“You see the colour of nebulae with your naked eye”

Tim Peake/Science MuseumEvery now and again Slugger dips into space.

The little Osborne book of Space was well thumbed. Details of Russian and American space missions, orbiting the Earth, trips to the moon, and promises of a reusable Space Shuttle. Trips to the Armagh Planetarium and seeing the low res images being transmitted from weather satellites. I remember the first Shuttle launch being delayed …

Ahead of Tim Peake’s launch at 11.03am on Tuesday 15 December from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and rendezvous with the International Space Station, I spoke to veteran European astronaut Jean-François Clervoy.  He’ll be the special guest on Tuesday at W5 in Belfast as part of a day of events at the science centre and Armagh Planetarium with the UK Space Agency to mark the start of the Principia Mission and the first British astronaut in space for over twenty years.

If you want to find out more about space nutrition and how space research affects local food production, find out how planes and rockets fly, as well as Jean-François Clervoy your own question, check out the details from W5 [PDF] and Armagh Planetarium. This year’s NI Science Festival (18-28 February) is themed around space technology and exploration and some events and tickets have already been launched.

Jean-François Clervoy flew on three Space Shuttle Missions in the 1990s. I asked him what goes through an astronauts head in the days running up to a launch?

Astronauts focus on their task they have to do at the time of take off, the checks in the cockpit, the proper donning of the flight suit. The flight itself – although it’s a fantastic event and experience in a lifetime – but psychologically we’re prepared months in advance so what’s happening on the 15th December is normal in Tim Peake’s life because that’s what he’s been preparing for for seven months …

The day of launch, usually you are full of serenity, you feel very at ease intellectually and mentally because you know that you’ve done everything that you had to do and you’re just thinking calmly about the extraordinary experience you’re going to have. So when it comes really close to walking to the rocket you feel excited because you’ve done everything you needed to do and you feel you’re ready – and people are telling you that you’re ready and the launcher is ready – and then when you sit in the capsule and you wait for the launch control centre to do the various checks then for ten to thirty minutes you have periods where you have nothing to do. Then you can let your mind float thinking about what you’re going to leave, thinking about your family. But you feel very serene because you are doing things that at this time of your life are just normal. You’ve been working on it for months. If just before going to the rocket someone tells you “sorry, we have to cancel the flight” or “we have to delay for one month because of a technical detail” then you would feel frustrated.

Tim Peake will be docking with the International Space Station. On one of your three Shuttle trips, you docked with the Russian Mir Space Station and stayed for a week. What will be the first thing he notices when the airlock opens?

He may likely feel a slightly different smell as the environment is not the same as in the Soyuz capsule … That will not be a disturbance that will attract his attention or priority.

The first feeling is meeting humans in space that have been there for some time. You met them several months before during your training and you feel happy – it’s like a [reunion] of your family. You get so close to your crew mates because you know you’re going to share something so unique, so extra-terrestrial, so extraordinary that you build up family links between crew members.

Joining with them in space is quite special because you know they’re happy to see you – “it’s nice to get visits” is what the Russians used to tell us when we went to Mir – and you know that you will be able to count on them to help you when it is your first flight.

You’ll not be totally at ease: where are things? where to put things? how to be efficient for basic logistic tasks? Usually we are very well trained for sophisticated tasks like space walks and robotics, activating complex scientific experiments, but for the daily activities – putting your clothing in the trash, getting the food out, cleaning, getting the vacuum cleaner out … These are things you don’t spend time training because it’s very basic. You just need practice …

Jean-Francois_ClervoyWhen Clervoy was in space, he was relatively isolated from family and friends, there to do a job for 7-10 days and then come home. There will be a lot of pressure on Tim Peake to be communicating about what he’s doing while he’s in space working.

On the short duration missions even now the timeline of our agenda is so packed that we have only a chance once every week to do a real time Skype chat with family, but we have daily email synchronisation. On my missions [1994, 1997, 1999] we could do email. There were two or three synchronisations per day. From the [International] Space Station it’s almost like in the office in terms of connectivity. You can tweet, you can go through your email anytime, you can phone any phone number in the world starting by the country code, anytime, without receiving any bill! Some astronauts call their family every day for three minutes to [talk] about basic things; some prefer to wait once or twice a week for a longer period.

But in terms of feeling connected with family, it’s not as restricted as before. I have friends from the ISS who were calling their family about a problem in the house, seeing if the plumber did the right job. In terms of isolation, I think Tim will not feel that. He will see the Earth and he will be able to communicate anytime he wants with the Earth – of course, anytime within his spare time – you have one minute here and there in-between different activities.

Especially for Europeans who are from different member states of the European Space Agency they have some pressure to accept to do video conference with VIPs, with ministers, to report regularly, to use Twitter. It is relatively easy on a long duration space mission (six months) there is more free time. We know the rhythm that was imposed on the crews of the Space Shuttle is not acceptable for more than two or three weeks because you then get too tired. The number one priority for astronauts on long duration missions is to have enough sleep time!

