The renowned astronaut, NASA veteran, and Novespace Chairman, Jean-François Clervoy describes the feeling of being launched into space and recounts the most remarkable parts of his journey.
Would you say that space is your passion? Did you always know you wanted to be an astronaut?
I knew from a very young age that I wanted to go to space. But, I had never really thought about becoming an astronaut. Astronauts are people who work in space; I always thought that I would be going to space for fun, as a tourist or an explorer. As a teenager, I wanted to be a surgeon. I believed, and I still do, that repairing people is the most beautiful job in the world. I was also interested in becoming an architect because I love to draw and to create things.
Then, as a student, I became very passionate about remote control machines. The ability to control machines remotely: cars, air models, helicopters, always fascinated me. So, when it was time for me to choose a profession, I decided that I wanted to work on remote controlling space probes. And that’s precisely what I did. My first job was working on the French-Russian space probe VEGA, which was designed to fly far so as to study Venus and the comet Halley. During that time there was a call for candidates to become astronauts. Since I was already an adventurer, a top- qualified skydiver, and a private pilot I decided to apply. To my surprise, I was selected.
How did you feel when you found out you would be going to space?
The excitement of going to space comes in phases. The first wave of excitement hits you when you find out you have been accepted; you already have one foot in space. The second wave of excitement comes when they call you to say you have been assigned a mission, say ten months from now. By then, you already have half of the other foot in space. Now, when the day comes to actually walk on the launch pad and climb on the rocket, evidently you feel very excited, but in a sense, some people might be disappointed to hear, it also feels completely normal.
What do you mean by normal?
It feels normal in the sense you know exactly what you are doing because it is what you have been training for. Before climbing on the rocket for the launch, I had pictured myself sitting there, I had sat on a simulator, I had already walked on the launch pad. A few weeks before the take off we practice the countdown. And so, when the day finally arrives you feel fully prepared as you are doing exactly what you planned to do on that specific day, at that specific day. You don’t feel as much nervous, as you do serene and excited, and, essentially, happy.
What does it feel like being launched into space?
Once the engines are ignited, you are excited because you know that this is it: you are definitely going to space. You are lying on your back facing the zenith and you feel a powerful push, the thrust, against your back. It is so powerful that after two minutes you are already travelling at 5 times the speed of sound. What struck me the most during my first launch was that after a few minutes the sky was completely black. The liftoff was at noon, in the middle of the day, and yet the sky in space was neither blue, nor white, nor grey: it was black. When you see a black sky like that in the middle of the day, you know you are in space.
What happens once you are in space?
The ascent of the space shuttle lasts a total of 8 minutes and 32 seconds, reaching a velocity of 28 000 km/h. After that, you switch off the engines and you remain in space until you do something to come back. (By something I mean slowing down just a little bit, in order to slightly curve the orbit path down closer to the Earth). Once orbital insertion occurs, you can stay in weightlessness forever. And once you are in space, well, you have work to do. Astronauts feel a strong sense of dedication to their work. We don’t want to return with failed objectives, or without having reached all of our goals. We share a strong sense of purpose and dedication with our colleagues because we experience everything together: we congratulate each other when we accomplish something, we work hard together to solve problems, and we spend our free time just looking at the Earth together.
What does the Earth look like from space?
The Earth is truly beautiful from space. We fly around the Earth approximately 16 times per day, and we see a sunset or a sunrise every 45 minutes. Our field of view changes so quickly, almost every ten minutes, and we get to see a beautiful contrast and variety of colours. One minute we are looking at the golden colours of the desert, and the next the turquoise colours of the tropical islands. We also see volcanoes erupting, we see hurricanes, we see all the continents and all the oceans. The view is so mesmerising that it’s hard to look away from the Earth. In fact, we don’t sleep a lot because we don’t want to miss anything.
Is it hard to get used to the sky being constantly black?
The amazing thing is that once the lights and computer screens are all switched off in the cockpit, your eyes have adapted to the darkness, and the orientation of the spaceship is opposite to sunlight, the sky no longer appears black. You see that it is fully illuminated with stars. The stars don’t twinkle because you are not seeing them through the atmosphere. You see them very crisp and you can clearly detect their colours. So, after a while, you don’t feel the darkness and the emptiness anymore. Instead, what you witness is the colourful illumination of the sky.
What was the most remarkable part of your experience?
The four things that struck me the most were: the powerful thrust during ascent, seeing a black sky in daytime, the feeling of constant weightlessness, and the beautiful view of the Earth.
Stay tuned for the final part of the interview next week, during which Jean-François discusses how his experiences in space have affected his perception of life on Earth.