The mystery and magic of space and what’s yet to be discovered was the main thrust of a speech last night by astronaut Tim Peake at the city’s Guildhall.
The event, hosted by the University of Portsmouth, also saw Tim awarded an honorary Doctor of Science by Vice-chancellor Professor Graham Galbraith.
Tim then spoke about his six-month ‘magical’ mission aboard the international space station, orbiting Earth 16 times a day, and affording him and his five fellow astronauts breathtaking views alongside 12-hour days conducting scientific experiments on behalf of the international community.
Tim graduated from Portsmouth in 2006 with a BSc in flight dynamics and evaluation before being selected as an astronaut by the European Space Agency and winning his place on a six-month mission aboard the space station.
Awarding Tim his degree, Professor Galbraith said: “It’s a great honour for us to welcome one of our most celebrated alumni back to the University for this prestigious event.
“It gives me great pleasure to award Tim with an honorary degree. This is the highest honour a university can bestow on a member of the public.”
Tim accepted, saying he considered it a team award, in recognition of the work of countless people and colleagues who made the mission possible.
He said: “What a huge honour it is to receive that degree and it is made even more special as I received my first degree from the University of Portsmouth 10 years ago.
“Unfortunately that 10 years isn’t an indication of how youthful I am but indicates that I attained a degree later in life at the grand old age of 34, showing you can still achieve your goals later on in life.”
His address to the 1,500-strong audience was hosted on stage by University astronomer Dr Jen Gupta.
His talk ranged from the humorous – recounting the crew’s ritual of having to urinate against the back left-hand wheel of the bus taking the astronauts to the rocket – through to the daily habits and demands on board the space station, to the human ambition and his own to go further into space and explore.
In response to questions from the audience, he said there were 47 different sizes of gloves for astronauts because the need for high fidelity was paramount, but only two sizes of boots, medium and large, “because you don’t do anything important with your feet”.
He described how seeing in one glance 2,000 miles, “from Scotland to Greece”, astounded and humbled him every time he had a chance to look out of the spacecraft’s window: “It was overwhelming, it was hard to take it all in.”
And he spoke of his passion for discovery in physical and life sciences, detailing experiments on inanimate things and on himself, including being fascinated by the effect space had on his body. Because of such experiments, we were getting closer all the time to being able to send humans into space further and for longer.
“Solving the problem of how we can survive long-term in space makes a human mission to Mars within our grasp.”
Responding to the final question from an audience member asking if he hoped to go into space for a second time, he laughed and said: “I’m available for work, but I have to wait my turn. It may take another two to three years.”
VIPs at the event included Tim’s parents, who live in nearby West Sussex.
The event followed the earlier UK Space Agency Schools Conference, hosted by the University and attended by more than 500 school pupils, which celebrated the work of over a million UK school students inspired by Tim’s Principia mission.