Interview: Astronaut Tim Peake on an imminent revolution in space tech

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“We’re about to see a revolution in space. Very few people have even grasped how much of a revolution it’s going to be.”

If that claim came from the marketing director of a technology company, you’d probably roll your eyes. Yeah, yeah – space is going to be big, right? Heard it all before…

Well, considering that quote comes from someone who’s been there – literally – and done it, and really knows what he’s talking about, maybe we should listen. Because Tim Peake is excited.

As Britain’s first male astronaut – and one of only seven UK-born people to go into space – you might think, what with spending six months on the International Space Station, and being the first Brit to perform a spacewalk, what more is there to be excited about?

“The UK space sector is in a great place at the moment, and it’s well positioned to take advantage of what’s coming up,” Peake tells Computer Weekly, as he explains the milestone that is about to be achieved.

“In 2011, when the last space shuttle flew, it would have cost you $57,000 to put a kilogramme on that shuttle to low Earth orbit. Today, with a Falcon Heavy on SpaceX, they’ll do that for about $1,500. When Elon Musk’s Starship flies, it’s probably around $200 to $300. So in the space of just over a decade, we’ve gone from $57,000 to 200 bucks to get a kilogramme into space.”

Hitting that price point is going to open up enormous opportunities to do things in space that, before now, were conceivable but not physically possible. “Suddenly, all sorts of stuff that we thought was science fiction and decades away becomes economically viable today,” says Peake.

We’re about to see a revolution in space. Very few people have even grasped how much of a revolution it’s going to be
Tim Peake, astronaut

By way of example, he cites the European Space Agency (ESA) Solaris project, which aims to build a solar energy farm in space – a 10km2 array that will beam electrical power to Earth via microwave connections. Some forecasts predict Solaris could provide 10% of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050.

“[The ESA’s] price point was $1,000 per kilogramme. As soon as you drop below that, it becomes economically viable – as simple as that. It’s just a price point. And we’re very, very close to achieving that price point,” says Peake.

Factories in space

What else? How about building factories in space? “Mass-producing stuff in space that you can’t build here on Earth – at $200 per kilogramme, and with a rocket that can take 150 tonnes to low-Earth orbit on every single launch, this isn’t sci-fi anymore, this is very near reality,” he says.

The UK, Peake says, is well placed to take advantage of these upcoming developments. The UK space sector is worth about £17.5bn to the economy with more than 50,000 people directly employed, he says, citing investment in the OneWeb satellite constellation. Clyde Space – a Glasgow-based small satellite company, the Harwell space cluster in Oxfordshire, the National Space Academy in Leicester, the Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, and the government’s UK space ports initiative.

“We have been very fortunate to have a very good UK space sector for a number of years now,” he says. “For a long time, it was kind of like a little hidden jewel that nobody really knew about. I think we’ve been very clever about the way we’ve invested in our technology.”

The US space programme is famously credited with bringing all sorts of advanced technologies into our everyday lives – or at least, with innovations such as Teflon, Velcro and memory foam, finding uses for them that helped lead to successful consumer products.

Today’s space tech sector already underpins many aspects of enterprise IT that digital chiefs take for granted, such as the positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) signal transmitted from GPS satellites.

“A study [in 2022] by London Economics said the UK economy would take a hit of £5bn per day if we lost PNT, because that signal is so valuable to everything. Not just from your GPS signals, but from banking transactions to digital systems that all rely on that precise timing. A lot of stuff that people won’t even realise they’re using today, in terms of satellite technology, phone technology, weather forecasting systems and climate modelling,” says Peake.

“With the onset of new technologies like quantum and artificial intelligence, more connectivity, computing power, these kinds of things, they become more and more relevant, more important, and space becomes an area that can help with that connectivity.”

Peake says that when he went into space in 2015, there were 4,000 satellites around the Earth. Today, Elon Musk’s SpaceX alone has 6,000.

Mission control

Increasingly too, the flow of innovation is working both ways, as technologies developed for the enterprise offer benefits in space – not least through the potential of artificial intelligence (AI).

“A future where humans are working with AI is going to be a better future than without AI,” says Peake. “We need to make sure we take advantage of that without the flip side of the risks.”

He envisages a future AI-based Mission Control Centre, required on a journey to Mars where the 20-minute communication delay means a conventional mission control is no use in an emergency – by the time the comms have reached Earth, it could already be too late.

