On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his first flight in space, Jean-Loup Chrétien looked back on his career during an exchange with lemon squeezer. First a fighter pilot, he joined the CNES (national center for space studies) to become the very first French astronaut.
Born in 1938 in La Rochelle, Jean-Loup Chrétien joined the Air Force in 1961. Almost 20 years later, in 1979, his life took a historic turn. Like Neil Armstrong and other aviators before him, he swapped his military uniform for an astronaut’s spacesuit.
According to the wishes of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who wants to see a Frenchman in spaceJean-Loup Chrétien was selected with Patrick Baudry by CNES to join the city of stars, the cosmonaut training center.
After two years of tumultuous work between CNES and Roscosmos, the mission will take place. The latter will take place on June 24, 1982. Astronauts will spend a week in space aboard a Soyuz T-6 docked at the Salyut 7 orbital station. 40 years laterthe memory of this first flight is still anchored in the memory of Jean-Loup Chrétien.
Lemon squeezer: The day before you took off for space, June 23, 1982, what were you thinking?
Jean-Loup Chretien: I had 2 years to prepare and reflect on this moment. I simmered, imagined all the scenarios in my head dozens of times. The day before, I was obviously thinking about taking off, but with a lot of serenity. I was very confident. Of course, I was aware of the risks, especially on departure and return, which are the two most dangerous phases, but despite everything, you are very confident as an astronaut. We have statistics with us which show that the systems are working. So we look at our things in the room one last time, and we leave.
Lemon squeezer: In 1988 you went back into space, again with a Soyuz rocket. You are going to spend a month in the Mir station. What memories do you keep of such a mission?
Jean-Loup Chretien: This second flight is obviously different, as it is much longer. I also had the chance to perform a spacewalk, which was the high point of my mission. For the rest of the flight, it was pretty much the same. The departure and the return were identical or almost. I was again in a Soyuz rocket that I was beginning to know. The big difference will have been the duration of the mission. Spending a month in space has nothing to do with spending a week there.
Lemon squeezer: During this mission, you carry out a spacewalk, you are then the first European to do so. How do we prepare for it?
Jean-Loup Chretien: That’s obviously a lot of practice. We repeat about 10 times the exit time in swimming pools. This allows you to get used to weightlessness but also to know the smallest gestures that you have to make. For my part, I had to spend 60 to 70 hours in the pool to master my exit. You get to know the scuba, feel its effects, its bulk and all the other little things there is to know. Finally, in space, we only discover weightlessness, but it is a feeling that is very close to what we have in a swimming pool with the forces of water.
Lemon Squeezer: Nearly 10 years later, you are going to fly a third time. But with an American shuttle Atlantis this time. How different is it from what you experienced with the Soyuz?
Jean-Loup Chretien: There are obviously differences, but that only affects part of the flight. The take-off is the same, the comfort is the same. We are lying on our seat and we suffer things. It is on the way back that there are really big differences. In a shuttle like Atlantis, we are installed in the cockpit of an airliner, a kind of 747 from space. This allows you to have a view of the Earth through the windshield, something you don’t have with the Soyuz. It’s really nice to feel down like that.
For the mission itself, we don’t have much more room. In my case I had a small module attached to the shuttle to do experiments. It was no bigger than the Soyuz. The shuttle really has the big advantage of having the feeling of descending on the wings of an airplane. The rest is very similar.
Lemon squeezer: You worked with CNES until 1998 before joining NASA. How was the collaboration with the French agency for nearly 20 years?
Jean-Loup Chretien: CNES was for me a gateway to space. It’s an agency that allowed me to discover the world of space, with a very good administration. It was a great experience that ended in 1998, because the minister at the time, Mr. Allègre did not want manned flights and even less astronauts. He had warned me when I left for Houston in 1997 of my retirement at my 60th birthday, August 20, 1998.
Obviously I didn’t want to quit so soon, so I contacted the NASA boss, who was a very good friend. (Daniel S. Goldin), and he told me that if France no longer wanted me, I could sign at NASA and become an American astronaut. So I changed badges at the end of the 90s, in 99 exactly.
Lemon squeezer: Today 10 French people were in space, including Thomas Pesquet. Many people already see him going to the Moon. Is it possible in your opinion?
Jean-Loup Chretien: I’m not aware of ESA and NASA decisions so I can’t really comment. It’s a very complicated choice, and I leave that work to them. What is certain is that there will be Europeans on the Moon. This is a very nice reward for our contribution to this project. After knowing who is going to leave, I do not prefer to comment.
Lemon squeezer: 50 years after the end of the Apollo missions, NASA aims to return to the Moon. Good news for you, the astronaut?
Jean-Loup Chretien: Very good news indeed. 50 years after Apollo it finally happens and we take up the torch of exploration beyond low orbit by returning to the Moon. But that doesn’t mean it will be any easier. The “exploit” side of such a mission is still there. You don’t go to the moon with your hands in your pockets. There will inevitably be a lot of work upstream with the SLS rocket, which is very different from a Falcon 9 for example, which today brings us to the ISS or into orbit, so it’s a return to complex systems which we have mastered in the past and which must be modernized.
There are really a lot of changes to be made compared to Apollo. Such a mission will be complex, but it will remain engraved in the history of space exploration by Man.
Lemon squeezer: Since your first flight 40 years ago, the space landscape has changed a lot with the arrival of new companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin. Have you felt this change in recent years?
Jean-Loup Chretien: Yes, and I think that’s a very good thing. This allows our congeners to think that they could one day do the same thing as us. Every time a door opens to the general public, it responds. This shows that there is a real interest, it only remains to stimulate it.
This is something that our colleague Thomas has done very well (Pesquet), who knew how to communicate, interest, educate people about space and let them imagine themselves in space clothing. On this point he is entirely right, we must not make exceptions of us. We are, yes, but because space is still very expensive, the general public must understand that one day they too will have the chance to go into space.