As NASA and SpaceX reveal their increasingly-extraordinary plans for spaceflight and interplanetary colonisation, a lowly DTP student could be forgiven for feeling distant from this glamorous, seemingly untouchable world of astronautical advancement. But third-year geologist Tim Gregory, with neighbouring DTP the GW4+, has brought the subject rather closer to home. More precisely, to BBC2.
Tim beat more than three thousand applicants — including this author — to become one of twelve exceptional candidates on the six-part series Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?. Under the watchful eyes of Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station and the first man to sing David Bowie in space, the contestants face a series of tasks used to select and train real-life astronauts. Some of the more fabulous include hovering a helicopter, controlling a Mars rover, and remaining conscious in a human centrifuge, while others like origami and taking their own blood subtly test for personality and attitude. Those who fail to clear the ever-rising bar are sent home; four episodes in and twenty-four year old Tim is one of only five remaining.
I talked with Yorkshireman Tim in his cosmochemistry lab at the University of Bristol, where he studies isotopes in meteorites to understand Solar System evolution:
You’re Astronauts’ youngest candidate by far. Did this feel an advantage or disadvantage?
Overall, I don’t think it made a significant difference. I certainly had far less life experience than most of the other twelve, which I did feel in some of the tests: I’d think to myself, perhaps if I’d been alive a bit longer, and had more time to develop these skills, I might fare better. But very quickly I realised that it was also an advantage being young because I’m still very much used to learning new things in life as I go, and that definitely played to my advantage in the tests where I had to learn a new skill very fast.
What was the most surreal part of the Astronauts experience?
The most surreal part was definitely day one, because I’d already been through quite a rigorous application process before I made it to the final twelve, and I had absolutely no idea what the other eleven candidates would be like. I had no idea how old they would be, what they would be doing for a living, and to meet them and meet Chris Hadfield, Kevin Fong, and Iya Whiteley [the three judges] within the same hour was the most surreal experience of my life.
So, do you have what it takes to be an astronaut?
Out of the twelve of us, I don’t think any one of us are currently at the stage where we’re qualified or skilled enough to go into space. For me personally I see it as a milestone in my preparation for the day when I apply for real. There’s no better way to get an idea of what it takes than to actually go through selection for real, because it really highlights those weaknesses that you need to improve on, but it also highlights your strengths.
On being a scientist
Did any of your research skills helped you out during the show?
Yes, certainly! The nature of my research requires me to use many different analytical techniques to study my samples, so it’s not uncommon for me to have to learn a new technique, and I feel like learning things on the fly during my research really equipped me for the selection process.
Initially astronauts were almost exclusively military; now three of NASA’s 2017 selection are scientists. Do you think it’s important that scientists go to space?
Yes I do think so, because there are many different research questions that can only be answered by going to space, and we need scientifically literate astronauts to go up there and do these experiments.
What’s a typical day in the life of a cosmochemist?
Cosmonauts come in so many different varieties, I don’t think there’s… Did I just say ‘cosmonaut’? [laughs]. There’s no such thing as a typical cosmochemist; we’re a varied bunch. But, a day in the life of this particular cosmochemist: early start, get my emails out of the way, then a day in the lab preparing my samples, and I’ve usually got a mass spectrometer booked. As a PhD student I don’t feel like I have much spare time, so what spare time I do have I try to do something useful with it. I run five times a week, I go hiking most weekends, and when I’m not doing those things I’m a keen photographer and I enjoy writing my blog.
Do you have advice for aspiring astronaut readers who want to know if they have what it takes?
Be physically fit; develop your technical skills in whatever line of work you do, whether you’re an engineer or a scientist; and if you can, get some flying experience. But the most important piece of advice I would ever give to anyone who wants to be an astronaut is do not set your definition of success as you becoming an astronaut, because it’s probably never going to happen. You could spend your whole life preparing to be an astronaut and you’re probably never to get there, but as long as you’re okay with that you’ll still have an amazing time along the way and learn loads of new stuff.
If you went to the ISS for a year, what would you miss most about Earth?
I’d miss my cat, Peaches!
“I am a research student in the 2016 cohort, studying the effect of lake chemistry on the ancient martian atmosphere.”