French astronaut Thomas Pesquet counts down the days to ISS mission

·5-min read

Days before embarking on his second six-month mission to the International Space Station, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet told RFI and France24 about the mission’s objectives, his responsibility commanding a team of four astronauts, what he’ll miss on Earth and what he’s happy to rediscover in space.

On Thursday, Pesquet is scheduled to be one of four astronauts boarding a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and take off for the International Space Station.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s a joy to be up there in space,” Pesquet told RFI and France24 in an exclusive interview broadcast on Monday evening. “The physical experience of floating is very pleasant… you have to get used to it, but it’s wonderful.”

That, he says, and the sense of having a mission, overseeing scientific experiments and taking care of the International Space Station (ISS), where he will be docking for the second time.

While daily life will be dedicated to those tasks, he will also have the occasional break to keep in touch with those he will miss down below on Earth, some 400 kilometres away.

“It’s family, the people you’re close to, the human contact,” he knows he will miss the most. “But we’re lucky, we can call them, we’re able to talk to them once a week via video link, a bit like Skype.”

Experiment in edible packaging

Most of the crew’s time will be spent on more than 200 experiments as well as maintenance of the ISS, including four spacewalks to improve the functioning of solar panels that power the station’s modules.

The experiments involve developing everything from metals and alloys to medicines and organic matter. Forty of the experiments come from the European Space Agency, for which Pesquet is an astronaut, including 12 from France.

One of those has to do with finding different ways to package materials for use on the ISS.

“Everything we take on board has to resist the shocks of the take-off and landing, it has to be protected, wrapped up, and that creates a lot of waste,” Pesquet explained. “We can't just throw it away by the window, we have to store it away.”

To address the issue, the team will be experimenting with waste-reduction technology, including the use of edible packaging for part of their meals.

“That’s going to divide the use of storage space and waste in half and of course that will have a direct application on earth, to reduce plastic waste.”

Commander of an experienced team

For his second stay on the ISS, Pesquet has been assigned the role of mission commander, a rare distinction for a European and a first for France in a field dominated by the United States and Russia.

He will command a mission that includes Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur of the United States and Akihiko Hoshide of Japan, all of them experienced astronauts.

“With such an experienced team, it’s not going to change a lot,” he said. “We’re all there to work, no one is going to be told to go clean their room!”

Pesquet said he expected the leadership role would become more apparent in case things go wrong.

“In the case of an emergency, which I hope won’t happen, it’s the commander’s duty to designate roles and assign tasks.There’s no discussion. It’s leadership in action.”

Explaining the ISS

Communicating with Earth will not be just a matter of working with ground crews and occasional chats with family members. The high-profile mission is also about building public awareness about the ISS, which is occasionally criticised for its costs and aging condition.

“We’re talking about it more, which is a good thing,” Pesquet said, minimising the criticisms around the station. “I find on the contrary that there is less criticism than there was at the start of my career”.

Part of the mission will involve the team sending updates about the mission and life on board the ISS to Earth, including exclusive material for RFI and France 24.

“It’s important to explain what it does, because it’s done with public budgets, with public money, which is the case for any research institution,” he said. “It’s not always easy to understand, even for us… But it’s up to us to explain this work, to translate it into everyday terms as much as possible.”

Return to earth

Pesquet explained that after six months, the team will take the SpaceX craft for a spectacular return to earth.

Even after entering the thicker air of the Earth’s atmosphere and letting out a parachute, the Crew Dragon will be falling 8 metres per second, with retrorockets kicking in to soften the blow 80 cm from the surface, if they are landing on solid ground.

“Either we land in the water with nothing to absorb the shock, or on the ground with a bit of shock absorption, but not a big difference, and either way it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Once back on Earth, he will see the people he misses and be able to rediscover some of the everyday pleasures that are not available up in space.

“It’s also the freedom to do as you please, to go out, to eat what you like, to watch what you want on television. We won’t have any of that for six months.”

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