Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out in the world but there are only 11 European astronauts. What made you want to be one of those astronauts, and be one of those people who fly in space?
Image to right: Léopold Eyharts (ESA), STS-122 Mission Specialist / Expedition 16 Flight Engineer. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Léopold Eyharts (ESA), STS-122 Mission Specialist / Expedition 16 Flight Engineer
A: Oh, this is a somehow difficult question but, for me that was a choice from a long time ago, when I was a kid. I decided that I would like to be an astronaut when I was about 12 year old and I saw the first U.S. astronauts stepping on the moon and walking on the moon. That kind of triggered my motivation for my professional career and everything later on that I did at school or in my professional choices or, later, in my professional life as a pilot, or a test pilot, was driven by the idea of becoming an astronaut one day. So this is a long story for my personal story.
Well, let me take you through a few steps of that. Tell me about your home town. Tell me about Biarritz. What is it like?
So Biarritz is a small town on the southwest of France. It’s very close to Spain and on, on the ocean side. It has a history because it has been developed, I mean, it was a small place where people were fishing in the, in the past and it has been developed by Napoleon III because it was a place where he was spending part of the summer. So this is a place where I was born and, and this is in Basque country, and I grew up there until I was 17, and had to go to other places for, for my scholarship.
Did you get to see it from space when you flew the first time?
I saw it from relatively far away, but, that was a big emotion when, when I saw it. There was, I still remember, very good weather, one day in February of ’98, and I could see the whole coast of France and Spain and, I saw a little bit of my home town. That was a big emotion.
What is it about that place and the people who were there that you think has contributed to make you the man that you are today?
Difficult question, too. I think what I inherited from this country is probably it’s a country where people usually stick to their goals. They have strong traditions but also, they like adventure and they like go and discover the world. There are a lot of Basque people who immigrated to North America and South America in the past, so I think there is some kind of taste for the, for the adventurer behind it.
Well, you said that you, you stayed there until you were 17 and I guess that’s when you had to leave to go to school.
Take me from there on and give me a sketch of your, your education and your, your professional life.
So when I left my hometown I was starting to apply for the French air force academy, so I had to study math and physics and then I joined the French air force academy when I was 20 year old. I spent two years in this academy, it’s in the southeast of France, in the town of Salon de Provence, and after that I was an operational pilot in the French air force, so I flew on the Jaguar which was a low altitude aircraft for penetration. A few years later I applied as a test pilot, in the French test pilot school, so I became a test pilot in 1987. I’ve been working in the test flight for two years before my first application as an astronaut candidate to the French space agency. I was selected in 1990, quite a long time ago, by the French space agency as an astronaut. So that gave me the opportunity to fly in space eight years later in the Mir space station. I flew on the Soyuz and the Mir space station for a three-week flight. After that I was recruited by the European Space Agency in 1998 and became a European astronaut and was assigned to Houston, about nine years ago as a member of the ’98 class—the Penguins. I’ve been in Houston since that time, first training on the shuttle and on the space station and I have been assigned as the backup to the Thomas Reiter mission in 2006 and now I’m prime for the first official European mission aboard the ISS.
As someone who’s flown in space, you’re well aware, as I think we all are, that “flying in space” part of being an astronaut at that job can be very dangerous. Tell me what it is that you think we gain from flying people in space that’s worth the risk that you’re taking.
Usually the way I answer this question is by asking a reverse question, so I think we could apply this question to all human activities. I would say, what do you think you can get in any human activity, if you never take any risk? So my answer would be then, you stagnate. Of course, the risks are high for the human spaceflight, but I think they are at a level of the objective, which is to, to explore space. I think this is a very challenging and very, very ambitious objective. But if you look back to aviation and, and ask the same question, where would we be today in aviation if we had never taken any risk. So, I think we would probably try to build up a, a safe air balloon or safe aerostat. So this is my answer.
You are a flight engineer on Expedition 16 to the International Space Station. Leo, can you summarize the goals of your flight and what your main responsibilities will be?
Of course, as a European astronaut, my main responsibility will be to take care of the Columbus module, to participate with installation and its activation when the shuttle is docked to the station, and later on, to check the systems and scientific racks, but also as a member of Expedition 16, I will be involved in the, the work in the other parts of the station, the U.S. side and the Russian side. As you know, with only three crewmembers on board this getting bigger station we have work for everybody everywhere.
Let’s talk about the component that you will be delivering, the Columbus laboratory module. Give us a tour: tell us what the module is, what it’s like, and what the station will gain by the addition of this module.
Columbus is mainly scientific module. It will be attached to the station on the forward and the starboard side of the station and it will, have, it will have several, scientific racks installed. We will have four European scientific racks which will allow Europe, to perform science during, we hope, at least 10 years in the station. But there will be also American, scientific racks which be installed a little bit later in the station. So with the arrival of Columbus, and later on of the Japanese module, we will start the full exploitation of the ISS as a scientific laboratory. And with the arrival of Columbus, Europe will become a, a co-owner of the ISS.
