GRAEME COUSINS visits the Ulster Transport Museum where Tim Peake’s spacecraft has docked for the coming three months
In a major coup for the Ulster Transport Museum, members of the public will be able to view the space capsule which Tim Peake used to get to and from the International Space Station, as well as experience the UK astronaut’s return to Earth first hand without leaving the ground.
Presented by Samsung and the Science Museum Group, the national tour entitled Tim Peake’s Spacecraft includes the Russian-made Soyuz TMA-19M capsule – complete with equipped interior and char marks on its outer body from its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The capsule is exhibited along with its 25-metre diameter parachute and the Sokol KV-2 spacesuit Peake wore during his high-speed descent.
Accompanying the spacecraft is the unique Space Descent VR experience, which with the help of Samsung Gear VR technology, puts visitors at the heart of Tim Peake’s historic 250-mile return voyage to Earth from the ISS and is voiced by the astronaut himself who is the UK’s first European Space Agency astronaut.
The spacecraft was acquired by the Science Museum Group soon after its return to Earth and the visit to the Ulster Transport Museum is the last stop on an eight location tour.
Although the exhibition is first opened to the public today, some NI school groups have been given early access to view the spacecraft.
Doug Millard, space curator of the Science Museum Group, said: “I’ve been watching the school kids huddling around the spacecraft – their eyes are as big as saucers.
“They’re aware that this is something special. Something that they’ll probably remember for the rest of their lives.”
He added: “The object is the icon, but (as a museum) you do need to do a little bit more to convey the amazing journey it has been on – parts of it really quite rough, bumpy, even violent. That’s where the VR experience helps.”
Pointing out the scorch damage to the capsule which had to slow from over 27,000 kilometres per hour and was heated to more than 1,500 degrees centigrade, he said: “It didn’t look like this when it went up into space. It’s showing the scars of a space flight.
“It is made from an aluminium alloy structure coated with plastic which is designed to burn to take the heat away from the capsule.”
Of the exhibition in the Ulster Transport Museum, Doug said: “I can’t think of a nicer area to have it on display, surrounded by locomotives – all these wonderful machines from the past converging on the space age.”
After spending six months on board the International Space Station, Peake returned to Earth with Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko and America’s Tim Kopra in the Soyuz spacecraft.
After a four-hour descent, the capsule landed onto the plains of Kazakhstan.
Head of curatorial at National Museums Northern Ireland, Hannah Crowdy said: “It’s the first time we’ve had a single iconic loan from another national museum in the gallery, and it’s certainly the first time we’ve really explored space travel.
“We feel it fits really well with our transport collection.
“What is fascinating about the Soyuz capsule is it’s a feat of scientific research and engineering and a lot of skill and technical talent, but that alone wouldn’t be a compelling story.
“You’ve got the story of Tim Peake and the other astronauts, real human courage and achievement, pushing themselves beyond their normal limitations.
“That’s very much in line with our transport collections, for example the Crossle racing car which was invented by a local designer (John Crossle) who couldn’t afford his own racing car.
“We have people like James Martin, who invented the ejector seat, Rex McCandless, another great inventor from this part of the world (who invented the featherbed motorcycle frame) – a lot of people who have really achieved things.”
The largest part of the exhibition is the space capsule’s parachute, which was used to slow the spacecraft from a speed of 287 kilometres per hour to 22 kilometres per hour in its final stage of descent to Earth.
Hannah said: “The parachute is about the size of two tennis courts in area.
“It’s got its own orange markings which were used to be able to locate it from the air after landing.
“It is attached to the capsule by the ropes originally used on it, and draped across the exhibition space.
“When you come in the first thing people will see is the parachute, then they’ll look down and see the capsule.”
One of the special guests at yesterday’s preview of the Ulster Transport Museum’s Tim Peake Spacecraft exhibition was Dr Norah Patten, who is on course to become Ireland’s first astronaut.
The Co Mayo woman was the first Irish participant at astronautics programme Project PoSSUM where she completed high-g flights, hypoxia training, aviation egress training and spacesuit testing and evaluations.
She explained: “Space has been my thing since I was in primary school.
“I have an aunt and cousins living in Cleveland, Ohio. We went to visit them when I was 11 and went to NASA. I was in awe, I wanted to know more about space travel.
“When I was 15 I got to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“After that was when I decided I wanted to do aeronautical engineering.
Of the Soyuz capsule she said: “I think sometimes we can take space travel for granted. It’s incredible, it’s dangerous, it’s not glamourous.
“The Soyuz capsule puts it in context. The movies give it a romantic notion. The reality is you’re going to be couped up in a tight space for hours on end.”
The exhibition opens today and will remain on display at the museum for three months until Sunday, May 12.
Tim Peake’s spacecraft is free to visit, and Space Descent VR will be available to visitors aged 13 and over for £6.
For more information about the exhibition, visit www.nmni.com/soyuz
Thoughts on the exhibition
When you think of space travel it tends to conjure images of super-slick, state-of-the-art, shiny white rockets blasting off after a countdown from 10.
And then you see the Soyuz spacecraft in the Ulster Transport Museum and it brings you back to Earth with a bump (just as the very same capsule came down on June 18, 2016.)
It looks like a relic of days gone by – a disused prop from the very first Star Wars movie in 1977 – a hunk of junk incapable of withstanding a strong gust of wind, never mind getting you to the International Space Station and back.
And that is the beauty of science and technology, looks can be oh so deceiving.
Having taken part in the VR experience I learnt of the amazing journey that this tiny pod took Tim Peake and his two fellow astronauts on.
Although I was aware of what the mission entailed, like many, it resonates a little more when you’ve got props such as the capsule itself, attached parachute and a front row seat for the descent.
As a virtual astronaut (wearing a VR headset from the comfort on a cushioned swivel chair) I sat on board the Soyuz as it was disconnected from the space station and began to fall through space.
As someone who is not great with heights it wasn’t as unnerving as I thought it was going to be, but no less astounding.
On the descent through the Earth’s atmosphere the Soyuz caught fire, but we were prevented from being turned into a microwave ready meal by the special cladding on the outside of the capsule.
To slow us down as we got closer to landing a huge parachute was opened.
None of this sounds like rocket science – in fact it has the feel of that science project where you have to protect a falling egg using a structure made from paper, straws and string. But, as we know, this crude capsule got the job done and a safe but bumpy landing was made in Kazakhstan.
The journey to Cultra was no doubt a lot smoother and now the story becomes all the more tenable for visitors to the Ulster Transport Museum thanks to the exhibition which brings a modern feat of science onto our doorsteps.
More space-based fun and learning
To celebrate the arrival of Tim Peake’s spacecraft the Ulster Transport Museum will play host to LaTe LaB, an adults-only light hearted evening of marvellous scientific experiments, shows and music inspired by the exhibition.
LaTe LaB takes place on Friday from 6.30pm to 10.20pm.
To supplement the exhibition Samsung and the Science Museum Group will continue its unique education outreach programme for Key Stage 3 and 4 students with Samsung’s 360° immersive and interactive double decker ‘Space Descent VR experience’ bus going into schools and working with the Science Museum Group in the area to deliver Soyuz Rocket Shows.
Also running alongside the exhibition – which coincides with the 2019 NI Science Festival – National Museums NI has a programme to accompany the exhibition including a series of interactive outreach events and activities for visitors and local schools.