The journey of a flying Dutchman
‘I was bitten by the space bug when I was just a kid.’ In April 2004, at the age of 45, the physician and astronaut André Kuipers completed his first space mission when he returned to Earth after nine days on board the International Space Station. RTD info traces the route of a born adventurer who has lived his dreams to the full.
‘My grandmother was one of my inspirations. She used to read science fiction books about space travel to me. I was 11 years old when I saw TV pictures of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon. I dreamed of being an astronaut.’
Back in the 1970s, however, it seemed as if space was long destined to remain the preserve of the US and Soviet superpowers for whom it was another field in which to play out their cold war rivalry. At that time, putting man into space was a matter for the United States – which developed the first multi-flight space shuttles – and for the former USSR – which was successfully continuing to develop its series of Soyuz rockets and launched the Salyut, the first manned space station, into orbit. Although Europe had founded its own space agency, its initial ambitions were in the field of launchers rather than manned flights. This dream of a Dutch teenager who was just finishing secondary school therefore seemed like a fantasy at the time.
André Kuipers found a judicious compromise. He was tempted to study medicine and thought it would be a good idea to combine this choice with his continuing fascination with space. He therefore steered his medical studies in the direction of the physiological aspects of balance and the ways the human body adapts to the extreme conditions it is subjected to in supersonic aircraft and rockets and during weightlessness. On leaving university with this very specific speciality he enlisted in the Dutch Air Force where he was immediately charged with monitoring the health of pilots.
‘I was on my way. I was well placed to enter into contact with European space circles, namely the European Space Agency (ESA). During the 1980s, Europe had made progress and was now thinking about active participation in a manned space flight. In 1985, on the ESA’s second mission as part of the Spacelab programme, one of the three astronauts on board the US shuttle Columbia was a Dutchman, Wubbo Ockels. It was no longer unrealistic to think that just maybe…’
As a doctor, one of the ‘extra jobs’ André Kuipers carried out for the ESA was to supervise ‘parabolic flights’.(1) His passion for and valuable knowledge of the world of space soon attracted the attention of space agency officials. In 1991, the ESA signed an initial one-year contract with him as an ‘invited fellow’ to carry out research on the physiological adaptation of the human body during manned flights.
‘So I found myself in the right place when, around this time, the ESA launched a major campaign to select European candidate astronauts. I thought to myself: “Now your time has come.” But there were thousands of candidates from all over Europe. I was among the shortlisted candidates invited to go to the ESA headquarters in Paris. I was beginning to believe it was about to happen, and then came the big disappointment. There were just six places to be filled and I did not make that final selection. I was told that I would have been selected if there had been more resources and that my chance may come later. So I stayed on the ground.’
In the meantime, Kuipers continued his career with the ESA. He was charged with the physical preparation of manned European missions on the MIR station, and coordinated various experiments in the field of the biosciences. Meanwhile, ESA missions – whether on board US or Russian craft – continued to increase.
As installation of the International Space Station (ISS) progressed, the ESA member countries decided, in 1998, to form a permanent European astronaut corps under the agency’s authority. In this context, the Netherlands, along with other ‘small countries’ such as Belgium and Switzerland, attached great value to the ‘ambassador’ role of a national astronaut. The Netherlands proposed André Kuipers as their man in space and this time he was selected by the ESA.
‘I accepted the offer of course, while also being aware that I would be entering a waiting period which was going to upset my life rather. It meant that I had to put many of my medical responsibilities on hold for the time being, responsibilities which formed the basis of my career. Being a potential astronaut means being on perpetual standby, never knowing exactly how long for, and following a continuous programme of training and medical monitoring. The planning for these missions is spread over several years. Building the ISS was (and remains) a very slow process, subject to complex international financial decisions and technological unknowns. You will certainly remember 1 February 2003 and the terrible disaster of the Columbia space shuttle which caused all US manned flights to be cancelled – and they have yet to resume.’
Heading for ISS
In fact, Kuipers’ space career nearly fell victim to this accident. Then, after four years of preparation, in December 2002 he was chosen to represent the ESA’s contribution to a Soyuz mission on board the ISS. In April 2004, this mission was to undertake the six monthly replacement of the space station crew and to change the ‘rescue capsule’ which is always attached to it to ensure evacuation in the case of an emergency. The ESA planned to make use of the nine days its own astronaut would be spending on board the ISS to carry out the Delta programme of scientific experiments.
‘The Soyuz flights have a remarkable record in terms of dependability and operate like a kind of ‘space taxi’ with just three people on board, two of whom must be able to pilot the craft. The seat the ESA was ‘renting’ on board therefore included one obligation. On the outward and incoming flight, I was going to have to be the deputy to the Russian commander. That meant I had just 12 months to train to pilot a space craft.’
Our flying Dutchman therefore faced a major challenge. Over the next 16 months, he spent much of his time either at Star City just outside Moscow or at the Baîkonour cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The training, which included acquiring a minimum working knowledge of Russian, was very demanding and included medico-physical tests of all kinds, a study of the rocket and capsule engineering, and simulation of the shuttle flying and piloting conditions and of life on board the ISS – without losing sight of the intense preparation for the scientific aspects of the Delta mission.
On 19 April 2004, André Kuipers, Guennadi Padalka (Russia) and Mike Fincke (USA) took their seats on board the Soyuz capsule ready for lift off. Was he afraid? ‘No, I had left all my fears behind me. I had been afraid earlier, during the training. What I was most afraid of was that when the day came I would be gripped by a paralysing sense of panic. But the preparations are such that when the rocket actually lifts off nothing seems unusual or alarming any more.’
The flight and docking at the ISS all went without a hitch. The first surprise was discovering this famous space station orbiting the Earth at a height of 400 km. ‘You have to see it to appreciate just what a huge workshop it is, packed full of machines and equipment of all kinds, many of which are in the process of being installed. It is not easy to find your way around all the mass of instruments and start work on the many tasks you have to complete within nine days.’
Igniting a passion
The Delta scientific programme covers some fundamental aspects of human physiology, cell biology and microbiology as well as technological experiments of interest to industry. Plus, as the ‘cherry on the cake’, it has an educational component of which Kuipers is particularly proud. Thousands of school pupils in the Netherlands and Germany were involved in preparing an experiment on the germination of plant seeds in conditions of weightlessness. ‘For me – and this was also the view of Dutch space policy officials in general – communicating directly from space with young people was very important. Astronauts have a vital role to play in science education.’
Kuipers has never forgotten the child who dreamed of space and would now like to ignite this same passion in other young people. But what about the personal pleasure he took from the trip? ‘Everybody knows what the Earth looks like seen from above. But to actually look at our planet is a unique and unforgettable experience. This blue globe standing out against the black of the cosmos, the winding path of the Nile when you fly over it at night, and the light from storms which break at random over the surface…’
(1) The ESA regularly offers scientists and science students the opportunity to carry out mini-exercises in experimentation at microgravity (each parabola provides a period of about 20 seconds of virtual weightlessness).