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Stellar journey: France’s place in the space race

With a film about the moon landings and lunar anniversaries coming up, Samantha David examines France’s space-bound history and talks exclusively to its only female astronaut

In this coming year people all over the world will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first human to walk on the Moon. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 Mission astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed the lunar module (codenamed ‘Eagle’) on the Moon’s surface and the next day Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

A biopic about Neil Armstrong (First Man) has already been released and throughout 2019 we will see a plethora of other space-exploration events commemorating the first moon walk. Officially, the US won the Space Race – but France’s contribution to space exploration has always been substantial.

 Exploring the universe through science, engineering and technology has been a French obsession for centuries; an item looking exactly like a rocket even features in a French tapestry dating back to 1664.

Jules Verne wrote De la Terre à la Lune in 1865, George Méliès’ film Voyage dans la Lune was made in 1902, and throughout the 18th century Frenchmen including the Montgolfier brothers attempted to take to the skies.

Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac managed to reach 7,016 metres above the earth in 1904. Between the wars, several French aerospace engineers were designing rockets and who knows what the outcome might have been, because of course the outbreak of the First World War effectively grounded their dreams.

As soon as the First World War was over, however, the French love affair with space began again: the Laboratoire de Recherches Balistiques et Aérodynamiques (LRBA) was set up in 1946, and in 1961, Charles de Gaulle’s government created the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) to coordinate French space exploration efforts.

It is based in Toulouse rather than Paris, in order to take advantage of the clearer skies. French researchers started developing Europe’s first carrier rocket, the Diamant, and by 1965 France was launching beta satellites.

Space exploration is expensive, however, and success depends on international cooperation. It is pointless researching information which has already been discovered in another country; scientists and researchers need to work together.

So in 1973, France was instrumental in setting up the European Space Agency (ESA), and the French contribution to its budget remains the largest amongst the agency’s member countries. In fact, at €2,438billion, (or €37 per year per inhabitant) the French space budget is the second largest in the world after the USA. It is even larger than the Russian, Chinese and Japanese budgets respectively.

ESA’s main spaceport is in Kourou in French Guiana (before which it was in Algeria) and it boasts the world’s most successful record of space launches. The French were amongst the collaborators on the Herschel Space Observatory, and the Planck Space Observatory as well as the Copernicus Programme (which monitors the earth’s biology). CNES has even provided cameras for an Indian mission to the moon which was launched in January 2018, and they collaborate with China too, notably on the France-China Oceanography Satellite which studies ocean surface winds and waves.

France was also a major player in the 2018 InSight mission to Mars and is involved in multiple future projects.

French space exploration has also launched a few slightly more frivolous quests. French chef Alain Ducasse worked with Hénaff to provide gourmet French cuisine on the ISS (International Space Station) and Mumm champagne hired Parisian design firm Spade to come up with a bottle and glass which would make it possible for space tourists to drink champagne in space. (Yes, it’s tricky, but tests in September 2018 showed it can be done.) And when young French astronaut Thomas Pesquet spent half of 2017 on the ISS, his social media posts from space ensured that he was a star in France even before his feet touched the earth again.

France has produced ten astronauts (the UK has produced six), including their only female astronaut, Claudie Haigneré. A qualified medical doctor and neuroscientist, she was an astronaut with the CNES from 1985-1999 and with ESA 1999-2002. She spent 16 days on the Mir Space Station in 1996 as part of a Russian/French mission and became the first European woman to work on the ISS, spending 10 days there in 2001.

“Going into space was a fantastic experience,” she told Connexion. “I was just 12 in 1969 when the Americans landed on the moon, and I longed to go into space like them. I became a doctor, and then one day I saw an advert recruiting people to become astronauts with CNES and I jumped at the chance.”

The selection process was extensive, she says. Candidates underwent tests to certify their medical fitness to go into space, as well as their psychological aptitude. “But I made it and had the honour of being selected. I was the only woman, but think it’s very important for women to take part in space missions, in all scientific projects actually. I was very pleased to see Donna Strickland win the Nobel Prize for physics, and Frances Arnold win the Nobel Prize for chemistry last October – it’s a step towards women’s achievements being recognised.”


The making of an astronaut

Astronauts need nerves of steel and a background in science, but they are also selected for their psychological qualities.

