Since 10 March, we’ve welcomed an astronaut duck, international Instagrammers, and lots of visitors; over 53,000 in the last three weeks alone. It’s been amazing to see all the reactions on social media, but one comment has come up a few times and got us thinking—exactly how tall is Tim Peake?
— ALi ♿ ???? (@ALiasBaHa) April 7, 2018
— Andrew (@aj_bamford) April 4, 2018
— DiBi ツ (@Diane6646) April 5, 2018
The flight suit on display, Sokol (which means Falcon in Russian, fact fans!), was specially made for Major Tim and does look pretty diminutive, but there’s a good reason for this: the way it’s made and what it does.
The Sokol flight suit is specifically for the 6-hour journey from lift-off to docking with the International Space Station and the journey back to Earth at the end of the astronaut’s stay. It’s worn inside the Soyuz capsule, which itself is only one small part of the Soyuz rocket taking the astronauts up to space.
The three (yes, three!) astronauts can’t exactly wander around, and to keep them as comfy as possible during the flight they lie in moulded ‘couches’ that are, again, made to measure for each person. These couches make them adopt a space-saving but comfy, foetal position and their suits are made for this position. Tim talks about it in this video on the suit:
“The Sokol’s shape is contoured for sitting in the Soyuz couch in a foetal sitting position, and this shaping of the suit makes it impossible to stand upright and causes the ‘cosmonaut stoop’ as we walk out to the rocket”.
It’s this contouring that makes the suit appear so short in our display—the shoulders are hunched towards the neck because in the couch this lengthens out the spine, supports the head and allows the astronaut to relax. Tim actually remarks on how comfy it was!
Tim’s height and that of all astronauts actually changes in space; they grow taller by up to 3 inches. How? Imagine the vertebrae in your spine are like a coiled spring—when you’re on Earth, that spring is compressed by gravity but in space, the lack of gravity allows your back to lengthen.
The same thing actually happens during the night when we lay down to sleep—if you could measure your height accurately enough, you’d be slightly taller when you wake up than when you go to bed, but the difference wouldn’t be nearly as much as for astronauts.
In fact, this difference is something the designers of Soyuz and Sokol had to take into account. The height limit was even changed once NASA and the Russian Space Agency started working together.
According to European Space Agency Astronaut Training Requirements, you have to be between 153–190cm (5’01” – 6’2″) to be considered. Hopefully, that includes those extra 3 inches or it could be a very tight fit on the way back to Earth!
As it turns out, Major Peake seems pretty secretive about his actual Earth height, but in this Twitter exchange he has a little joke about how great his space growth spurt was:
— Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) October 20, 2015
So if you ever feel a little self-conscious about your height, just remember, sometimes big achievements come in small packages and you might be the perfect candidate for a low-gravity stretch-out.
For more on Sokol, check out the Science Museum’s 11 things you might not know about Tim Peake’s spacesuit , this blog on Manchester’s own connection with spacesuit materials, and don’t forget to see Tim Peake’s Sokol and Soyuz space capsule in person, here at the museum, until 13 May.