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‘Upwardly mobile’ European astronauts reach for the stars
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Arrow  European astronauts are at the forefront of human exploration of space and have been leading advocates of the European Space Policy, laid out in a White Paper developed by the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA). European astronauts have also been strong lobbyists for the benefits that an enlarged space programme can bring to the European Union.

ESA Astronaut Pedro Duque; Image © ESA
ESA Astronaut Pedro Duque; Image
The year 1978 was a great year for European astronauts. On 2 March 1978 Vladimír Remek, strapped into Soyuz 28, lifted off from the Baikonur launch pad for an eight-day mission to the Salyut 6 space station. Research cosmonaut Remek made history, not only as the first Czechoslovakian in space, and the first Czech in space, and the first non-Russian and non-American in space – but also, after the recent enlargement, he now holds the unique position of the first European Union spaceman.

Remek flew as part of the Interkosmos co-operation programme between the Soviet Union and partner countries – a forerunner of today’s international approach to space activities. Others quickly followed; in July of the same year the Polish cosmonaut, Miroslaw Hermaszewski lifted off on board Soyuz 30, and two months later, in August, then East German Sigmund Jähn followed in their steps on the third Interkosmos mission on Soyuz 31.

The first West European astronaut, Frenchman Jean-Loup Chrétien, flew with the Soyuz T-6 mission in 1982 and spent seven days running experiments with his Russian colleagues. He subsequently flew a 24-day Soyuz mission to the Mir 1 space station and later revisited Mir in 1997 as a crewmember on the Atlantis space shuttle. The German Ulf Merbold, was the first European astronaut to fly on the NASA space shuttle programme with the maiden flight of Spacelab aboard the Columbia shuttle in 1983. Merbold returned to Spacelab later with the shuttle Discovery and then, in 1994, visited Mir on Soyuz TM-20 – today he still works in the manned space flight directorate in ESA.

Message from the astronauts
Speaking to reporters in Brussels in 2003, astronaut Thomas Reiter, who spent 179 days on the Mir space station, said, “We came here to convey a message. Today, Europe is going through a difficult process of integration, and we believe, as European astronauts, that we can serve as a model of European integration and co-operation. We are working together without any consideration for our individual nationalities, working towards the day when we will all be simply Europeans.”
It is clear that a major asset of human space flight is the extent to which the public identifies personally with the crews and their lives, but the problem of establishing a single European identity has been evoked by astronaut Frank de Winne and by former astronaut Franco Malerba. According to Reiter, “We think that by working together with common goals, perhaps including an all-European space crew, we can go a long way towards showing Europeans that we are indeed one people with a common destiny.”

A European dimension

After these first missions in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s came a progression of European astronauts flying on US shuttle and Soviet Soyuz missions as part of bilateral agreements between national space programmes, However, by the early 1990’s ESA astronauts came to dominate European participation, driven by the European Spacelab and the move by ESA, in 1990, to select it’s own astronauts.

From astronaut selection, ESA then moved to establishing the European Astronaut Corps (EAC) in 1998. The corps of 16 astronauts, based at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, in Germany, replaced the national astronaut corps and today coordinates training for missions with the space shuttle and Soyuz.

Many of the astronauts who have flown under the ESA banner are still active in the ESA organisation, in the human space flight programme for the International Space Station (ISS) as well as other areas, such as the AURORA programme for the long-term exploration of the solar system.

The European astronauts have summarised their opinions on human space flight in a publication entitled ‘A case for humans in space’, which includes the ‘Charta of the European Astronaut Corps’.

Frank de Winne
Frank de Winne
Interview: Frank de Winne
On 17 January 2003, ESA astronaut Frank de Winne was the guest of honour at an informal press conference hosted by Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin in Brussels. De Winne threw down the gauntlet with his ambitious vision of the future European space programme. "We should be doing everything we can to promote European manned space flight," he said.

“We should be working towards an independent European manned space programme with the kind of launch systems that can get men and women into space,” said de Winne, “so that we no longer have to rely on the Americans and Russians to get us there. But more than that, we cannot go on for another 40 or 50 years simply orbiting the earth. We have to set our sights farther, on the moon, on Mars. What about a European space station? We are already working to develop a full-time working European laboratory within the International Space Station, which should be manned and maintained by Europeans.”