What about sleeping in zero gravity? Light sleep inducing pills are available if you’re still awake two hours after bedtime but most astronauts don’t take those pills for long.

[Some astronauts] attach a pillow with a band to their forehead, keeping it pressing on the back of their head. It floats, which doesn’t help to rest the head – your head is at the same place whether you have a pillow or not – but they like to feel their head pressuring on the pillow.

Sleeping bags are relatively comfortable now. You can attach it in the four corners with bungees or strings to anywhere. Personally I used to sleep on the ceiling. That was quite fun!

Clervoy says that the ISS astronauts “don’t complain any more about the food”.

Life is nice. On board, their weekends are free. There is some housekeeping to do at the weekends, and some astronauts dedicate their free time for optional outreach activities – they record videos for kids and schools – but they have seven hours of free time on Saturdays and Sundays because we try to mimic the typical work week on Earth.

They exercise a lot, around one and a half hours a day dedicated to exercise, aerobic and anaerobic … Some come back from flight in better physical shape in terms of muscle than on the ground because they were not exercising that much before. But that’s quite rare: most of the time there is some atrophy of muscles.

There is a variety of activity: work on the computer, work on scientific experiments, operational work with rendezvous docking, spacewalks, robotics, some leisure activity, listening to music, watching movies (they have hundreds of DVDs on board) but the most favourite activity of most astronauts is to look out the window, to look at the Earth, at the sky. This is probably what marks the life of an astronaut forever the most from spaceflight. The thing I will remember the most from my spaceflights at the end of my life will be the earth seen from space.

Does that truly change your perspective on Earth when you return? Are astronauts different because you have seen the Earth from the outside … and you judge its problems and its crises differently because you’ve had that perspective?

I don’t think a spaceflight changes who you are. It definitely changes your perspective on Earth, the way you think about the Earth because first you see it on the background of the deep blackness of the cosmos. You don’t see stars unless you do something to see the stars. I know astronauts who forgot to see stars from space! To see stars you need to be in an orientation where the Sun and the Earth are not in the field of view and switch off all the lights in the environment where you are in the space ship and let your eyes adapt and then it’s marvellous. The stars don’t twinkle and you perceive very well their colour. They’re very crisp. You see the colour of nebulae with your naked eye. It’s fantastic.

When you look at the Earth it looks really unique, isolated, finite. When you see it with your own eyes it’s beautiful, you’ve tears in your eyes. Even if you are the most experienced commander like Matt Kowalski in the movie Gravity, three times in the movie you hear or you see the guy who has done it all – the commander who is over everything and this is his last mission – three times during the movie he says “Wow!” and the other one asks “What happened?” “You should see the moon reflecting on the Ganges over Nepal”. I’ve seen that.

You see the Earth and you become like a child totally impressed by the beauty of the planet because it is beautiful, it’s contrasted, it is alive. And uniquely from space for the first time in your life from space the field of view carries your vision beyond 2,500km around. You see far around. And what you see in that field of view evolves very fast. After ten minutes it’s all different. You cross the whole field of view that you see in less than ten minutes.

And what you see is beautiful. You see colours of phytoplankton blooming in the French Polynesia, you see glaciers, you see desserts, you see tropical forests, all this one minute after another. You go around in one and a half hours, so sixteen world tours a day. Every 45 minutes the sun sets or the sun rises. You see winter colours, all white, for 45 minutes when you fly over the north hemisphere, and the next 45 minutes you are above the south hemisphere where it’s the opposite season.

Do you dream about looking out the window looking down at Earth?

Oh yes. And I have plenty of movies and pictures from my flights. Sometimes I open my photo book and I look at that and I say “is this me who saw that in my life?” It is so extra-terrestrial in terms of sensorial experience that you feel it was in another life. You need to think concretely intellectually about it and the you remember, yes, it was me that did that. You have changes in your body, you see things that you’ve never seen before, you exchange with colleagues that you’ve never exchanged with before: it’s a totally different experience in terms of sensory, intellectual, and even spiritual experience.

Clervoy admitted that he’d love to be the one returning to the ISS. He was party of the ‘jury’ that selected Tim (who scored the best marks in his training and beat the Americans in Nasa’s underwater expedition training exercise).

He’s really a top guy and I would really enjoy flying with him. I would go with him eyes closed. This what I told the jury. There were looking at me: “what do you think?”

“That guy, I would fly with him anytime in space, I would take him with me anytime in space”.

High praise for the man who Clervoy describes as “the ideal astronaut”.

You can follow Tim Peake’s progress on his blog, on Twitter @astro_timpeake and watch the launch and rendezvous/docking online.

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