Astronaut, Cosmonaut... Euronaut?
Space exploration may come naturally to Europeans, but it doesn't come easily.
- By William Triplett
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
NASA and ESA
(Page 3 of 6)
Those who have been up say it’s worth the wait. After working as an astronaut for 14 years, Nicollier finally made it to space on the STS-46 shuttle mission in 1992. He flew again the following year on STS-61, the first orbital service call to the Hubble Space Telescope. Even though he’s been up twice more since, including on another Hubble repair mission in 1999, during which he became the first European to make a spacewalk from the shuttle, his first trip to the space telescope is still the most meaningful. “I am an astrophysicist, and as an astrophysicist-astronaut working on Hubble, it was an incredible privilege,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure to succeed after the embarrassment of launching Hubble with a bad [mirror], and it was the very first time we started to do something we often do now—use a combination of spacewalking and robotics. It had never been done before, and we had to invent ways of stabilizing the crew member while he or she was working with power tools or manual tools. We also had to define the choreography and the rules of engagement, and even the wording that would be used.” Training for all these first-time tasks, he recalls, “was so incredibly exciting.” And when he returned to Hubble on another repair mission six years later, “it was like visiting an old friend.”
Approaching the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, you don’t see the same kinds of spacecraft mockups and other oversized national trophies that you find adorning the grounds of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nor will you see in the surrounding neighborhoods inflatable space shuttles or neon planets mounted on the roofs of fast food restaurants.
The EAC is a solitary building with all the personality of a warehouse, located in what looks like an industrial park but is in fact the campus of DLR, Germany’s space agency. In front of the building, 15 flagpoles form a circle like a steel honor guard, each flying the colors of an ESA member nation—France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Great Britain, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland. In the lobby a small scale model of the space station hangs from the ceiling. Similar models of Soyuz and Ariane rockets stand almost directly beneath, with a model of space shuttle Discovery nearby. Hanging on another wall are photographs of every European chosen to serve as an astronaut—33 in all.
The EAC was built in the late 1980s, at a time when ESA, with France taking the lead, was planning to build its own mini-space shuttle, called Hermes. Crew training would have been at the EAC. In the early 1990s, though, ESA canceled Hermes, in part because it was proving too expensive. Instead, the agency decided to keep buying tickets to orbit from Russia and the United States.
New ESA astronauts receive only basic training at the EAC. For most of their spaceflight training, they go either to the Johnson center or to Star City, outside Moscow. According to Hans Bolender, director of the EAC’s astronaut training division, the center teaches recruits “one year of fundamental knowledge of astronautics,” plus some basic space history.
Recruits also learn “generic information on [ISS] systems and elements, along with basic information about space biology experiments and their objectives.”
Eventually, the center will be the focus for training on the Columbus module and the Automated Transfer Vehicle, a large cargo carrier ESA is building for the space station. All station crews, even NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, will come to Cologne to familiarize themselves with these two elements.
But until then, not much happens at the EAC. In fact, at the moment no astronauts are stationed there. Five ESA astronauts are undergoing some form of training at Johnson, and the rest are either at Star City training with cosmonauts or handling managerial or technical duties at other ESA facilities in Europe. Hence the EAC’s reputation as a bit of a white elephant.