Thomas Pesquet’s journey into spaceHUMANS HAVE ALWAYS LOOKED TO THE SKIES AND DREAMT OF TRAVELLING BEYOND OUR OWN PLANET. TO DATE, 558 OF US HAVE ACHIEVED THAT GOAL, INCLUDING THOMAS PESQUET, A FRENChMAN WHO HAS BEEN ON THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION SINCE MID-NOVEMBER. HERE, HE TELLS US THE VITAL QUALITIES requirED FOR SPACE TRAVEL
On the surface, Thomas Pesquet is the work colleague everyone is happy to prop up the bar with at the office party: a regular guy with everyman charm and an easy smile. In truth, however, Pesquet is far from regular.
The 38-year-old, born in Rouen in northern France, speaks six languages, including Russian and Chinese; he’s also a qualified aeronautical engineer, an Air France pilot of 10 years commercial flight experience, and – the chief reason we’re speaking to him today – an astronaut. Pesquet’s adventures in space began in 2009 when he was selected for astronaut training by the European Space Agency. In 2014, four years after completing his basic training, he was chosen for a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS), starting in November 2016. The saxophone-playing pilot, who also has a black belt in judo, took off for the ISS on November 17 last year and will orbit Earth at an altitude of around 450km until May. This is the culmination of a long career journey for Pesquet; one that originally did not include becoming an astronaut. But perhaps that’s exactly why he passed the most difficult tests with flying colours.
THE RED BULLETIN : We’ve read that your first experience of ‘space travel’ came at a young age when your father made a spaceship out of cushions…
THOMAS PESQUET : I might have dreamt about being an astronaut when I was just a little boy, but it was only much later on that I actually realised it was possible. In Europe, potential candidates [for astronaut training] are only selected once every 15 years, and the last round of qualifying was in 2008. I was not only the ideal age at the time, but I could also tick most of the other selection criteria on the application form.
What are the most important characteristics that a candidate must be able to show?
Firstly, you have to pass a technical test, because it’s important to understand how all the systems on the ISS work. There, I was able to bring my engineering degree to bear. Then there’s a practical test, and I had an advantage when it came to that, too: I was an airline pilot, which meant I was doing a job where the decisions I took could potentially affect people’s lives.
What additional advantages did you have over the other candidates?
My international background. The European Space Agency [ESA] – which I belong to – works with NASA and [Russia’s] Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, as well as Canadian and Japanese partners. So overseas experience is extremely valuable. I studied in Canada for a year, did a three-month training course in Mexico, and my first job was in Spain, all of which worked in my favour. Personality was also a factor: you have to be sporty and you have to be a team player.
How important is teamwork in space?
There’s no getting away from it. After all, you’re spending six months cooped up in a tin can with people you haven’t chosen to be with. You’ve got to be sociable, patient, communicative… You don’t learn all that at your school desk. I learned that while doing sport, and on other occasions, like organising the annual school gala.
So there are a lot of fairly ordinary characteristics that can set you on the path to space…
Exactly. [Laughs.] Ordinary things that anyone could do, such as learning to play a musical instrument, or doing sport. The important thing is never to fritter away your time, but to make the most of it.
Is it a good strategy to calmly take things as they come, rather than going after them with all your might?
I thought it was impossible to become an astronaut. But every time I had to make
a decision, it took me in that direction, probably unconsciously.
How high was the first hurdle you had to overcome?
The first selection process took a year, and there was about a month to wait between the individual tests. It was cool. I enjoyed it. I love all that sort of thing, like the psychological tests with inverted numerical sequences going in every direction. It’s somehow playful.
How stressed were you?
To start with, you don’t feel stressed at all. After all, your chance of being selected is low: only five from 10,000 candidates. I never put myself under any pressure, but I do knuckle down and prepare very thoroughly for each test. I call people and try to gather as much information as I possibly can. If that works, all well and good. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too. But in the end it worked out, test after test.
The pressure must have grown, though?
The 10,000 candidates are whittled down to 1,000, then 200, then 50, 20… When you’re down to the final test and it’s just 10 of you, you do find yourself saying, “Now they’re going to select five of us. This would be a really bad time to fail!”
What ultimately makes the difference?
Your all-round profile. It’s not the end of the world if you’re incredibly good at one thing and less good at something else. You’ve got to be able to achieve a good level in all the required areas.
Obviously there’s a great sense of achievement in being selected, but that’s really only the first step, isn’t it?
