Director of the European Astronaut Center in Cologne (Germany), Frank De Winne knows Thomas Pesquet well: he supervised his training and is now accompanying him to Cape Canaveral.
While the French must take off this Friday for the International Space Station (ISS), after a false start on Thursday, the Belgian astronaut, in charge of operations for the European Space Agency (ESA), details the final preparations for the mission.
He also discusses the function of captain of the ISS, which he was the first European to occupy, in 2009, and which also expects Thomas Pesquet in the fall.
What were Thomas Pesquet's last days before takeoff?
FRANK DE WINNE.
For the past two weeks, the astronauts have been in quarantine. First, a light quarantine. They were in family, with a great restriction on the number of people who could be in direct contact with them. Then, a week before departure, they arrived at Cape Canaveral and respected a stricter quarantine, in isolated crew quarters. There were naturally people with them, especially the doctors, but it was very limited. They have also gradually shifted their bedtime and waking hours, as the 6 a.m. launch here at Cape Canaveral requires the crew to get up at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. the day before. The crew also did a vehicle check and a dress rehearsal, which consists of playing the entire launch sequence: putting on the suit, going to the vehicle,settle down… Of course, they did that often in simulators, but there, they did it in the real capsule.
You run the European Astronaut Training Center.
What kind of student is Thomas Pesquet?
Thomas Pesquet is a very good student, like all European astronauts elsewhere.
I recently answered the same question about another astronaut, I'm not going to play the comparison game.
But what I can say is that in 2009 [Editor's note: when recruiting six astronauts, including Thomas Pesquet], we really made a very good selection of astronauts, who have great human capacities. , operational and communication.
Alexander Gerst and Luca Parmitano became station commanders on their second respective missions, like Thomas Pesquet.
It is not by chance.
This is because they all have great qualities.
Over the past decade, we have grown accustomed to launches from Baikonur, Russia, with habits tinged with superstition, such as not seeing your rocket in the days preceding the launch. Do we also have rituals at Cape Canaveral?
There is the press conference upon landing at Cape Canaveral, a week before launch. Five days before, the vehicle visit with dress rehearsal, and two days before, visitors come to greet the crew behind a fence, a few tens of meters from them. It's good that there is a certain routine that sets in the days before the launch. It distracts a bit too. It allows you to relax. If five days before, the only things you do is be in your room and think about the launch, it's not very relaxing. The fact of having these activities distributed until the last moment, it makes it possible to realize that one approaches them, step by step.
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Did this lead to more vigilance during preparation?
The ESA teams worked hand in hand with NASA for two years, to be sure that we could carry out all operations in the best conditions and in complete safety.
On April 15, there was the flight readiness review with NASA and Jaxa [Editor's note: the Japanese space agency].
For nine hours, we discussed the risks in detail and felt they were acceptable to continue preparing for the launch.
Because it's always risky to fly to space.
But the risks, we must control them.
Thomas Pesquet again on his way to the ISS: "Life is simpler in space"
At the end of his mission, Thomas Pesquet will be the ISS captain.
How was this allocation decided?
The high-level functions that astronauts perform on board the station are decided by what is called the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel, a group in which all space agencies are represented.
I am the ESA representative there.
We look at the crew, the composition of the crews and we assign tasks to people who have the capacity to perform them.
We make sure that there is a good distribution among all the people on the crew.
We don't want to give all the important missions to one crew member.
It wouldn't be good for the psychology of the crew.
What exactly does it mean to be a pilot-in-command?
The captain, he leads the crew. But the station chief is the flight director, who is on the ground. And it is the ground crew that establishes the schedule for the day and decides what the crew does at a particular time. The captain is there to ensure that the crew can execute this schedule to the best of their ability. For that, we need a good team spirit in the station, interaction with the ground. There remains one case where the flight director is not the station manager, it is in an emergency, if there is a fire, a depressurization or a toxic atmosphere. The ground crew cannot then intervene because they have no knowledge of the situation.Responsibility for the station is transferred to the commander who can take all necessary actions to save the crew first, then the international space station and finally the mission.
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Could Thomas Pesquet be called upon to order them as well?
Each crew member who flies in the International Space Station is subject to what is called the Crew code of conduct.
They all have to sign it.
As on the sea, on a ship, there is only one commander.
It is very clear, otherwise we cannot operate.
But, again, it is not the commander who decides in detail who can do what and how.
That is settled on the ground as part of the agreements between the agencies.
People on board must perform their duties within the limits given to them.
If they go out of bounds, the commander can intervene.