Tim Peake is part of UK space history. He was the first British astronaut with the European Space Agency and the first British astronaut to undertake a spacewalk. He ran the London Marathon while orbiting on the International Space Station 400km away. But freshly retired from ESA missions, Peake wants to put the past in perspective. “The next five to 10 years in space exploration are going to be more exciting than the past 50.”

The first woman and the first person of colour — from the US — are due to walk on the Moon as soon as 2025. The first Europeans, probably from France, Germany or Italy, ESA’s biggest funders, should follow soon after. Nasa has plans for permanent settlements on the Moon by 2030, and crewed missions to Mars. Such possibilities seem almost fanciful, given our immediate anxieties: how can we keep people on the Moon when the UK can’t even keep cucumbers in supermarkets? But Peake, a slight, polite man who spent much of his career in the military, is convinced: “I absolutely do not see us having a problem with getting to Mars and creating safe habitats on Mars.”

Not everyone sees the point. Most Britons and Americans say they have no interest in going to the Moon. Does Peake meet a lot of people who, like SpaceX founder Elon Musk, say they’d live and die on a Mars colony? “No.” Moreover, “that’s not the kind of people that we select into the space agency”. Last year he helped to choose a new class of European astronauts. “We’re not after people who are happy to throw it all away on a one-way ticket to Mars. We’re after people who are very thoughtful and aware of risk mitigation.”

While Musk’s bombastic promise of colonising Mars gains headlines, Peake articulates the sober, step-by-step view of space exploration. “We have to get over the hurdles of getting to Mars safely, landing safely, setting up habitats where we can live, and then increasing the footprints of those habitats.”

He called time on his career as an ESA astronaut after accepting he was unlikely to be selected for a Moon mission. The ISS, where he lived for six months, is nearing the end of its service. But now an ESA ambassador, he wants its model of international collaboration to live on.

“Space has always managed to transcend those political tensions that we have on Earth,” he says, citing the joint US-Soviet mission in 1975. “Even today there are western astronauts training in Star City [near Moscow] and we have Russian astronauts who are still flying on SpaceX.” On the ISS, despite geopolitical tensions, “the Russian segment completely depends on the US segment and vice versa”.

The problem is the lack of rules for governing space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty “isn’t really fit for purpose”, in an era of plentiful satellites and profitmaking ventures. Russia and China have declined to back Nasa’s Artemis Accords, which would endorse companies exploiting lunar resources. “We need a new set of regulations that recognises the commercial era that we’re into . . . We need to work much harder.”

Some astronauts dreamt of space from childhood, others found themselves in the right place with the right skills. Peake was one of the latter. He left school with below average grades. “I got a C, D and E at A-level, and managed to become an astronaut. There’s always a way.”

He joined the army, was fascinated by flying and trained as a helicopter pilot. Having missed university, he caught up on maths and flight dynamics through sheer meticulousness: reading books over and over until he understood them.

Peake’s fortune was that his career coincided with the UK investing in ESA’s human space flight programme. That led to lift-off to the ISS in December 2015. He was chosen in part because he was seen as a good person to spend time cooped up with. There were “very hairy moments”: a dodgy docking, and water leaking into his fellow astronaut’s helmet during a spacewalk. But in six months aboard, “there wasn’t a single argument. We go through so much training: a lot of it is about interpersonal skills. We train seven days down in a cave, 12 days underwater. The cave training in particular, in terms of being cold, wet, tired and hungry, is almost designed to provoke confrontation.”

In space, communication is key. “It’s important every day to have briefings and debriefings and feel that you can raise any issues.”

The new European trainee astronauts include John McFall, a doctor who lost his right leg in a motorbike accident and who would, if successful, be the first para-astronaut. “Space is an environment that completely levels the playing field. No human is perfectly adapted for space. What could be a disability here on Earth could be an ability in space,” says Peake. McFall’s prosthetic leg “would be fantastic on the space station”: modified with a clamp, it could attach to a handrail and allow him to stay stable while working. Other astronauts “have to hook our feet underneath the rails, and you wear away the tops of your feet — you get lizard feet, it’s quite horrible.” (Meanwhile, the soles of their feet “become like babies’ feet because we’re just not using them at all”.)