They need to be adaptable, to find solutions to complex problems fast, and they need to be team players, neither too passive nor too active, able to find consensus in the group. “And astronauts have to be able to learn languages,” says Claudie Haigneré. “We all had to learn Russian because the training for the Mir Space Station was all done in Russian. We did part of our training in Russia in fact, so it was very much a linguistic immersion, but also a cultural one.

“You have to be able to learn how Russians think and interact... you need people who can operate efficiently in international teams. I love that. Learning Russian was really hard but I really enjoyed my time in Russia.”

She says that the relationship between the French and Russian space agencies went back to the end of the Second World War, when De Gaulle was very keen for France to take a leading role in space exploration.

“Relationships have evolved today, and now the scientific community cooperates across borders despite the politics of the day. The ISS is not only a fantastic scientific laboratory and a wonderful technological achievement, it is a magnificent diplomatic tool; it’s where an international community – who trust each other implicitly – work together.”

She says being launched into space wasn’t frightening. “After so many years of training I was completely prepared and looking forward to it, but it was an extraordinary experience. The physical sensation of lift off, the acceleration, getting into orbit in just over 8 minutes... and then you experience micro-gravity and that’s an extraordinary freedom. The reality is more beautiful than you can imagine, because without gravity you use three dimensions, you have complete liberty of movement and from the window you see the earth, isolated in space but so beautiful; blue and white, stunning colours. You see its fragility, all alone in space, the vulnerability of the thin atmosphere which protects it.”

She admits to a tiny tear in the corner of her eye, but says she had complete trust in herself and in her colleagues during the launch. “I was excited, focussed, vigilant, concentrated, and because everything went well, with no glitches, in some ways the real flights were easier than the training because in training you prepare for everything which could go wrong, so it’s more stressful.

“The Soyuz capsule is very small, it’s an exceptional experience curling up in the seat, and the journey to the ISS takes 48 hours, which is quite a long time. It’s not very comfortable but when you look out of the window, it’s magic. I first saw the northern lights from space.

“I had the impression of being in a science fiction film. Watching the space station get bigger and bigger as you arrive is amazing and when you get there, you have to learn to get around without gravity, so the first day is weird because you’re learning to control your movements, and adapt to being weightless.

“But within 24 hours you feel like you’ve always lived in micro gravity. And then you have to start work. The ISS is basically a huge laboratory for researching micro-gravity.”

 She says sometimes astronauts amuse themselves by letting a ball of water float around the space station. “And if you clap your hands and smash it, little droplets of water fly everywhere.” If someone ever cried in space, their tears would float. “But I’ve never seen anyone really cry. Water is in short supply, and you have to be very careful about liquids, you can’t get things wet. Once a week you have to clean and tidy the station, wipe it down, clean it up.”

Astronauts can take a few small items into space with them. “I took photos of my family, plus my daughter’s little teddy bear,” she says. “My husband [the astronaut Jean-Pierre Haigneré] took the same bear on his space missions. We shared him. I also took a few books and some music but you don’t really have personal time in space. You work quite a lot and also you spend time sharing your feelings and sensations with the other astronauts on the station.

“Of course, most are men, only 10% of astronauts are women, but female astronauts have held all available positions on board; engineer, scientist, pilot, and commander. We all return to earth very aware of what a marvel the earth is, how fragile and isolated. It doesn’t have infinite resources, and the cosmos is quite hostile, there are no protecting elements there, there is no way to live without our planet.”

Claudie Haigneré still works at ESA, developing new ideas for future space exploration, one of which is a ‘Moon Village’ by which she means a concerted effort from national and international space agencies, academic communities, commercial space tourism companies, and other commercial ventures who might want to use the moon’s resources, increase knowledge of the moon, or establish commercial ventures there.

“The idea of establishing an outpost on Mars is still very far off, it’s technically so complicated that it won’t happen any time soon. But it might be possible to establish a permanently inhabited base on the moon by 2030. The longest time a human has spent there is just 72 hours, but it could be possible to live up there for up to six months at a time.”

It’s a wonderful adventure, she says, an amazing project, a partnership between government agencies and private companies. “Such a project would have to involve all countries. I hope we can all cooperate and do it together. It’s a peaceful, collaborative concept with a range of diverse partners.

“And why not? So much the better if our work makes people dream, excites them, expands horizons and possibilities. We need dreams, we need aspirations. It makes us excel and surpass ourselves.”

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