11:49 a.m. All eyes are on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, proudly standing on the Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida. If the capricious weather of the past few days delayed the flight by 24 hours, then April 23rd is actually the correct date for Thomas Pesquet, who is in orbit around Earth at the time of this writing.
Until his Crew Dragon capsule crosses the road to the ISS, his new home for the rest of the year. If this flight isn’t a historic first for SpaceX and NASA, then the excitement in France is total and the little world of space has been in a mess for a few days. And for good reason, on board this Falcon 9 is Thomas Pesquet, currently the most popular French astronaut.
“He is the first to bring this profession into fashion,” confided Jean-Baptiste Desbois, director of the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse, a few days before the start. In the pink city, the capital of French space, everyone is happy about the popular success of “Thomas”, as he is simply called here.
“He brought this profession into fashion”
Born in Rouen, he is making history for his second space mission. After six months of bombing the internet – and Twitter in particular – with his photos of the earth, Thomas Pesquet becomes the first French captain of the ISS. It will be the third European in history to have this privilege.
But first we have to take off. We have to traverse this thin earth atmosphere to rise 350 kilometers above our heads. Once the altitude has stabilized, it is necessary to cross the orbit of the ISS and activate the mooring systems. “We then have to … blindly pull a thread through the eye of the needle,” one of the engineers at CNES, the national center for space studies, tries to explain.
Fear of failure
In total, the Norman’s flight will take almost 24 hours. But everyone is afraid of the start, the critical moment of the mission. Flights to the ISS are usually operated by the Russian agency Roscosmos using rockets as old as the Soyuz.
Reliability was the great fear on Friday morning. Because if the SpaceX rocket that Thomas Pesquet and his three colleagues bring to the ISS has never encountered the slightest problem, space is an experimental science in which errors are the order of the day.
It is understood that the arrival of SpaceX is a revolution in a space world that is not evolving as fast as the general public can imagine. “As long as it works, we don’t touch anything” This credo has been that of the space industry since the late 1960s. Few Russians, Americans or Europeans have dared to bring innovations into missiles that are already reliable and inexpensive.
The Soyuz, in which Thomas Pesquet embarked in 2016 and which continues to send men to the ISS, has hardly changed compared to the experimental rocket that Youri Gagarin, the first man in space, deployed 60 years ago.
Given this observation, SpaceX took the gamble of changing everything by starting a revolution that was as spectacular as it was risky. In general, the advent of “New Space” has brought a breath of fresh air to the world of space, and if SpaceX isn’t the only player, the company is at least its symbol.
SpaceX: the unloved genius of space
In this reluctant world to change, Elon Musk’s revolutionary ideas are therefore received with fear, and contempt is no longer relevant given the multiplication of SpaceX’s successes – although this has been the case for a long time. Because this flight of Thomas Pesquet is also the flight of SpaceX. An umpteenth flight that sinks a little deeper into the collective unconscious that accelerates development does not necessarily rhyme with failure.
Where space agencies never wanted (or could not) provide funding for the development of reusable rockets, SpaceX is successful in less than a decade. It is this technical feat that worries space specialists as well as the general public.
These engineers know that failure is part of the game and that one or the other of these missions will one day fail. As well as several moments of launch, faces tighten in the Houston control center, and everyone fears this mission is one of failure.
The liberation of the first moments
Those few seconds of great fear are quickly replaced by screams of joy and relief when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 soars into the air. All doubts about Elon Musk’s company never seem to have existed.
After all, Thomas Pesquet is well on his way to the ISS. The next important step, tomorrow (Saturday), when the SpaceX capsule has to dock with the mother ship, the ISS. The astronaut will be based there for the next six months. He will conduct several scientific missions aboard the station, ranging from biology to fluid dynamics.
Finally, in the second part of his journey around our planet, Thomas Pesquet becomes “the only master on board” by being station commander for a month. It will be the main relay between Earth and the Houston Command Base with the ISS astronauts.
Hopefully during this trip to the busy schedule, the Normann will find the time to remove his camera to offer us new images of the earth from the sky, so that we can put all the stars in the star’s eyes.