In 1989, Frank De Winne answered a newspaper job ad. But not a typical one. The European Space Agency (ESA) was searching for new astronauts. He went through a demanding 2,5-year training and waited 10 years to get into space. He spent 198 days in the International Space Station and became the first ESA astronaut to command a space mission. A modest Belgian who now leads young European astronauts says that life after space does not end, but rather starts.
Has being in the space changed anything about your life?
Not really. I think trips that I have done for UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador have changed me more than my space flights.
When you go to space, you work for the future of humanity with motivated people. There is little or no conflict, while if you go for UNICEF missions to some countries, you see atrocities. So, on one hand, I saw the best things of humanity, and on the other, the worst. It is really strange that countries lead wars against each other. From space, I realized that borders are just imaginary lines that we drew on paper at some point and now we are fighting over them.
Did this revelation of an overview effect lead you to UNICEF?
I was asked to become an ambassador during my first space flight. Since I have always liked working with children to build the future of the planet, it was natural to say yes. Values of UNICEF and ESA are closely linked and that is why many ESA astronauts become ambassadors. We are starting to build a program with UNICEF to create awareness of their work and to show to the public why space is good.
Photo: ESA – S. Corvaja, 2009
That is what many people are asking. There are so many pressing problems in the world. Why focus on space exploration?
Because you always have to invest into the future. When Maxwell was working on the laws of electricity 150 years ago, he was getting funding from the university. Was his work useful for society at that moment? Of course not. But can you imagine our society without electricity? You cannot. Today, each EU citizen pays roughly 2 EUR on space exploration yearly. You have to see space as an investment, not as a cost.
Overall, do you see space as a zone of cooperation or competition?
I see it both ways and I think it is important to maintain both. We need to cooperate on large projects like the ISS and sustainable exploration of the moon, but at the system level, competition is equally important. If you have no competition, you will not innovate. We shall cooperate, but we shall make our industries compete, so we can get the best value for our money.
You are an astronaut with a military background. Do you see some military use of space?
Yes, space is getting more militaristic. Let’s be fair, spy satellites have always been there, but they were passive while now you see more and more active components. Putin has declared that he will have a rocket that can fly Earth and strike any target it wants. China and the US are developing systems to target other satellites. We should monitor this development closely and stand up against it.
Photo: ESA – S. Corvaja, 2009
How can we?
It is complicated because all the big blocs want to preserve their autonomy of action. There are space lawyers and groups like Milanos who are trying to figure out how to put down boundaries, regulations and laws so that we do not end up in a space war. When you shoot a satellite of another country, it is clear aggression. But before that, there are many levels that can interfere with space capabilities of other nations. So, making any kind of regulation is really difficult.
On top of that, the space environment is changing rapidly. It is not just countries anymore; companies are playing a bigger role.
Exactly. One Web wants to launch about 880 satellites to give broadband internet to the entire planet. It is a great project but how do you manage these satellites? What if they start failing and colliding? Do companies launch satellites, make a profit but when something happens, governments are responsible for cleaning space debris and citizens have to pay for it? Some companies want to launch 20-30,000 satellites. Nobody has any idea how it should all be regulated. So many questions, no answers.
I have an easy question for you now. How did it feel to be in space?
It was very nice to see our beautiful and fragile planet, work on science and technology for the future and to be supported by many people on the ground. I really liked it.
Photo: ESA – S. Corvaja
What was the most terrifying thing about being in space?
There was nothing terrifying, only the launch and landing were dangerous. During the launch, you are basically flying a bomb and during landing, you come back at a speed of 28,000 km/hour in a fireball. It is dynamic and challenging but not terrifying. If you think it is terrifying, you cannot become an astronaut.
Astronauts cannot be afraid?
Not when they are doing their job. There are certain moments when you feel tense, but such a feeling is positive. You get extra adrenaline which helps you think, react and concentrate better. When tension turns into fear, you start panicking. The worst thing that can happen to an astronaut is to start being afraid. In my career, I have not seen astronauts that were afraid.
So, you knew that it would go well. I wonder what you told your family before departure.
See you in six months, I guess. Nothing special.
Just a regular bye-bye?
You need to realize that astronauts are training for the flight for 2.5 years. You are aware that things could go wrong but you have confidence in the people who work on the ground, in your craft and in your own abilities gained through training.
Photo: ESA – S. Corvaja, 2009
What are astronauts like besides being fearless and confident?
They are calm, open to other cultures, flexible, and people-oriented. Being an astronaut is about being part of a team. You cannot do anything alone by yourself.
Speaking of work, can you now tell me what your day is like on the ISS?
The day is very much like a standard day here on Earth. You get up around 6 AM, get dressed, wash up, eat breakfast, start planning for the day and get tools that you will need. Around 7:30 you have the morning daily planning conference. You talk to the people on the ground, share some last information and then you do your work. You have a lunch break and continue with the afternoon work. Around 7:30 PM there is the evening daily planning conference where you discuss things that went well or wrong and the perspective for the next day.
Everything seems to be planned down to the last minute.