Not Belgians, not Italians – Europeans!
According to de Winne, a former Belgian fighter pilot, Europeans still do not appreciate and celebrate the accomplishments of their astronauts as Europeans. The Odissea mission link 1, for example, in which de Winne recently participated, was met with wide acclaim in Belgium, where a number of events were organised, but it went virtually unnoticed in the rest of Europe. Equally, the Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori’s historic mission was widely celebrated in Italy, but made no impression in most other European countries.

“As European astronauts,” said de Winne, “we want to be examples of real Europeans, yes of course with our different origins, our different languages and cultures, but above all, Europeans who can work together as a team.”

“This is a very important point,” added Busquin. “We have to be able to envisage a European space programme with all-European crews and missions. For this we need to develop autonomy, especially in the area of launchers. Working closely with the Russians can be an important step in that direction. The Russians have a long and successful history of manned space flight from which to draw experience, while they can benefit from our successes in transferring space technologies to groundside industrial applications.”

The space lobby

The new European Space Policy is laid out in a White Paper developed jointly by the European Commission and ESA. Adopted by the European Council, the strategy is naturally receiving strong support from European astronauts – a number of them are strong lobbyists for the benefits that an enlarged space programme can bring to the European Union.

The Belgian astronaut, Frank de Winne, is a fervent advocate for manned space flight. De Winne flew in 2002 on a Soyuz mission to the ISS where he spent nine days. Still a member of the EAC he speaks widely on EU-Russian co-operation in space and is a strong advocate of a European human space flight programme and a contributor to European Space Policy development.

The French astronaut Claudie Haigneré is also on a different mission nowadays. She first flew as a research cosmonaut on the Franco-Russian Cassiopée mission in 1996, and later, in 2001, as an astronaut and Soyuz flight engineer on the Andromède mission to the ISS. She has played and continues to play a prominent role in the development of scientific applications for manned space flight and in fostering scientific relations with Russia. In 2002 Haigneré was appointed Minister for Research and New Technologies in the French government and today she is Minister for European Affairs.

A strong supporter of a European space effort, Haigneré, addressing the closing conference of the joint EU-ESA Space Green Paper consultation, called for a comprehensive European space programme to be taken up in the convention preparing the European Constitution.

Interview: Gerhard Thiele
Holder of a doctorate in physics, Gerhard Thiele is a man of science by training, but he gave up a career in ground-based research to become an astronaut. Science and discovery remain high on his agenda.

Speaking at a space science workshop in Berlin, Thiele said, “I think it is very appropriate that we are meeting in Berlin, the home of Humboldt University, to talk about space science.” The so-called ‘mother of all modern universities’ is the realisation of the academic and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt. His younger brother, Alexander von Humboldt, is immortalised in a statue that adorns the University’s courtyard.

“Alexander von Humboldt was perhaps the last true renaissance man,” explains Thiele, “a universal scientific scholar who was recognised as a naturalist, a botanist, a zoologist, author, cartographer, artist and sociologist. Like Darwin, he was also an explorer.”

The references to Humboldt and Darwin seem appropriate. A physicist by training, as an astronaut, Thiele is also an explorer - a ‘space explorer’. As Mission Specialist, he logged over 268 hours in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, working dual shifts on the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, which mapped almost 80 percent of the Earth’s land surface. In ‘A case for humans in space’, a publication presented by the European Astronaut Corps link 2, Thiele explains that, theoretically, his space mission could have been carried out by an unmanned satellite system. Engineers estimated the cost of such a system at more than €300 million, which exceeded the combined investment of the co-operating agencies, but for Thiele the argument is not just about cost effectiveness.

“This is not why humans venture into space,” he writes. “The human being who gazes on a clear night at a star-spangled sky is confronted with questions at the very heart of our existence. Who are we, where do we come from, what is the universe like ‘out there’? We would not be who we are today had we not attempted to find answers to these questions throughout history.”

Again speaking in Berlin, Thiele said, “Humans can still do things in space that machines cannot do, but more than that, human space flight is a source of inspiration. It is our destiny, and it can go a long way towards illustrating our shared destiny as Europeans. We, the Astronaut Corps, see human space flight as a unifying force for Europe. I would ask you all to imagine the impact of a European spacecraft launching into orbit with a French captain, an Italian pilot and a Swedish operations specialist. I think we would all feel suddenly more European. We would all be better off in such a world!”