“A future where humans are working with AI is going to be a better future than without AI. We need to make sure we take advantage of that without the flip side of the risks”

Tim Peake, astronaut

“You can have a remote Mission Control Centre that’s got AI that can help with decision-making processes, that understands intricately the spacecraft and the environment you’re operating in, and can inform the crew to make timely, life-changing or life-saving decisions,” he says, while pointing out that, for anyone who’s watched the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, nobody is going to allow AI to have unfettered control of the spaceship’s airlock.

Other potential applications include robotic technology with haptic feedback that could be used for medical emergencies in space, as well as enabling humans in a safe environment to make use of robots in an unsafe environment.

“These kinds of areas are where technology is really going to help to advance what we’re doing in space,” he says.

Peake will be showcasing some of these technologies as part of Future Lab, an exhibition staged at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, where startups will demonstrate innovative products in areas such as drones, robotics, holograms and environmental technologies. The exhibition aims to engage 11-to-16-year-olds, a cohort for which he has a particular interest.

STEM education

Peake was also the UK’s first honorary science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) ambassador, helping to support 35,000 volunteers who encourage young people’s interest in STEM careers.

Attracting young people – and people from diverse backgrounds – into tech education and careers has long been a source of frustration for many in the IT and digital sector, not least considering the significant skills shortages that continue to hold back the UK’s progress. Peake understands the issue, but sees signs that things are getting better.

“While it’s a problem, actually, we have a greater STEM uptake at the moment than we’ve ever had before,” he says.

Industry has to be innovative, adaptable and fast-paced … but you can’t expect the education sector to be bouncing around at the same pace in terms of the curriculum. It is up to the bigger companies to run apprenticeships and programmes that will upskill younger graduates coming out of [education]
Tim Peake, astronaut

“But it’s clear, although they’re on the way up, they are still not meeting industry’s demand. And I think that shows how much tech, engineering, science, computing studies and so on are accelerating, at such a rate that even though we have more young people getting involved it still can’t keep up with the demand. What we need to do is do more of the same because it’s obviously working. But we need to close the gap between what young people are learning at school and what the industry actually needs.”

Peake cites initiatives such as T-levels, apprenticeships, greater opportunities for work experience and University Technical Colleges as positive examples of the connections between education and industry delivering better results from working together.

“There’s always room to do better. It is a case of looking at what is working and doing more of it,” he says.

“Industry has to be innovative, adaptable and fast-paced, and we don’t want to slow it down. But you can’t expect the education sector to be bouncing around at the same pace in terms of the curriculum. It is up to the bigger companies to run apprenticeships and programmes that will upskill younger graduates coming out of [education].

“There will never be a perfect, seamless route from education into industry – that’s a utopia we will not achieve. But what we can do is close the gap and make it less of a rocky road.”

Back into space

Peake hopes his days as an astronaut are not yet over. He’s in touch with the crews training to be the first to return to the moon – Nasa hopes to make the first crewed landing since Apollo 17 in late 2026. While he thinks a moon shot is out of his reach, Peake is hoping to return to space: “I’d like to think I’ve got the opportunity to go back to the ISS within the next couple of years, which is looking really positive at the moment.”

For anyone who marvels at space travel, or who has watched clips of humanity’s first forays to the moon, or even just seen the remarkable photography of space-suited astronauts floating above Earth, there is one question it’s almost impossible not to ask when you meet a real-life astronaut.

Tim Peake will be showcasing technologies with space potential at the Future Lab exhibition, where startups will demonstrate innovative products in areas such as drones, robotics, holograms and environmental technologies

It is surely the question Peake is asked more than any other, but he’s gracious enough to answer – and to exhibit more of that lingering excitement – when Computer Weekly asks: So, what’s it like to go into space?

“Two things are pretty special,” he says. “The first is the feeling of weightlessness. You’re very, very aware you’re in a different environment because you’re floating. And everything feels very, very strange and unique.

“But really it’s all about the view. It’s all about looking out the hatch, looking down on planet Earth, and seeing the universe from a completely different perspective. Seeing the planet against the backdrop of the blackness of space is absolutely life-changing. It’s something I wish more people could experience.

“It does make you realise how small the Earth looks from space. We all share the same atmosphere, we all share the same planet, we need to get on and collaborate and work together.”


Tim Peake is an ambassador for Future Lab, and will be appearing at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on 11-14 July 2024.


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