Going to space is to go through a “rapid ageing process”, with more pressure on the brain and stress on eyesight. This mostly reverses after re-entry. “The one thing that you will always live with is the radiation dose you’ve received.” Peake is 50. Is his life expectancy the same as someone who hasn’t been to space? “We haven’t had many astronauts who have spent six months in space who have survived yet up to 80, 90 years old, so we need to look at the long-term impact.” There are greater questions about whether humans could live years in space or even reproduce there.

What is clear is that life on Moon and Mars settlements “is not going to be comfortable”. On Mars, humans would probably have to live underground. Peake, an outdoorsy type, now lives with his family near England’s bucolic South Downs. But on the space station “there’s not much green. There’s a poster in the Russian segment of trees and a green field and some sunflowers. On Friday nights we would gather there and have a crew meal, and everybody ended up staring at this poster rather longingly, reminding us of where we’d come from. There is that human need to be surrounded by nature and that’s going to be a psychological challenge to overcome . . . We’re exploring virtual reality and augmented reality onboard the space station to help us with work, but also enjoyment.”

What do space tourists get by comparison? For those who go up with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for a few minutes, “you’re going to get that experience of weightlessness, you’re going to see the blackness of space, you’re going to see the curvature of the Earth. But the space station is [more than] four times higher and you’re in permanent orbit around the planet. It’s another order of magnitude above what a tourist would be receiving.”

Musk’s SpaceX has sent a mission into orbit, farther away from Earth than the ISS. But that lasted just three days. Over the course of six months at the ISS, space “becomes ingrained in you”, says Peake. His own experience can’t compare to those going to the Moon. “And going to the Moon will not compare with that first crew that goes to Mars, and watches the Earth disappear until it’s just a small speck of light.”

So are Virgin Galactic’s $450,000 trips worth it? If he had the money, would he pay for one? “For me, I think space flight should be about scientific research, there should be a benefit to it to people back on Earth.” He hopes for another chance at that: “I’m not discounting myself from a future mission. There’s an awful lot happening in the commercial space environment.”

Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, has argued that publicly funded human astronauts will be redundant because robots can explore space more cheaply. “I think it’ll be the opposite,” says Peake. “If you were to fast-forward 500 years, if the human species survives, I think that you’ll find a lot of humans living in space, either on space stations or on celestial bodies.”

Robotic missions “pave the way”, but aren’t that much cheaper: often costing billions. They also collect less data, says Peake. “What a human could do in one day on the surface of Mars is what a robotic mission may achieve in about two to three years, in terms of surveying a landscape, picking up samples, analysing them. Humans definitely have the edge.” Plus the presence of humans on another planet would “completely inspire in terms of what we’re doing as a human race”.

Musk wants humans to become multiplanetary to guard against apocalypse on Earth; Bezos has argued that space could be where humans offshore their most polluting activities; other commercial players want to mine resources. Which rationale is most persuasive? Peake emphasises, as national space agencies do, what space can do for Earth. “The Moon is going to tell us an awful lot about our own planet.”

Its helium-3 may help us produce fusion energy. Satellites provide data on climate and biodiversity. Low gravity may help pharma companies grow better disease-causing proteins, with which to develop drugs. “We’re going to constantly see space playing a much larger part of the solution to many of the problems that we face here on Earth.”

The counterargument is that we can get many of these benefits without going near Mars. Further, climate change and biodiversity loss are such urgent problems that we should focus every spare billion on the known technologies that can be implemented now.

Peake argues that national space budgets are “about right”. “In the 1960s, where the US space budget was [nearly] 4.5 per cent of [federal spending]. It’s 0.5 per cent today. That’s right — there isn’t an absolute urgency in anything that’s currently going on.” Nonetheless, we should think big: “We will always have problems on Earth. In 200 years, we’ll have new problems. To say we just need to focus on what’s immediately in front of us, at the expense of everything else, would be a huge mistake.”

This article has been amended since publication to clarify that space budgets are a proportion of federal spending

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