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SPACE EXPLORATION

France's Thomas Pesquet to become first European to ride a Dragon into space

“The first time you go into space, you have stars in your eyes," said Thomas Pesquet before his first trip into space in 2016. “This time round, it is not the same…now I am a veteran.”
“The first time you go into space, you have stars in your eyes," said Thomas Pesquet before his first trip into space in 2016. “This time round, it is not the same…now I am a veteran.” RFI
4 min

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet told RFI he feels like a “veteran” after it was revealed he is to return to the International Space Station as the first European on board America’s new SpaceX Crew Dragon craft.

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The 42-year-old announced on Twitter that he is undergoing training at "SpaceX's futuristic facilities” in preparation for the March 2021 mission, which will blast off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

“The first time you go into space, you have stars in your eyes…and for me it was a childhood dream come true,” he said of his voyage to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016 on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. “Although I am extremely enthusiastic this time round, it is not the same…I was a beginner then, and now I am a veteran.”

Pesquet, who spent six months on board the ISS from November 2016 to June 2017, told RFI it would be interesting to compare his first flight as a Soyuz pilot with his experience on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, a more modern spacecraft that will be embarking on its second operational flight.

“While the phase during which we travel to the ISS only lasts a day or a day and a half, this is actually the most dangerous phase for the crew,” he said. “You need to be prepared for the worst, and you need to be able to react without the help of the control centre.”

Learning to navigate the Crew Dragon’s flat screen interface would be a learning curve – and one that he would need to master, Pasquet admitted. 

“When you have pilot experience you always want to have manual controls, such as a joystick, but on the Crew Dragon everything is controlled from a screen,” he said, adding that SpaceX’s flagship four-seater was “super modern vehicle” compared to the Soyuz. 

“Of course the Soyuz is extremely reliable (it has carried out more than 140 flights), but the Crew Dragon really is a vehicle of the 2010s, if not the 2020s.”

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet after helping to install three new, refrigerator-sized lithium-ion batteries to upgrade the power system at the International Space Station in 2017.
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet after helping to install three new, refrigerator-sized lithium-ion batteries to upgrade the power system at the International Space Station in 2017. 法新社

A mission named Alpha

In keeping with the French tradition of naming space missions after stars or constellations, the upcoming venture by SpaceX – a company pioneered by billionaire Elon Musk – has been named “Alpha” in honour of Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.

Pesquet will be joined on the 400-kilometre trip to the ISS by Nasa astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, along with Akihiko Hoshide from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

SpaceX made history in May this year when it became the first private company to successfully send humans into orbit, in a joint mission with the US space agency Nasa. The launch also ended a nine-year gap in human spaceflight from American soil. 

When Nasa retired its space shuttle programme in 2011, the US relied on Soyuz spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan to send its astronauts to the ISS.

Thomas Pesquet - Alpha Mission

 

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