The day I met a spaceman: lessons in entrepreneurship from Tim Peake

I met Tim Peake last week as he toured his My Journey to Space talk around the UK. It was a bit of a pilgrimage as space exploration has always inspired me. I was there, I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I can still recall the grainy black & white images on the television screen.

I’ve been fascinated by the photography and science of space ever since.  One of the most poignant images for me is of the family photo Charlie Duke left on the moon. He wrote on the back: This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972.

Peake’s tour embellishes the stories in his book, Limitless, taking us on how he got to be an astronaut – from military test flying, combat missions, to living in caves and training for days underwater. He answers all your questions about living and working in space. There’s a beautiful section which takes you on an orbit round Earth, looking down on the planet and then a high-adrenaline insight into spacewalking. You don’t have to be into space to enjoy it, you don’t need any prior knowledge or anything. It’s uplifting, motivational, inspiring and funny.

The son of a journalist and a midwife, he was an unexceptional student. He had no interest in space beyond a Lego model of an orbiter shuttle. He joined the army cadets at 13 and left school at 18 with middling A-levels. At 19 he joined the army and over the next two decades rose through the ranks to major, serving in Northern Ireland, Kenya, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, often as an Air Corps helicopter pilot.

Aged 18, I wandered into the school Careers Service office, cheeky and cocky, to ask about how to get a job as an astronaut. There was a queue so I got the ‘A to Z of Careers’ book out but before I could get to ‘Astronaut’ I got stuck on ‘Accountant’ and the rest is history.

Our fascination with space links to the unknown. As far as we know, space goes on for infinity. What is out there? We only understand about 5% of the universe, the rest is made-up of dark energy, dark matter and things we’ve yet to fully understand. Space triggers that innate curiosity in us about what’s out there and the possibilities those answers could bring.

Humans are explorers – our imaginations can run wild- it’s in our DNA. Our fascination with space links to our ability to dream, to wonder, to be curious and to have big ideas. The future NASA Artemis mission will land the first humans on the Moon for fifty years, and then make the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.

Peake has eighteen years military service. In December 2015 he became the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station and conduct a spacewalk during his six-month mission. He also ran the London marathon from space. A Soyuz capsule carrying Peake and two other crew members landed back on Earth in after 186 days in space.  

He spent five years in training, learning how to cope with G-force and zero-gravity living, the rudiments of the spacewalk and how to live in isolation with his future crew mates, including the American Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut Your Malenchenko. The vibe in the rocket, as they sat on a launchpad in Kazakhstan, sounded pretty casual. Peake knew Kopra hated Lady Gaga, so he had requested lots of Gaga be piped in.

He called the journey back the best ride I’ve been on – ever. Screaming towards Earth at 25 times the speed of sound, friction on the spacecraft’s heat shield slowed its speed from 17,398 mph to 514 mph and raised the outside temperature to 1,600C. The rapid deceleration pushed the crew back into their seats with a force of around 5G – described as like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but the barrel is on fire.

That was landing, what was the launch experience? Like an unfriendly gorilla jumping up and down on your chest, and then throwing you off a cliff. The gorilla part were his words to describe what it feels like during lift off, which is about nine minutes. That is a long time to have a gorilla jumping on you! The being thrown off a cliff is what it feels like when you reach zero gravity, which comes quite abruptly as you leave Earth’s orbit.

Peake’s mission was named Principia after Sir Isaac Newton’s landmark work describing the laws of motion and gravity, and its main purpose was to contribute to scientific knowledge by conducting experiments in zero gravity. But he did much more than that as he kept in touch with the world on Twitter, took part in video-linked Q&A sessions, and engaged in educational activities with schoolchildren – he read a bedtime story about astronauts on CBeebies as the Earth rolled beneath him.

He tweeted about coping with life in orbit, including photos and videos of sights that only a fraction of humanity will ever see with their own eyes. He called his parents, but got the wrong number, and on another occasion, phoned when they were out. When asked how he was doing on a spacewalk, as he clung to the outside of the station, he replied: Fine. Just hanging out.

Often when I’ve been outside on cold, crisp winter evenings walking the dog, I’ve look up at the moon and marvel at its contours, brightness and mystery. Armstrong’s death in 2012 felt like a coda to a chapter of my life. It was ironic that Armstrong died just as the US was celebrating the success of landing the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Just as Peake is the first person from the UK to spacewalk, being first to achieve something makes you unique, a ground breaker, it’s all about your passion and desire to leave your mark – quite literally a footprint – a legacy to inspire others. The edge is not in a gifted birth, a high IQ, or in talent, but rather the winner’s edge is all in the attitude. And if attitude is the criterion for success, the first quality needed is audacity and daring to dream.