Is that the, the main significance do you think of the arrival of Columbus on orbit, Europe’s full partnership, so to speak?
Well, this is part, of course, of the main aspects. Of course, Columbus is a first for Europe. This is, this will be the first time, Europe will have a, a permanent base in space, and of course this is very important and this is very challenging, so in the future, of course, we hope that this first participation will help in reinforcing our technical expertise and our experience of operations to be able to go further and participate with the future of space exploration, too.
You may be anticipating where I’m going. Tell me more about what is the importance to, to Europe and to ESA of, of having this module in space.
As I just said, it’s, it’s important for the future and for the first time, Europe will have this, permanent base and will be able to, actually, experiment in space but also to develop its expertise for the future. This is, I think, a key thing for the future of exploration and for, Europe’s participation in the future exploration of space.
Image to left: European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Léopold Eyharts, STS-122 Mission Specialist / Expedition 16 Flight Engineer, participates in a training session in one of the full-scale trainers in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center. Image credit: NASA
For such an important step for European space exploration, it must be exciting for you to be in the middle of this, of this mission and to get to deliver Columbus along with Hans Schlegel.
Yes, of course, this is, this is from a personal standpoint a great chance to be part of this mission. It has been a long, a long road Hans and me since we joined the ’98 astronaut class here in Houston. But I think if we had to sign again we would do it again, of course, knowing that we might participate to the, to the installation of, of Columbus. But also I think this is important for ESA and for Europe to have two astronauts involved in the mission because this will be a high visibility mission in Europe.
Let’s talk about how the delivery is made. Talk us through the steps that are required after the shuttle has docked to install Columbus onto the Harmony node.
Columbus will be launched in the payload bay of the space shuttle, so once the shuttle is docked the robotic arm on the station will extract the module from the payload bay and place it into its mating position. At the same time there will be two astronauts outside which will assist in the, in the installation of Columbus, including Hans Schlegel. Once the module is in its mating position it will be possible then to attach it to the station using a device which is called a Common Berthing Mechanism, which is actually bolts. Once it is attached with these bolts Columbus will be able to be pressurized, activated, fully-activated, and all the connections to the, to the ISS will be made. And this is planned mainly on the fourth and fifth day after the launch of Columbus.
It’s the day, in fact the day after, the spacewalk in which Columbus is actually attached that you’ll be leading the team to, to, to actually go inside Columbus for the first time.
Talk about what some of those activities are. What’s required before you can go inside?
Before we can go inside we have first to make all the connections to make sure that the module pressurization is fine so that we, we don’t have any leaking of pressurization on the module, and then the ground and the crew will be able to activate the module, mainly the life support system, all the brains, the computers, the thermal control system, and when everything is up and running we’ll be able to ingress the module and, and do the first installation of equipment inside the module.
This is, now for the most part, I guess, is equipment that’s already inside Columbus but not in the places where it needs to be, ultimately.
Right. And this is, of course, a very important part of our work because, for instance, the scientific racks will not be launched in their final position because of some issues with the center of gravity of the shuttle. So once the module is attached to the station we have to move a few of the scientific racks into their final location, and, in addition, install, other equipment not already installed in the module.
And I think you mentioned this, but I’m not sure: amongst all the things that you have to plug in are what we might refer to as the utilities, because Columbus doesn’t come with its own power source or, or air source and what not.
Right. And this is part of the connections I was, I was mentioning before so all the, the, computer connections, electrical connections, thermal control system and other life support system connections will be made after the mating of the module and the crew, of course, will be prime to do that because, obviously, these cannot be done from the ground.
So for the days while the shuttle remains, what sort of work will you be involved in, with Columbus?
So as I, I mentioned the outfitting of the, of the module. We will start also some of the, the task for commissioning of the, the systems and of the scientific rack of Columbus. A lot of, of the equipment or the scientific racks in particular, or even of the system racks, are launched with some launch fasteners and all that kind of things to help them not being damaged during the, during the, the launch, so we will have to remove all these things in order to, fully activate the systems and the scientific racks on the module.
And I guess that activity will continue for you and Peggy Whitson after the shuttle departs.
This is right. We have to check out all the systems and the scientific racks and also to do all the commissioning of the, of the Columbus module when the shuttle has left and, so this will be the main part of my activities, during the stage operations ’til the next shuttle is coming.
What is meant by the term “commissioning?" What is required, what will you actually be doing?
The first thing is, as I mentioned, to remove all the launch fasteners, all the launch locks in order to fully activate the systems and the scientific racks, and also, of course, to make sure that everything is working properly. So there will be a, a lot of testing done by the crew and by the ground in order to make sure that, the module is behaving as expected.
Will you, will you be able to, or are there plans for you to begin to do the scientific work in Columbus during your time?
We don’t have a lot of experiments already installed in Columbus for this part of the exploitation of the module so there will be actually a couple of experiments which will be in installing the module, during the launch, or before the launch, but, the full exploitation of the module will come later.
