Astronaut Tim Peake prepares for historic trip to International Space Station


Britain's first official astronaut Tim Peake is in Kazakhstan counting down the days before his historic journey to the International Space Station (ISS) on December 15.

The run-up to the launch is being spent setting up experiments, undergoing medical check-ups and physical training, and reviewing flight plans.

During this time Major Peake, 43, and his two crew companions will minimise contact with people to avoid falling ill and bringing unwanted bacteria or viruses onto the space station.

The former Army aviator and helicopter test pilot arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on November 30 together with Russian crew commander Yuri Malenchenko and American Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra.

The trio will spend almost six months aboard the ISS which orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 220 miles.

"Major Tim" - whose name will strike a chord with David Bowie fans -  is the first Briton to be employed as a professional astronaut by the European Space Agency (Esa).

Previous "British" astronauts have either had US citizenship and worked for Nasa, or been privately funded or sponsored.

The launch will take place at around 11.30am - noon UK time from Baikonur, the world's oldest and largest space facility situated deep in the remote Kazakhstan desert steppe.

A Soyuz FG rocket - a Russian space mission workhorse with a 100% success record - will blast Major Peake and his fellow travellers into orbit in under 10 minutes.

But it will take six hours for them to catch up with the space station, hurtling through space at 17,500 mph.

During the launch the crew will be squeezed into the tiny seven-foot-long "descent module" of a Soyuz TMA spacecraft.

Once in space they will move to the spherical  "orbital module" which is only slightly more spacious and attaches to the ISS.

Major Peake's mission, named Principia after Sir Isaac Newton's ground-breaking text setting out the laws of gravity and motion, will see him conduct around 30 experiments with an emphasis on education and outreach.

They include growing protein crystals and blood vessel cells in weightless conditions, as well as melting metals to study their properties as they float in mid-air.

The astronaut is also taking more than a million rocket seeds with him into space which will be distributed to thousands of UK schools on his return.

Children will be given the opportunity to grow the plants and see if they have been affected by microgravity.

In addition, Major Peake will contribute to the day-to-day maintenance of the space station's life support, power and communications systems.

This could involve taking space walks, as well as more down-to-Earth activities such as fixing the 15-year-old suction toilets.

Speaking at a press conference in London last month, Major Peake said: "On launch day, of course there's going to be some apprehension.

"You're sat on top of 300 tonnes of fuel and you're basically just going to be focused on the mission and what's to come.

"It's important to say goodbye to friends and family and just draw a line and really focus on the mission ahead."

In April Major Peake will run the entire 26.2 mile London Marathon on a treadmill aboard the space station.

His mission to the ISS is symbolic of a major change in UK policy to manned space exploration.

For decades the UK Government had nothing to do with human space flight, preferring to focus on satellites and robot probes.

The switch came in 2012, when Britain agreed to start contributing funds to Esa's ISS programme.

Both Malenchenko and Kopra have made previous trips to the space station.

The Russian, who has several orbital missions under his belt, became the first person to marry in space on August 10 2003.

He wed Ekaterina Dmitrieva, who was in Texas at the time, while flying over New Zealand in the ISS.