Unsurprisingly, entrepreneurs can learn profound lessons from astronauts like Peake, with their tremendous courage, ability to perform while living on the edge, and knack for succeeding in doing things which truly sets them apart. Successful entrepreneurs possess many of these same character traits. 

Launching new experiments in space and startup endeavours require skill to guide them into an unknown realm. Closer examination of space exploration provides strategies to help launch a new business into its first orbit. Here are a few thoughts.

Be willing to break the mould Before he went into space, Peake didn’t know what the physical and psychological impact of living in a small, isolated, zero gravity environment for six months would be. As a startup founder, it is critical to be bold and have a willingness to take risks, do something that maybe no one has tried before, and demonstrate continued learning from that process.

Embrace working with a diverse team During his talk, Peake frequently acknowledged Tim Kopra and Yuri Malenchenko, who shared his entire journey, as well as others from various countries who worked on the project. He emphasised the importance of teamwork, emphasising how important it was that we all work together to make what is seemingly impossible, possible. Entrepreneurial leaders need to break down silos and collaborate to truly move the needle. 

Take a step back to see the big picture While Peake’s mission was primarily a stepping-stone for sending astronauts to Mars, he gained a new personal perspective on the Earth. Peake saw the Earth’s geography and climate in a new light, observing weather systems and topography in a way he could never experience from Earth.

Intentionally stepping out of the typical day-to-day can help you see situations from a new and often unexpected perspective. Entrepreneurs recognise and enjoy the learning that stems from these new perspectives.

Communicate and share your viewpoints and learning. Founders are open minded, so they can identify barriers, challenges, and opportunities relevant to their own context. Communicate and share, regularly with your team.

In advance of his journey, Peake committed to staying connected and sharing his experiences. Even in a highly controlled environment, he consistently posted on Twitter, so others could share and learn from his experience.

Plan for failure and work backwards In some ways launching a new business parallels a space mission. There’s so much to think about and so much that can go wrong, and there’s always the chance of catastrophic failure. Peake had trained extensively, not just for the mission going right, but also for all the ways the mission could go wrong. He wasn’t out there alone, and he and his spacewalk partner, Kopra, had practiced, so he knew whatever happened, they could deal with it. 

And of course, it did. Kopra got water in his helmet from a leak in the spacesuit cooling system, out on a spacewalk. Going blind on his spacewalk could have led any normal person into a panic, but Peake was able to maintain composure, and respond to the crisis. He had planned for so many years for things that could potentially go awry in space that he didn’t allow this to throw him.

For entrepreneurs, balancing the options, good and bad, is an essential mindset. Adopting the thinking of a startup is an experiment, each outcome, including those unplanned, is valuable learning for continuous improvement.

Enjoy the journey – the real thrill doesn’t come from speed Peake described the experience of flying back from the moon like riding a meteor. The sheer speed of flight was exhilarating, but Peake expressed that his thrill came from watching the beauty outside along the way and the delight in reaching a different perspective of the world.

Successful founders aren’t solely focused on the speed at which they launch their venture, they recognise success comes with patience and hard work, and timing. Enjoy the process of building something great and delivering on your vision, don’t rush your business’s growth so that you risk compromising the quality of your offering, or the losing being part of the experience.

Critical traits for success: persistence and tenacity Peake’s story of sheer persistence, tenacity, zeroing on what’s important and of taking pleasure in the journey speaks to anyone who goes into a startup with a purpose. His description of the preparation for the launch, the excitement around the possibility of being in space and then his awe in being weightless is a great metaphor for launching a new venture and realising a dream.

Peake dared to dream and took risks. Startup life has twists and turns. Success is failure turned inside out, the silver tint of the clouds of doubt, and you never can tell how close you are. Peake lived his life as an exclamation, dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the setbacks as gaining experience for handling the future challenges he knew he would have to overcome tomorrow.

Are you shaping your own tomorrow – or are you simply following in the footsteps of others? Peake’s ongoing enthusiasm for what he achieved was palpable during an inspired two-hour talk. His energy and sharing personal insights were a reminder of the sheer enjoyment we can obtain from reaching our goals – he brought to life what the view of Earth from a small, round window on a space station meant to him.

Think like Tim Peake, look to your future. He reached a life-long goal when he launched into space. Clearly, you don’t just decide you want to be an astronaut and then find yourself rocketing towards Mars. It requires years of focus, determination, and sacrifice, but he wanted it and made it happen. Do you?

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