Once you’ve been recruited, you undergo basic training at the European Astronaut Centre [EAC] in Cologne. And when you’ve got your qualification in the bag, you wait to be appointed to a mission. Once you’ve been assigned, you prepare for that specific spacecraft and that specific mission. Our spacecraft was a Russian Soyuz, and our destination was the ISS. The mission determines whether you’ll do spacewalks, whether for research or maintenance purposes. Everything is planned
An astronaut’s job doesn’t sound like the classic nine-to-five…
Training is divided among the various co-operating aerospace organisations. You spend a lot of time in the US – at NASA in Houston – and in Russia. You don’t spend much time in Europe, because it’s not an important ISS partner. I only spend 10 per cent of the time at home. ‘At home’ means in Cologne, and not in France where most of my friends and family live. I don’t see them much.
So is an astronaut best off being footloose and fancy-free?
I have a girlfriend, and she joined me in Cologne at first. But then she was offered a wonderful position at the UN, so she moved to Rome. Her everyday job revolves around very different problems, such as preventing famine globally. We’ve divided up the labour: she’s trying to save the world, while I’m trying to give the world something to dream about.
Were there any really nerve-racking moments during training?
The training sessions in the spacesuit were the most difficult part overall. Wearing a spacesuit in space is like trying to climb while wearing armour. Due to the pressure equalisation, it’s not easy to move in the suit: your range of vision is limited, you can’t move your head, and the helmet is fixed in place. So being stuck in the spacesuit means constantly fighting with it – and at first, the spacesuit always wins.
How do you get to triumph over the spacesuit in the end?
The training sessions at NASA in Houston teach you how. Each session involves
six hours of training in the spacesuit in the world’s biggest swimming pool – it’s 60m by 30m, and 12m deep – and there are underwater scale models of the space station. You go down off a platform and then come back up six hours later. During those sessions, we simulate the spacewalks, and we’re constantly accompanied by divers.
Are you scared at the prospect of your first spacewalk?
When you leave the station hatch, you do a sort of somersault, head first, before you’re the right way up. Astronauts often cling frantically to the rails on the outside of the space station when they do their first spacewalk. With a 450km void beneath you, your brain yells at you that you’re going to fall.
It’s another battle, this time against your natural instincts…
As part of your first spacewalk, there are five minutes factored in for you to get used to the idea that nothing like that is going to happen. You’re attached to the ISS via a rope, you’re secured, and when you let go, you drift outwards in a flash. That way, you can make your brain understand you’re not falling. But you’re not only trained for spacewalks; you’re also prepared for your eventual return to Earth and the possibility that you’ll land in an environment that’s hostile to life.
What is survival camp like?
First, there’s basic training, where we learn how to protect ourselves from the cold, build a shelter and make a fire, and kill and gut a rabbit, so as not to starve to death. That part takes place at a camp on Sardinia, under the watchful eye of members of a special unit of the Italian armed forces. And then we did a special winter training programme with the Russians.
Why did you need to undergo a winter survival camp?
If the re-entry of the Soyuz capsule into the atmosphere doesn’t go according
to plan, we could end up landing somewhere where no helicopter will come to fetch us. That could be anywhere on the planet between 50° North and 50° South – in the sea, in the mountains, in the jungle. Russia was chosen as the camp location in case we land in a forest in snow during winter.
The Russians provided a decommissioned Soyuz capsule so that we could prepare for the scenario realistically. They left us there
in our spacesuits, with the interior pre-heated to 28°C…
A little welcome gift, at least…
And then you’re up and running. We had to get changed in the capsule, which was a real challenge because there were three of us in there. We left the capsule and took anything that might have been of use to us: the cloth and the string from the capsule parachute to build a shelter; the survival kit; the seat cover to make sledges from. We had to survive for three days with all that stuff. It was -25°C, but everything went well.
Do others have the opportunity to dream your dream?
We all have enormous potential, but we’re not all aware of it. People don’t do what they really want to do, and that’s mainly because they do themselves down.
What’s the solution?
If you don’t give something a shot, you’ll never know whether you can do it or not. I don’t have the body of a world champion for any sport, and I don’t have the mental ability to be a Nobel Prize winner either. I’m a completely regular guy and I do things to the best of my ability. But I’m always trying new things; I remain open to ideas and I knuckle down. The separate tests you have to go through to get into space aren’t in the realm of the impossible. The most complicated thing is reconciling all of them. But tackling every task as it comes at you works wonderfully.