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France leads EU in space race

Country started world’s third civilian space programme in 1961 and continues to lead the European Space Agency.

23 July 2008

A JOINT satellite project between France and the USA aims to map variations in the surface of the oceans.

The Jason-2 satellite was built by the Cannes-based Thales Alenia Space (see centre) and will create a topographical map of Earth’s oceans every ten days - with an accuracy to within 4cm.

The project is a joint effort by the French space agency CNES, NASA and US and European weather organisations (Noaa and Eumetsat). It was launched by a Delta-2 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and will provide information as to how water moves around the world.

It comes as the European Space Agency is advertising one of the best jobs on and off this planet; astronauts to begin training and preparing the way for a manned mission to Mars. Although such a mission is still a long way off (about 40 years according to the ESA's chief astronaut), the groundwork is already underway.

The head of human resources at the ESA Bettina Boehm said: “It is crucial that ESA continues to attract top candidates who have what it takes to work at the forefront of space science and technology.

“We are particularly interested in applications from experts keen to work on the development of launchers and missions related to human spaceflight, science, telecommunications, navigation and Earth observation.”

The specific areas of expertise they are looking for include technical and quality management in areas including power-supply and engineering, tracking, telemetry and command, radio navigation, component engineering telecommunications engineering, software and flight dynamics.

Those chosen from the many thousands of likely candidates will be called for basic physical and psychological tests before the first formal interview. Applicants should be degree educated, preferably in natural sciences, mathematics, engineering or medicine and aged 27-37.

They should have three years' minimum professional experience in their field or flying experience as a pilot. Experience of astronautics or aeronautics are big advantages.

All applicants must be fluent in English. Those with a good command of another language, especially Russian, would be at a distinct advantage. All astronauts learn Russian during training. Eyesight should be good, although wearing contact lenses or glasses is not ruled out.

General fitness is the key. As the recruitment literature states: “We are not looking for extreme fitness or top-level athletes. Too many over-developed muscles could be a disadvantage for astronauts in weightlessness.”

Indeed, long periods of living in a weightless environment can have temporary negative effects on the human body, such as demineralisation of bones. Emotional stability is extremely important (considering the length of time astronauts can spend with each other in confined areas) as are low levels of aggression.

Both men and women are encouraged to apply. There is no difference in the training or standards required.

The training period is split into three sections and successful candidates should be prepared to spend more than three years learning their trade before being sent out into high orbit.

Basic training takes a year. Recruits learn about the ESA and the other space agencies, basic space engineering, electrical engineering and essential information from the other sciences that is relevant to their future missions.

They then learn about the International Space Station's systems and the means of getting there: the Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz. Basic training finishes with underwater diving (the nearest you can get to weightlessness on earth), robotics, space docking and the Russian language.

Advanced training also takes a year. It is intensive and provides recruits with the knowledge and skills to be able to run the space station. The final part of the training takes 18 months, with the specific team and backup team that will go into space.

Cannes satellite headquarters

France has the headquarters of Europe's biggest satellite manufacturer, which deals directly with the ESA and provides essential components to the international space station.

Thales Alenia Space is based in Cannes-Mandelieu on the Cote d'Azur and employs 7,200 people around the world.

It is the main provider of space components for the French Space Agency CNES, the ESA as well as the French, Italian and German ministries of defence. It is also a leading supplier of defence and security satellites.

The company is working closely with the ESA on the ExoMars project, that will see a robotic rover launched from French Guyana in 2013, landing on Mars nine months later. Once on the Martian surface, ExoMars will deploy the rover.

The solar-powered vehicule will begin a six-month mission, while the landing module will monitor its environment for at least six years.

This project is an important precursor to ESA's ambitions for a manned mission to Mars. Thales Alenia Space was at the heart of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn's Moon Titan.

In 2005, after a seven-year journey through the solar system, a Thales Alenia Space probe successfully landed on Titan and executed all its mission objectives, a world premier in space science.

One of Europe’s contributions to the International Space Station is the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Jules Verne that was built in Cannes.

The ATV successfully docked with the Space station at the end of April, delivering supplies but also acting as a booster to lift the space station's orbit by 40km.

This is done because "atmospheric drag" gradually reduces the altitude at which the space station orbits.

Jules Verne will then be filled with waste from the space station then discarded, over the Pacific. It will burn up completely in the atmosphere.

French astronaut

Frenchman Michel Tognini is head of the ESA'a astronaut division - and will be a key decision-maker in the recruitment of future astronauts.

The former fighter pilot and chief test pilot for France has had two space flights with a total of 19 days in orbit. He was one of thousands of applicants to the French government space agency (CNES) in the mid-1980s and was soon sent to Russia for the Soviet-French ARAGATZ mission.

As well as knowing all about the rigorous training scheme, his experience was also a window into the thawing relations between Soviet Russia and the West.

He said: “It was quite an experience. Apart from experiencing extremes of isolation and cold in Russia, I found the people enormously open and interested in me. Things were opening up and they wanted to know about France.

“I spent a lot of time teaching them French songs and I felt I was well liked.”

Things had already changed, he said, since the space race of the 1960s that culminated with the US putting men on the moon. Mr Tognini, 49, said that the focus of modern space exploration had lost the shackles of political competitivity.

He said: “It is all about international cooperation, about what the world's various space agencies can achieve together for the benefit of mankind. It is much more scientific.”

Mr Tognini puts a manned mission to Mars as 40 years away, and any of the successful candidates should not think they are in with a chance of setting down on the red planet.

All the work in the interim, however, has this goal in mind. The immediate focus is the moon - or rather mastering the transition between the moon and the earth's orbits. He said: “There are many things we have to master before we can even contemplate Mars.

“The important thing to do is to successfully simulate transfer between two orbits.

“Once we can do that we can start thinking about going further away. Everything that we do we learn from and contributes to this future mission.”

Mr Tognini is originally from Paris and now lives in Cologne in Germany. He speaks fluent Russian and German, although he said he is still struggling to master German as a language.

He said he was looking for a strong generalist with a solid background in sciences, someone who would be able to stand up to the physical as well as mental rigours of space travel.

He said: “As a test pilot and then as an astronaut, I did many things that had my family worrying about me. It is vital not to let these concerns get to you while you are operating. Stability, calmness and the ability to multi-task under extreme pressure are the important qualities we are looking for.”

History

French astronauts have only been training with the European Space Agency since 2001. Before this, the responsibility of preparing French astronauts for space fell to the CNES (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiale), the French national space agency based in Paris.

The organisation is one of the longest-running national space agencies in the world, founded in 1961 on the instructions of then-president Charles de Gaulle.

Through CNES, France holds the distinction of being the third country (after the USSR and the USA) in the world to have its own civilian space programme.

Its evolution was helped during the Cold War and at the end of the space race in the 1970s, because of its close and friendly relationship with the USSR, something that has had a marked effect on the ESA's successful relationship with Russia.

France remains one of the biggest financial contributors to the ESA, providing 29% of its budget (around three quarters of a billion euros a year).

France is also responsible for ESA's main independent launch site in French Guyana, which being near the equator means it if one of the best places to put satellites in orbit.

Photo:Michel Tognini, credit Nasa

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