As the seventh, British-born, astronaut was heading towards the International Space Station today, you could be mistaken for thinking he was the first British astronaut. He wasn't. He is either the second, seventh or eighth depending on how broad you want to be at defining "British". He is the first British ESA astronaut.
The first British astronaut - a person travelling to space under their British nationality - was Dr Helen Sharman, from Sheffield, who went to the Mir space station in 1991. Despite the enthusiasm of various news outlets, Tim Peake is the seventh person born in the UK to go to space.
The British-born astronauts in order of flight are:
- Helen Sharman. Born: Sheffield. First launch: 1991-05-18. British. Supported by a private British consortium/USSR government.
- Michael Foale. Born: Louth. First launch: 1992-03-24. Used US citizenship.
- Piers Sellers. Born: Crowborough. First launch: 2002-10-07. Used US citizenship.
- Nicholas Patrick. Born: Saltburn-by-the-Sea. First launch: 2006-12-10. US citizenship.
- Gregory H. Johnson. Born: South Ruislip. First launch: 2008-03-11. US citizenship.
- Richard Garriot. Born: Cambridge. First launch: 2008-10-12. Dual nationality space tourist. Had a US flag on his arm but US/UK on his flight suit.
- Tim Peake. Born: Chicester. First launch: 2015-12-15. British. First to be supported by the UK government/ESA.
Helen Sharman is the first British astronaut. I was a kid when she went to Mir and both her and Michael Foale were inspirations to me.
According to the press
Unfortunately, the press have latched on to phrases such as "Britain's first 'official' astronaut" and "Britain's first ESA astronaut" and then lost the qualifications that make those statements true. It is frustrating that this isn't just the usual suspects either. Even the broadsheets have printed wrong/incorrect/misleading headlines or reports about this.
Last year the Guardian went with a title wrongly declaring Tim as "Britain's first astronaut". They add the qualifications in the first paragraph, and later mention Helen and the others, but people tend to remember the massive title text a bit more than subtleties in paragraph four.
Recently, the i100 wrongly claimed Tim Peake is "Britain's first citizen astronaut" and followed that up with the equally untrue "Peake is technically the first British citizen to become an astronaut." He isn't 'technically' or otherwise. They do at least mention that Helen Sharman exists in the penultimate paragraph of that article although I'm not convinced typical readers will take in that that invalidates previous sentences. Newsweek repeated the incorrect claim of "Britain's first astronaut...". Their qualifying statement further down the story seems to dismiss Helen with the confused:
"Brits who have made the journey into space previously have only held U.S. or dual nationality and had either worked for NASA or travelled on privately funded trips".
Helen did travel on a privately funded trip but isn't American and doesn't have dual nationality. Of course, if you were to ignore Helen the statement would be true.
The Telegraph's live coverage stated:
"Major Tim Peake was forced to say goodbye to his children Oliver, 4, and Thomas, 7, for six months today as he became Britain's first astronaut."
He did say goodbye to his children but he didn't become Britain's first astronaut. He is our first ESA astronaut.
BBC Focus magazine tweeted to wish a bon voyage to Tim but also claimed he was "our first Astronaut". Unless Tim also works for BBC Focus magazine, that's wrong.
Is it a problem?
It is troubling that the person who actually was the first British astronaut gets defined away by headlines. If you wanted to omit women from the history of science this would be a way to do it. Several men who I don't know sought me out on Twitter to let me know it isn't that. Some said it was just "poor wording". Another told me that she was a "cosmonaut" not an "astronaut" despite the two meaning the same thing. Another told me there are no British astronauts as both Helen and Tim launched with the Russians so are "Russian astronauts". This perverse interpretation would presumably also have British people on an Air France flight being referred to as "French passengers". I'm not sure why so many random men have felt that need to find me and explain to me how it isn't a problem.
On a more positive note, after I wrote this Brian Cox made a point of introducing Helen Sharman as Britain's first astronaut on Stargazing Live. Good on him.