Franco Malerba - one astronaut’s personal vision
On 31 July 1992, Franco Malerba became the first Italian in space, serving as Prime Payload Specialist onboard the space shuttle Atlantis. Though his mission lasted only a few days, the experience has marked him for life. Sharing his experience with others is a major part of that legacy.

“When you talk to young people about space flight,” says Malerba, “you can see their eyes getting bigger and bigger. It makes you realise just how great the potential of space activities really is. I go to a lot of schools and I can see the effect it has on the children I talk to, the way it stimulates their interest in science and technology.” Malerba thinks space is an effective tool for educating students. “We haven’t done enough to communicate what we are doing in space. We can use platforms like the ISS and direct communications links to get children involved, to get them to ‘look up’, to look towards the future.”

On European unity and international co-operation
“We have made tremendous progress in Europe in dismantling technical and commercial barriers,” says Malerba, “but we still have a culture gap. Our various constituencies are still very nationalised. So, as Frank de Winne has pointed out, the Belgians are still more interested in their own astronauts and the same goes for the Italians. It’s just like a big football tournament. We are not yet Europeans in space.”

After being selected as Payload Specialist in 1989, Malerba was assigned to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for training. This experience means he is well placed to speak about the internationalisation of space. “Astronauts and cosmonauts have always anticipated the coming together of nations,” he says. “I go back to the historic meeting of Leonov and Stafford during the Apollo-Soyuz mission in the 1970s, two old enemies coming together in space in a spirit of co-operation, long before there was any such co-operation taking place on the ground.

“The wider space community has always had a common set of values, a common vision of humanity. Again, we see this today in the ever-increasing co-operation between ourselves, the Americans and the Russians, especially in the context of the ISS. There is something very powerful in the symbolism of men and women of different nations working together and depending on one another in a space station high above the earth.”

Russia as a full partner in space
Under the European Commission’s Sixth Framework Programme, which for the first time includes space research as a priority area, Russia can now participate as a full and equal partner.

Speaking at a workshop on Euro-Russian co-operation in space, Malerba said, “I remember being inspired as a child, following the exploits of the great Soviet pioneers, Gagarin, Leonov and so many others. With the unparalleled experience of the Russians, it makes sense for Europe to strengthen its ties to Russia now. Research and industrial co-operation across borders and across cultures is a complex undertaking, but ESA, the EU and the Russian Space Agency have shown that it is possible and that it can be beneficial to all sides.”


The Columbia legacy
Hans Schlegel link 3 flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1993. Asked about the loss of the Columbia and its crew in 2003, he said, “We are all experiencing the loss very deeply, and our first responsibility is of course to comfort the families of our fallen colleagues. Next, we must try to understand what went wrong, and finally we must get back into space. We have got to carry on with the endeavour that our brave friends gave their lives for. The International Space Station will go on, we will go on, and we will continue to explore and push the limits of human knowledge and accomplishment.”

Astronaut Frank de Winne said, “Anyone who sits on top of a rocket and gets blasted into space is aware in a very direct way of the dangers involved, but we do our jobs and we trust in the technology and in the excellent teams of scientists, engineers and technicians behind us. When a tragedy like this occurs, we must do everything we can to understand it so that it doesn’t happen again, but we cannot allow it to stop us from moving forward.”
ESA astronauts talk to reporters
ESA astronauts talk to reporters

The ‘right stuff’ for Strasbourg

An interesting finale to bear in mind – Vladimír Remek, the first citizen of today’s European Union to reach space, 26 years ago, is now a recently elected Member of the European Parliament for the Czech Republic. Sitting on the Industry, Research and Energy Committee, it cannot be long before this cosmonaut-turned-MEP contributes to the implementation of a European Space Policy.

Astronauts coming to Brussels

The European Astronaut Corps will be on hand during the European Commission and European Space Agency ‘Earth & Space Week’ initiative, set to run from 12-20 February 2005 in Brussels. The 9-day event, comprising meetings, exhibitions and many other activities, will celebrate the growing significance of space in everyday life.

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