SPACE

Pesquet to become first French commander of International Space Station

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet is to serve as commander of the International Space Station.
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet is to serve as commander of the International Space Station. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Thomas Pesquet is to become the first French astronaut to serve as commander of the International Space Station – a decision he tells RFI that is testament to the growing role of France, and Europe, in human space flight.

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“I’m lucky to be chosen as the first Frenchman in charge of a space vehicle," Pesquet said following the announcement Tuesday. “While it’s good for me, it's also recognition for everyone."

The 43-year-old European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut will take the helm of the ISS for a month towards the end of his second sixth-month mission, codenamed Alpha, which blasts off on 22 April.

Following in the footsteps of ESA astronauts Frank De Winne, Alexander Gerst and Luca Parmitano, Pesquet will be the fourth European to hold the post of ISS commander.

The commander is responsible for the safety of the crew and the space station, as well as ensuring the efficiency of the scientific experiments on board. Working in partnership with ground control, they are the final voice in the onboard chain of command.

“It's like a ship,” Pesquet told RFI. “After God, there is only one master on board.”

More than a hundred scientific experiments await Pesquet aboard the ISS, a unique microgravity research lab. Four "extra-vehicular" spacewalks are also scheduled, the most important of which will consist of the installation of new solar panels.

Pesquet will also be the first ESA astronaut to fly aboard a Dragon, a commercial spacecraft capsule developed by SpaceX that will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida. 

He’ll accompany Nasa astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.

Diversity drive

News of Pesquet’s command comes as the ESA seeks “greater diversity” in its first astronaut recruitment drive in 11 years. As part of the programme, it’s calling for “parastronauts” – astronauts with physical disabilities.

“We are looking towards the Moon – and Mars … We need very excellent astronauts for the future,” said ESA boss Jan Woerner. “To go farther than we ever have before, we need to look wider than we ever have before.”

Six permanent staff and 20 reserves are to be selected as the ESA’s next generation of astronauts. Women are “strongly encouraged” to apply.  

So far, the ESA has sent two women into space: Frenchwoman Claudie Haigneré and Italian Samantha Cristoforetti.

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