French astronaut's aim to visit stars

Aeronautics engineer and former Air France pilot Thomas Pesquet, 32, is France's astronaut-in-waiting

5 January 2011
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SPEAKING from Star City in the outskirts of Moscow, Thomas Pesquet is in training to go into space as part of the International Space Station (ISS) programme.

The US and Russia are main partners in the programme, in which the ESA represents Europe. Japan and Canada are also members.

You are one of just three French astronauts, or is the right term ‘spationaute’?

That’s right. Spationaute is the French term. English-speakers say “astronaut” and the Russians “cosmonaut”.

When France first started sending people into space, with Jean-Loup Chrétien in the 1980s, they came up with the term. It’s like the Chinese now say “taikonaut”; each country invents its word.

However, I was recruited in English, by ESA, so I have always used the term astronaut.

One of your fellow recruits is British

Yes, Tim Peake. I share an office with him. On the plaque with our names on it I wrote “entente cordiale”, which made him laugh. We’re good friends.

There’s a good esprit de corps. Before, astronauts were recruited two at a time, or one by one, then sent to Russia or the US to train.

This time, Europe decided to do things differently. We started basic training last year and soon we qualify as astronauts; so just over a year.

We make up a very complementary team: some are mainly pilots, some mainly scientists or engineers.

What does the training consist of?

We are introduced to the history of the Russian, American and European space flights; to the ESA, which is huge and complex, and Nasa.

Everyone has the same knowledge, whether they came from the army or were already in the space industry.

There’s a scientific and technical side, all the engineering aspects of space flights and how the IT works that we have onboard: thermal controls, everything that calculates the trajectory and orbit, the propulsion.

Then there’s fluid physics, biology, science of materials, because we will be doing experiments on board.

We also do five hours of sport a week, because you have to keep fit.

We do medicine and first aid: how to give injections or do stitches or blood tests, and we had a parabolic flight to experience weightlessness, in an Airbus at Bordeaux.

How does that work?

It flies in a big arc: it goes upwards and then drops down and you float in the air at the top of the ascent and as you start to go down.

We did 30 in a row and each time you have about 25 seconds of weightlessness. It was exceptional, you feel really free.

The first time we all started laughing, because it was a really unusual feeling, very surprising and enjoyable. It’s not the real thing, because you fall back after 25 seconds, but the feeling of liberty… it reminds you a bit of free-falling with a parachute, but gentler.

Another big part of the training is for going outside the space station or Shuttle in a space suit, which we do in a big swimming pool.

It simulates floating, weightless, around a structure. We have a model of the space station underwater and the feeling of diving, the Archimedes effect, means you float as if you were in space. It’s not identical, but similar.

We have also done a lot of Russian, because we are going to work with the Russians a lot, above all, with the Space Shuttle being withdrawn in 2011, we will be flying to the space station with the Russians.

Your first mission will be to the ISS?

No doubt. The ISS programme has been extended to 2020. We are about to start two years of training for a mission, so from 2013 to 2020 we will be able to ensure the European presence in the ISS.

Are there any plans to start manned European flights?

We already have the ATV, an automatic vehicle [launched from ESA’s site in French Guiana and controlled from the Toulouse Space Centre] that takes cargo to the ISS and takes out rubbish. It is burnt up in the atmosphere on return and is not capable of landing back on Earth.

There are plans to modify it so that it can, and, if it’s a success, to make a manned version.

What do you expect to be doing on the ISS?

First, helping to finish the construction, adding new modules and putting all the technology in place.

It’s coming to an end, but for many years the main activity was actually building it. There’s maintenance, it’s a difficult environment in space and things break down or wear out. There are things to change or improve.

There are science programmes and finally there is PR: such as talking live via a webcam.

What kind of science might you do?

It’s typically studies on physiology and medicine. For example, viruses behave differently in space, which can enable us to find new vaccines; there is science of materials or fluids; there are certain processes of sedimentation that are spoiled by gravity on Earth. You also study new ways of improving life support in space, recycling the air and body fluids.

We can develop ideas that can also be applicable on earth to help the environment.

Why is space exploration important?

It’s what man has always done. It’s scary to be surrounded by things we don’t know, so the natural reflex is to go and have a look.

We send a scout to see what’s there. The first people are basically military; they make a base and eventually we send more people and take control over the environment.

It is the same in space. At first, we sent people one by one, and then we sent people to the Moon and saw it was possible. Now we have set up a more or less permanent presence.

We will continue step-by-step, once we’ve established a permanent base in low orbit we’ll try to go a bit further: a moon base or one on an asteroid.

We take little steps: first we go and have a look and then we learn to survive in the environment, we set up a permanent presence and then try to go a bit further. It’s just the continuation of human history.

Is your background typical of an astronaut’s?

Not really, there have only been military pilots before, but having a double set of skills, being an engineer and a pilot, is typical.

Had you always dreamed of it?

It always fascinated me. I dreamed of it, without really believing in it. I couldn’t realistically say to myself I would be an astronaut, it seemed a bit mad. Many are called and few are chosen.

First you’ve got to be lucky enough for there to be a recruitment drive: the previous one was 1992. Some people were too young then and were too old in 2009. We had the good luck to be there at the right time and to fit the profile.

You can’t just dream of being an astronaut, you have to have the right qualities. You have to, for example, be happy to be always travelling and never at home, to want to keep learning all the time, because we spend our lives at school, to learn several foreign languages, have a taste for flying and often outdoor pursuits like parachuting and diving.

Is France one of the countries with the biggest commitment?

Historically France is the biggest contributor to the ESA’s budget [and the ESA headquarters are in Paris] and it has its own space agency as well, the CNES, so it invests a lot into space.

