British astronaut Tim Peake would return to space station 'in a heartbeat'

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Britain’s first official astronaut said on Tuesday he would join another trip to the International Space Station “in a heartbeat” and would love to explore the moon.

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Tim Peake was one of three astronauts to return to earth on Saturday after spending half a year on the space station.

It was “extremely important” for Britain to be involved in the advancement of human space flight, Peake, said on Tuesday.

“We need to be involved now and we need to give our industry a chance to develop what they need to support human space flight,” Peake said at a news conference in the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. “If we’re not involved now, then we are simply going to miss the boat.”

Peake, who turned 44 in space, joined the European Space Agency in 2009 to become the first astronaut representing the British government.

Britain had opted out of the European program for human space flight but reversed its decision in 2012. The first Briton in space was Helen Sharman, who traveled on a Soviet spacecraft for eight days in 1991.

“Living and working on board the International Space Station is the best place you could be as a professional,” Peake said.

“A dream would have to be a lunar exploration mission,” he said. “I don’t think any astronaut would turn that down.”

He declined to say whether he would vote for or against Britain’s leaving the European Union in its referendum on Thursday.

Peake’s mission, called Principia after Isaac Newton’s seminal work, included a number of scientific experiments, such as testing the use of nitric oxide gas as a tool to monitor lung inflammation.

Reporting by Maria Sheahan, editing by Larry King