“Humanity will one day have to learn to live elsewhere”
You had already accompanied, from France, Thomas Pesquet’s first mission to the International Space Station (ISS), between 2016 and May 2017. How do you experience such an adventure from a distance?
Jean-François Clervoy: Just before leaving, Thomas Pesquet was in quarantine, very focused. At the time of departure, the astronaut finally does what he has been preparing for months, sometimes years: he knows that that day, at that time, he will have to put on his suit, to test his communication, to redo the repeated gestures in the simulator.
He is excited deep within himself, but above all concentrated, because it is during the climb that you should not make mistakes. It is then very dynamic. If we could convert the mechanical power developed by the rocket motors into electrical power, we could supply almost the whole of France with electricity. I, who have been a spectator of departures from colleagues eight times, had tears in my eyes each time. I then have nothing else to do than to let myself be moved by this bright, noisy, vibrant spectacle.
Are we afraid for those who leave?
J.-FC: We are aware of the risk, which is about 1% probability of losing your life in a space mission. In jobs in a hostile environment, such as space, you need professionals who know exactly what they are incurring. Short circuits, fuel leaks, an unresponsive control stick… During training, we are formatted to solve problems: 70% of our time consists of training on breakdowns, by unconsciously building our conviction that we can get by no matter what.
You yourself have carried out three missions in space. How do you accept to tear yourself away from the earth?
J.-FC: Son of a fighter pilot, I dreamed, as a child, of going into space for weightlessness, to see the Earth from afar. I was 11 when the first Apollo missions landed on the moon. During my engineering studies, I was then fascinated by the ability of humans to invent, design and manufacture machines sometimes sent billions of kilometers away.
I think astronauts are adventurers somewhere. As the famous Captain Kirk of Star Trek – my great hero! -, our mission is to go where we have never been. Space exploration responds to an instinct of curiosity, to a desire of man to increase his knowledge. The astronaut wants to contribute to one of the noblest quests of humanity: that of knowledge. He also knows that he will live, in space, hallucinating moments of sensations and emotions.
What do you feel when taking off? Is it scary, euphoric?
J.-FC: It’s much less physical than you might imagine. Our arms are very heavy, it is difficult to reach the switches, but anyone could take it. Psychologically, on the other hand, we know that we are going to do something crazy, very quickly reaching a speed of 28,000 km / h. The moment when you start to climb is extremely strong. After two minutes, we find ourselves above the atmosphere. The sky is black, even in broad daylight. After eight and a half minutes, you’re in orbit forever. And there, we look out the window: the Earth is magnificent, beautiful to cry.
And on landing, when the body reinvests itself with its gravity?
J.-FC: The return is relatively painful because the inner ear has been confused. You feel very heavy: I felt like I weighed a hundred times my weight. In space, we come to forget that we have a body. We are a floating consciousness. On the way back, you therefore feel very clumsy, clumsy, nauseous. You don’t want to leave right away, and you’ve lost the habit of living on Earth. But the pressure finally evaporates, it’s a relief. And you are overcome with pride in having successfully completed your mission.
How do you experience loneliness in orbit?
J.-FC: We are in a closed, watertight environment. Outside, it’s emptiness. No one can give us physical help right away. But we are in almost constant radio contact, with the experts on the ground, and we can call our families. The loneliness would be felt more if the ship was far from Earth, like on Mars.
You say that “if all Earthlings went to space, the planet would be the object of all their care” …
J.-FC: Your gaze is over there, about 2,500 kilometers around. You make 16 trips around the world every day. Every 45 minutes, you change the lighting day / night, and season. It is very beautiful, dynamic, on the black background of the cosmos. We then have lots of emotions. And, secondly, we can’t help but compare the planet to a spaceship, finite, limited in resources …
Have these experiences made you grow spiritually?
J.-FC: Faced with such a spectacle, the question of Creation arises very strongly. We have the impression of witnessing a work more beautiful than the most beautiful painting painted by the greatest painter … The Earth is contrasted, colored. The vision of the atmosphere on its edge, extremely fine, makes us aware of the fragility of our lifetime. These flights made me ask myself many questions about the divine, about the role and mission of humanity. Without feeling like a believer, I have the deep conviction that there is something higher, that we are not just limited to flesh, to matter, to the laws of physics.
In 2011 and 2017, Popes Benedict XVI and Francis spoke from the Vatican with ISS astronauts to talk about the future of man in space. What does this approach inspire you?
J.-F. C: In history, science has often progressed thanks to religion. It is a Belgian monk who developed the theory of the big bang. We can also recall this anecdote of the great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who said to John Paul II: “After the big bang, I want you to have the answers, but before that, it’s our business!” “ I think we should not separate science, art and religion. Without encroaching on other people’s beds, it is very important that they remain open to discussions, to everyone’s reasoning.
Is society ready to consider living and dying on another planet?
J.-FC: I think that the destiny of humanity is, one day, to learn to live elsewhere. Starting with Mars, even if it will be in an artificial atmosphere. In nearly four billion years, the Earth will become uninhabitable. We are fortunate to have an intelligence that enables us to go elsewhere. It will be necessary to master the folds of space-time to travel there, without needing a profusion of energy. We are still far from it. But, between the imagination and the laws of physics, we can think of interstellar travel. Not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow. Not even during this century, but there is no reason to refrain from imagining it in the history of mankind …