a fantastic time.
Other opportunities might come up. And if you do end up achieving your dream, then absolutely fantastic. If you don't end up achieving it, you'll end up doing something equally as good.
And do you still have dreams? Do you still have things that you would like to achieve and haven't yet?
There are certainly places I'd like to travel to. I'd like to have family adventures with my boys, my wife, and go to some of these places that I've seen from space. So I think at the moment, you know, my dreams are about focusing on them and trying to give them the same opportunities that I had.
Patagonia on the list. It certainly is, yes. All right.
It's time to cast you away before you get to Patagonia. You're off to the desert island now, obviously, Tim, I don't want to burst into Stellman, but you've been up there floating in a tin can far above the blue. So does life on the desert island as a castaway seem a relatively straightforward prospect to you? It sounds like a nice prospect.
She was one of the funny things when I was taking photographs from the space station and I was looking down and there were these beautiful islands, you know, around Indonesia, South Pacific. And we take photos of them and we'd be thinking, yeah, you know, when we get back, this is Holiday Island. This is where I'd like to go. And it's very enticing. You know, you haven't had a shower in six months. So when you're looking down at these beautiful tropical island, it's very enticing for you to look down on.
So the prospect of being cast away on a desert island is quite appealing.
Oh, well, I'm very glad to hear that. What will you find on the island to occupy yourself?
You know, I think it's a time of self reflection, probably, but also my survival skills will hopefully kick in. So I'll be trying to get myself a nice shelter, get fire, get food, get everything set up, just how I want it and enjoy myself.
All right. Well, before we send you there, one more desk, if you would. What's your final choice today going to be?
Is Monty Python always look on the bright side of life and it's just such a hilarious, upbeat and happy song. I'm a huge fan of Monty Python. And if you're going to be castaway on an island, then why not have this with you?
I always look on the bright side of life. Always look on the lighter side of life, if life seems Johnny Rotten, there's something you forgotten and that's to dance and dance and sing when you're filling in the gaps that basically chumps just pushed your lips. And that's the thing I oh, Monty Python.
And always look on the bright side of life, so to speak. I'm going to cast you away to the island, giving you the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare to take with you. And you can have another book of your choice. What would you like?
I'm going to take with me a very large, full color world atlas because I love looking at maps and charts.
And I think with the complete works of Shakespeare, that will keep me busy. Any other book you can read at once or multiple times. But it's the same story with an atlas. There's always something new to discover. And, you know, having seen the Earth from space, I just love looking through atlases and thinking of the stories they tell of all the places on Earth.
Well, it's yours for the island. You can also have a luxury item, of course, what you fancy.
I'm going to take a telescope with me, which probably isn't a surprise to to many listeners. I love looking up at the stars as, again, there's, you know, who could possibly get bored with looking up at the stars and with no light pollution on the desert island. It's a great place for a telescope.
And finally, you've shared eight inspiring tracks with us today. But which one would you save out of those if you had to?
I am going to save Aerosmith.
I don't want to miss a thing to remind me of my beautiful wife, Rebecca Major Tim Peak, thank you very much for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.
Thank you. Hello. I really hope you enjoyed that interview with Tim, and I certainly hope that he's very happy on his island, looking up at the skies through his telescope. If he searched through our program archive, then you will hear Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield share his Desert Island Discs, too. And you'll also find other castaways who chose a telescope as their luxury, including Garry Kasparov, Maggie Adare in Paul and the actor Bob Hoskins. You can find that programs if you search through BBC Sense next time, my guest will be the chef, Monica Galletti.
I do hope you'll join us. A new podcast series from BBC Radio four in the first stage of a poltergeist haunting the entity will confine itself to making noise as if its testing its victims.
The Battersea Poltergeist. My name Shelley Hitchens. I'm 15 years old. I live with my mum, dad, brother Gran. And Donald. Subscribe to the Battersea Poltergeist on the BBC Sound.