OK, so yours is less a scientific operation than it is a …
Than it will be in the future, right.
Your plan is to spend about two-and-a-half months on board the space station, most of it spent working getting Columbus set up. Have you gotten tips from Thomas Reiter about, what to expect from a long-duration mission in space?
Yes, of course, and Thomas is a very experienced crew member because he flew two long missions. I had, of course, the opportunity to talk with him and, to get some feedback from his own experience. But each mission is different so there are the daily life aspects and of course, this is very important to have Thomas’ experience for that. But of course there are other things which are specific to this mission which I will have to handle by myself.
Are there good tips from, on the day-to-day living in space? What is, did Thomas Reiter suggest as a couple of things that you need to be prepared for?
We talked, for instance, about all management of the pictures that you take with your cameras on board. This is important, of course, from a technical standpoint but also for, for giving some feedback when you come back to Earth. It is very important to have a good set of pictures. This is part of the discussion we had. And we talk also about the, how to manage, for instance, all the PAO [Public Affairs Office] events which is also a very important aspect of astronauts in space.
Image to right: European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Léopold Eyharts, STS-122 Mission Specialist / Expedition 16 Flight Engineer, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for a post insertion/de-orbit training session in one of the full-scale trainers (out of frame) in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center. Image credit: NASA
The plan for your mission also contains the arrival of European Space Agency’s automated supply ship, the first of those Automated Transfer Vehicles due early next year. Tell me about the vehicle, about the ATV, and how it will contribute to station’s operations.
The ATV is a logistics module, so it will deliver re-supplies to the station -- food, water, gas, propellants, and all other equipment that, that will be needed for the, for the, survival and for the, maintenance of the station, so this is very important. It’s just like the Russian cargo [ship], Progress, except that the ATV is much bigger -- it’s about three or four times, it can bring a cargo about three or four times more than the Progress cargo can. But besides, of course, the ATV is also a first for Europe, because this is first time we have built and we will launch a module, built in Europe, launched by Europe, that will make a rendezvous and docking in space, so this is a big challenge for all of us, of course, I hope that the ATV is also the first step to, maybe a future, autonomy of Europe for access to space, for manned spaceflights. This will, of course, also will be a, a key thing for our future participation to the exploration of space.
You mentioned the ATV will launch from, from French Guiana.
The rendezvous to the station though is a couple of weeks long.
Tell me why it, at least in this first instance, is going to require that much time.
Well, simply because this is the first time we are launching this vehicle, and the engineers on the ground will want to test all the systems, before we can actually start the approach and docking to the station, to make sure that everything is working properly. But there are also some operational issues. So far we have some, let’s say, schedule problem between the next shuttle docking and the ATV docking, so we don’t exactly when the ATV will dock. But it can coast a long time in space.
And once it does dock to the aft end of Zvezda, Europe will have modules on the front and the back end of the station.
That’s right. And that will be, of course, a great chance for me if I’m able to participate in these events.
The control center for the ATVs is in Toulouse, France. The control center for Columbus is near Munich. Tell me about the complexity; do you think for ESA of getting under way with operations in two different control centers at roughly the same time.
Well, this is not so much new for ESA because ESA, as you know, is a European organization and we used to have centers spread all around Europe. So this is something we are used to do. But of course I think that Germany and France have a lot of experience in the control of space objects, in particular for satellites but also, Germany and France for a long time have been participating to manned missions in cooperation with the U.S. and with Russia. So we also have some experience in the controlling of mission operations for manned spaceflight. I have no doubt that this will work well. And in addition, the control centers in Munich and in Toulouse have different responsibilities: Munich is specialized for Columbus, whereas Toulouse will take care of the ATV. So I don’t anticipate any issue with it.
You have made one spaceflight before: in 1998 you flew to the Mir space station for about three weeks. Did you find that, that having that experience in space has helped make you, helped you get ready for a journey now that’s going to last a couple of months?
I think so, even though this is a different challenge. A short mission is like a sprint whereas a, a long mission is more like a marathon. But I think having worked and lived in weightlessness for, for three weeks -- that was the duration of my first flight -- will, I hope, be helpful for, adapting and working more efficiently in the, in this mission.
The nations that are building and operating the International Space Station have exploration plans that go well beyond a two-month or a six-month tour of duty on board this vehicle. Leo, tell me about your philosophy for the future of human exploration of space, and the contribution that the International Space Station will make to that future.
My personal vision is very simple. We have to go step-by-step, and for each step we have, we need to have clear objectives and, and, of course, milestones which, which are not too far away from each other. I think this is the key thing. So the International Space Station is one of the first steps for, before the, we, we go on and explore the rest of space. So I anticipate that the ISS will be a, a very good tool for, building our technical expertise, our, improving our operations to be, to be able to go further, to the moon, to Mars and the solar system. I think this is also very good experience for all the nations which are involved because one of the key aspect for the future exploration of space is cooperation. We are learning how to cooperate in the International Space Station. I think this is critical.