This dates from the de Gaulle era, when France was trying to emancipate itself from Nato and do more things on its own.

When we started launching satellites, the Americans said: ‘You can launch them from our launch pads, but no communications or observations ones’, which gave them a monopoly on that, so we started developing our own launch pads.

That’s how the Ariane rocket programme started. Then other European countries followed suit.

What has surprised you about the life of an astronaut?

You spend very little time in orbit compared to time spent training for a mission. It’s a lot of travel and work and sometimes you have to wait years before a mission. You need a lot of patience.

You meet a lot of people, too: for example, we are here in Russia for two months, making new friends, then we’ll be going to train in Houston and then Japan.

There’s a social part I didn’t expect. I naively thought you just trained a little bit and then got into a rocket and set off. It’s much longer, and much deeper, the work you have to do before a mission.

What would you tell a child who would like to do your job?

Always follow your dreams, whatever they are. The main thing is to do well at school and don’t neglect languages, because they are important.

I wasn’t selected by France, I was selected by Europe. I speak five languages, we all speak several and have studied and lived abroad. Learning to fly is a definite plus.

Going to a good engineering school is useful. You can also go via the armed forces, though now the average profile is a bit less military than in the past. You should study science to the highest level you can, especially in aeronautics.

You must have a thirst for discovery, to want to learn, learn, learn for years on end and to be at ease with people, because you are going to be having discussions with a lot of people, talking to children and sometimes doing interviews.

Will ordinary people be able to make space flights one day?

Yes, it will become more democratic, though at the moment it is still very, very expensive. There is Richard Branson’s project with Virgin Galactic and some Russians want to make an orbital hotel. It’s the logical follow-on.

It’s like with Columbus; at first it’s just explorers and the military and then ordinary people follow afterwards.

What is your dream mission?

Any astronaut wants to go as far as possible. We are explorers, it’s in our characters, we want to go and have a look at what’s out there. If I can go and stand on an asteroid or Mars, things no one has done before, that is every astronaut’s dream.

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HEADING FOR THE EDGE OF SPACE

French skydiving daredevil Michel Fournier has edged ahead in the race to be the first man to freefall from 130,000ft

FORMER paratrooper Michel Fournier has been chasing a dream for 20 years: to skydive from the edge of space and, perhaps, discover a way for astronauts to return to Earth in case of disaster.

The 66-year-old, who lives near Arles in Provence, has been thinking about this project since the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, when he discovered the astronauts had no way to escape when it broke up at 48,000 feet.

He aims to jump from 130,000ft (40,000m) in his specially designed space suit and dive head-first for almost seven minutes, in the process breaking the sound barrier on his way to 700mph and taking the record for the highest freefall speed ever.

His French-made suit is designed to cope with the –100C cold of the edge of space during his jump, and also protect him as he goes through the sound barrier at 35,000m.

He uses a 110m balloon made by US firm Global Western, as that is the only way to get to the heights needed: fighter jets only go up to 20,000m.

It was the means used by US pioneer Joe Kittinger in 1960 when he jumped from 102,800ft (31,330m) in what is still the highest freefall dive in history.

Mr Fournier said: “If I can do this, I can perhaps make a point that there is still a way to return to Earth from space. The science is what this is all about and what makes it worthwhile, that I can perhaps have done something useful with my life.”

He plays down his age, and added: “American astronaut John Glenn did not give up space flight until he was 77 [he took a flight in the space shuttle]. I still keep fit enough for the jump by doing regular parachute jumps at Aix.”

His balloon looks like a giant jellyfish as it rises with its long tail ending in his pressurised gondola with the vital oxygen tanks. Filling the balloon stretches the film material to 24 micrometres – like giant clingfilm – and once started it cannot be undone. As it rises, the pressure drops and at 40,000m it is 90m in diameter.

Mr Fournier wants to have two balloons at €250,000 each and needs €1.5 million for a pair of jumps from his base in Saskatchewan, Canada; his efforts over the years have cost €12 million so far.
“This is how my life has been: the search for money from partners so that I can live my dream of leaving a scientific mark to help save lives.

“There is no money in France, so I am speaking to media people in Russia who are very interested and there are others in Britain. Some Chinese backers want to know more, so perhaps it is all looking better.”

Previous attempts were all hit by weather or equipment malfunction: in 2002, a flight sponsored by the European Space Agency was called off after the weather became too dangerous to fly; in 2003, his balloon tore; and in 2008 his balloon floated off without him.

In May this year, his latest attempt was delayed when a reserve parachute started to open in his gondola during ground tests and was then abandoned after a new suit problem while the balloon was nearly being filled; the operation could not be stopped and restarted.

“The problem with the last effort was that the balloon did not work, but I am going to go on. There’s no question of giving up.”

There are only two weather windows for the flights, in May and in August, because at other times the jetstream would shred his balloon.

Mr Fournier is talking to contacts to try to get funding to keep on going in 2011.

A rival bid, by Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner, who became known after “flying” across the Channel with just a six-foot carbon-fibre wing attached to his back, has had to be called off owing to legal problems over the initial project plan.

Red Bull, which has sunk millions into the project – including hiring Joe Kittinger and Nasa’s space-suit manufacturer – pulled out after it was challenged over ownership of the project.

It is not clear if it will be reborn, but Mr Baumgartner has experience of putting together his own projects.

However, Mr Fournier has problems of his own: parachuting rivals reject claims that he has made about his experience: 8,700 jumps including more than 100 at high altitude and a record for France’s highest freefall jump. They also say his equipment and technique are out of date.

Mr Fournier replies simply, saying: “They’re just jealous.”

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