Britain's newest astronaut was announced recently, as Major Timothy Peake, a veteran helicopter test pilot in the British Army. The 37-year-old was chosen for ESA's Astronaut Corps, along with two Italians, a Frenchman, a German, and a Dane. Peake is not the first British astronaut, nor will he be the last, but the media have seemingly celebrated his achievement more so than other British astronauts, probably because he has remained British and with ESA, the European Space Agency. Britain's astronaut list is short, but nonetheless, it is a tradition that is growing
Peake, who has a degree in flight dynamics, is the first British ESA astronaut, as other British-born astronauts are NASA-trained, with some becoming U.S. citizens to secure better Space Shuttle berths and advancement. This is because Britain opted out of the Human Spaceflight, deeming it too expensive. In some quarters, this is seen as an expensive mistake by Britain and short-sighted. While Britain is committed to ESA and robotic space programmes, it could miss vital experience in a manned programme to compete with NASA and the Russians. This point was reiterated by Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of ESA, when he stated: "I hope it [the appointment of Timothy Peake] will now encourage the British government to contribute." To the proponents of human spaceflight, this could entice Britain to contribute, but to the cynics, this could just be a political ploy to placate Britain, since it is a major financial contributor to ESA. Either way, this is still a milestone in British spaceflight history. Major Peake, however, is just the latest in a modest line of British astronauts.
The Girl from Mars, as the first Briton in space Helen Sharman was called, worked as a chemist in the Mars Company. In 1989, the Sheffield-born Sharman applied to a radio advertisement calling for a British astronaut, which she eventually won selection for after an intensive testing regime. The prize was Project Juno, a Soviet/British initiative, which offered a private flight to the Mir Space Station via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Sharman's week-long spaceflight was in 1991. She did not fly again, and although she was awarded an OBE in 1993 and inducted as an honorary fellow into the Royal Society of Chemistry, her spectacular achievement is somewhat forgotten by the British public. She has written two books, one being her biography, and she currently undertakes broadcasting and lecturing work on space and science.
The best-known, British-born astronaut is Michael Foale, although to enhance his prospects, he also holds dual American citizenship. Foale's moment in the sun in the UK media and public spotlight was in 1997, when he was aboard the Russian Space Station Mir. It was hit and damaged by a re-supply ship and Foale had to conduct an EVA to help examine the exterior for damage. Foale is also the first British Astronaut to accomplish an EVA in 1995, and has also worked on the Hubble Space telescope in 1999. From joining NASA in 1987, Foale is not only Britain's most accomplished astronaut, but must also be considered one of NASA's most qualified astronauts as well, due to his long-service and experience.
Not as well-known as Foale, research scientist Dr. Piers Sellers was born in England, joining NASA in 1996, and is now a naturalised American. His first shuttle flight (Atlantis) was in 2002 and his second (Discovery) in 2006, both of which involved significant amounts of EVAs while helping with the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS).
Hardly garnering any publicity in the UK, is Nicolas Patrick. Born in North Yorkshire, Patrick's background is in mechanical engineering. He joined NASA in 1998 and is also a naturalised American citizen. So far, Patrick has completed only one shuttle flight in 2006.
A USAF Colonel, Johnson was born in Middlesex, England, but this one-time space voyager is now an American citizen. He was selected for NASA in 1998 and flew on an Endeavour shuttle mission in 2008. Besides his flight experience, Johnson has also been part of the Shuttle Cockpit Avionics upgrade unit, was part of the investigation team into the cause of the 2003 Columbia disaster, and from 2005, was involved in designing and testing of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which eventually became the Orion spacecraft. Colonel Johnson may not be in the public eye, but he is amassing some serious behind-the-scenes experience that will see NASA possibly return to the moon.
Interestingly enough, while Helen Sharman was the first British astronaut in space, she was not the first British astronaut. That honour went to John Anthony Llewellyn, a Welshman, who had the "right stuff" in 1967 as a scientist-astronaut. But before he could fly into space, he resigned in 1968 due to personal reasons. Llewellyn currently serves as the Professor Emeritus in the department of Chemical Engineering at the University of South Florida, where he had worked in several positions for decades.
Whether seen as real astronauts or not, the future seems to be open to space tourists and private ventures with British participants at the forefront.
The first British space tourist was Mark Shuttleworth, in 2002, who holds dual South African and British citizenship. Paying over $20 million to be a "space participant" on the ISS, the South African businessman spent eight days in space, helped with biological research in AIDS, and held a radio conversation with Nelson Mandela.
The second British-born space tourist was Richard Garriott, a computer games developer. In 2008, the now-American citizen Garriott spent around $30 million on a twelve-day visit the ISS via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Though Garriott made history as the first second-generation American in space after his astronaut father Owen Garriott, he sported the Union Jack flag on his uniform. Besides communicating with school children, and testing the Windows on Earth software project, Garriott also participated in the first sci-fi film shot in space called Apogee of Fear.
The leader in the market to develop private space planes is Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. He has teamed up with Burt Rutan, the winner of the X-Prize with his SpaceShipOne, the first privately own spacecraft to voyage into space. SpaceShipTwo is in development by Rutan's Scaled Composites Company and within a few short years could produce many more British astronauts for a nominal fee.
From 1967 to 2009, and beyond, British astronauts have contributed to national, European, American, Russian, and other international space agencies and endeavours, and fired the public's imagination. When the next missions to the Moon and Mars take off, there is no doubting that a Briton will be among the crew.