Astronaut, Cosmonaut… Euronaut?

Space exploration may come naturally to Europeans, but it doesn’t come easily.

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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.

“EAC? Right now it’s not used very much,” says Gérard Brachet, a former director general of CNES, the French space agency. “I’ve visited it several times, and the first thing you notice is how few astronauts are there.” Astronauts come occasionally to train on the mockup of the Columbus module, but they don’t stay long.

Some say the failure of the Hermes project, which robbed the EAC of its main purpose, was a blessing in disguise for ESA, because it helped the agency avoid a costly mistake. Keith Wright, who spent nearly two decades at ESA working as a systems and safety engineer on projects including Hermes and Columbus, says, “The big problem with Hermes was that it was really a political program on the French side. They wanted Frenchmen in space, Frenchmen landing on runways in France, this kind of thing. But they were going to put it on a launch vehicle that was not designed for that job—the Ariane 5 was not big enough. The [design of the] spaceplane got smaller and smaller and very expensive, and in the end proved impractical.”

Critical to that learning process, says Wright, was Nicollier, who advised the project on how systems would have to operate from the crew’s perspective. “The feedback we got from him when we were trying to design Hermes was absolutely invaluable,” Wright says. “And we couldn’t have gotten it without his experience.” NASA astronauts assume the same kind of advisory roles between spaceflights, but Russians are less likely to share information, say some ESA fliers who have worked in both programs.

“We had quite a big shock when we started training for the Mir missions,” says Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, 46, a tall, strapping former parachute instructor and engineer. “We found that in Russia, knowledge is power—it’s one of the things you can keep for yourself. And transfer of knowledge meant you lose an edge.”

Nespoli—who as a kid dreamed of becoming an astronaut when he saw “men jumping up and down on the moon”—recalls his Italian army instructors showing up with armloads of charts, which they would distribute to the class. In Star City, he says, “the Russian instructor would come in with charts, hang them up, and use a pointer while discussing them for an hour. Then afterward he’d roll everything back up and go away. We’d ask, ‘Can we have a handout of the charts?’ And he’d say, ‘No.’ All you had were the notes you had taken. And when Russian is not your native language, these long technical names are things you can barely spell out, much less remember.” Nespoli managed to get through anyway.

British-born Mike Foale, a NASA astronaut who also has trained in Russia with cosmonauts, admires this “determination to do something hard” in his European colleagues. He sees the typical ESA flier as “a person who is absolutely willing to uproot his family or himself, and go and travel and live somewhere else to fly in space. At the same time, he’s having to learn Russian as well as having learned English. I’m already impressed.”

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