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Thomas Pesquet: From training in Moscow to lift off in Florida

Today is T-minus zero for France's 'rockstar astronaut,' the first French commander of the ISS. From the archives, read our 2011 interview back when he was a 32-year-old commander-in-training

23 April 2021

The countdown has begun for French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who today will lift off to become the first French commander of a space station during mission Alpha, a six-month routine mission to the International Space Station (ISS). 

After being delayed due to bad weather on the Atlantic Coast, the four-person international crew - also including two astronauts from the United States and one from Japan - boarded the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, ready to launch at 05:49 local time (09:49 GMT). 

The first French commander of the ISS

This will be a return trip to the ISS for the 43-year-old astronaut, after previous trips in 2016 and 2017. This time, Mr Pesquet will act as the station commander during a month-long portion of the mission, making him the first French and fourth European commander of the ISS - an honour that he said gave 'recognition to the European Space Agency.' 

Mission Alpha will involve at least 232 scientific experiments, performing studies on stem cells and the ageing of the brain, alongside four spacewalks to make improvements to the station's electrical system of solar panels. Pesquet will also be studying himself to gather more data about the effects of space travel on the body, and its implications for future trips to Mars.

During the mission Pesquet, who is originally from Rouen in Normandy, also plans to treat the crew onboard to meals showcasing French cuisine, which he created in collaboration with Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx and chemist Raphaël Haumont.

A few hours before the launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, Pesquet tweeted a photo of himself at the beach with his colleagues, writing 'The calm before the storm L-1.'

Back in 2011, The Connexion interviewed Thomas Pesquet as a 32-year-old astronaut-in-training, as he prepared for his first mission in Russia. Read the interview republished in full below.

From the archives...

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 European Space Agency (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 the 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, the 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 spacesuit, 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 learned a lot of Russian because we are going to work with the Russians a lot. 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 a European presence on the ISS.

Are there any plans to start manned European flights?

We already have the ATV, an automatic vehicle (launched from the 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, 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 typically involves studies on physiology and medicine. For example, viruses behave differently in space, which can enable us to find new vaccines; there is the 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 really 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 were lucky to be there at the right time and 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.

Related articles

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European Space Agency launches search for next Thomas Pesquet

See Thomas Pesquet’s great photos from space

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