It is. Plus, every day you do two hours of sports. An hour of running or biking and an hour of the gym against bone and muscle atrophy. In the evening, you are free. Such routine repeats every day. Saturday is half a day because the other half of day we clean the station. We go around with a vacuum cleaner and wipes, so it looks good for the next week. Sunday is a free day when you can relax and talk to your family and on Monday it starts all over again.
You spent 198 days in space. Did you have any hard times?
No, not really. Only the beginning was a bit difficult. New environment, weightlessness, back pain and headaches. But once I adapted, it was great.
What was it like to be floating for 7 months?
It was actually very nice and comfortable you I got used to it.
How did your work go? What results did you get from your experiments?
It is difficult for me to say because as an astronaut you are not a scientist, but an executor of science. So results are not linked to one single mission but are part of a long-term endeavor to bring new knowledge back to earth, both from scientific experiments and technology developments. The ISS partnership actually produces a book and has a website with all success stories; ISS benefits for humanity which you can google.
I guess you did not go to space because of the scientific experiments. Why did you go?
Actually, I am interested in science and technology. Plus, I am an operator and I like to fly. I think by going to space I contributed something to society. And to be honest, it was a lot of fun.
Do you think you will go again?
No, my job now is to support young astronauts to fly. I have already gone twice. If the opportunity came, I would certainly do it, but I am not looking for it.
Photo: ESA – S. Corvaja, 2009
How did your family and friends feel about your space travels?
They were all very excited, but my mother said I am not allowed to fly anymore because it was too stressful for her. So, I have to listen to my mother. That is another reason I don’t fly anymore (laughing).
What about your children? Do they dream of becoming astronauts?
No, but it is not important. Young people should choose what they want to do and not be forced by their parents or environment. As long as they do something they like and enjoy, I am happy.
Was being an astronaut your childhood dream?
From a young age, I wanted to become a pilot. When I was in university, it was a time of big discoveries like black holes and supernovas and I was interested in all that. I thought that if I am an engineer and a pilot, then I could become an astronaut. Ten years later I saw a recruitment ad for an astronaut in the newspaper.
And you simply replied?
Yes, and waited 13 years. By the time you start the selection and fly, ten years can go by. I started the selection in 1989 and flew in 2002.
Photo: ESA – S. Corvaja
What do you think made you stand out from all the other candidates?
I really don’t know. Of course, I had to be qualified in terms of studies and health, but I also had an enormous amount of circumstances that came with it.
What do you mean?
You need to be born at the right moment. ESA selects six candidates every 15 years between 27-37 years old. It means that one-third of the population is already outside the age bracket. Furthermore, countries which sponsor the most, have a higher chance to have their citizen candidates selected.
Can you tell me what plans ESA has for young astronauts?
ESA has three targets. We want to continue using the lower Earth orbit for science and technology development. We have known how to do it for the past 50 years and we are talking more about exploitation than exploration. We are working on the ISS and planning to send three of our astronauts to the Chinese space station. Next, we want to do a sustainable exploration of the moon. We are working with NASA and also with Roscosmos on a precursor mission to go to the moon. In the long term, we want to go to Mars. We have the ExoMars mission that will be launched in 2020, and together with NASA we would like to fly to Mars and bring samples back to Earth.
Photo: ESA – GCTC, 2009
Those are brave visions. Can you make any forecasts about the colonization of planets?
Colonization will take a lot of time, but I think it is not unrealistic to have people walking on the moon by the 2030s. Humans have been living permanently or semi-permanently in the ISS for 18 years. That is the future – sustainable exploration – not like the Apollo times when we went, planted a flag and came back after a few days. From the moon, we have to see when we can go to Mars because Mars will be 10 times harder.
How long is it feasible to stay in the spaceship with all the hard conditions (confined space, space suits, lyophilized food, muscle atrophy, osteoporosis, and radiation)?
I don’t know. I am not a psychologist. What I can say is that a number of tourists have flown to the space station and it was certainly not a problem for 10 days. Longer, I cannot say. It will depend on what type of activities people will do in the spaceship.
Imagine that we went to Mars for 260 days. There would be no Internet, TV, or social media in space. What would people do all the time?
It is a very good question. We don’t have an answer. That is one of the reasons I don’t think we will be flying to Mars anytime soon. Crew composition and motivation are a big question. You cannot do science on the way to Mars because you do not have the weight capacity. All the equipment would be used for experiments on Mars. The vehicle would be very small and limited in weight.
Photo: Petr Kačírek
Being in space is the experience of a lifetime. What more can you wish for? What other dreams do you have?
My dream is that we explore space and bring back benefits to humanity. I think it is a good cause and I really believe in it. At ESA, we are testing all kinds of crazy new technologies that we could use to explore the moon, we are supporting the Director General’s idea of a moon village and we are working on the Deep Space Gateway with our NASA colleagues. There is so much to do. I would say life certainly does not stop after space flight, it only starts.
Good luck with fulfilling your dreams and thank you for the interview.
Cover photo: ESA-S.Corvaja