Little Story of Infinity : Astronaut stories

Each month, Gwenhaël W. De Wasseige tells us through her Little Story of Infinity the latest news about the universe and the domain of the infinitely small.
To celebrate the 30 and 20 year anniversaries of the flights of Dirk Frimout and Frank de Winne as well as the selection of a third Belgian career astronaut, Raphaël Liégeois, Gwenhael went to meet three space explorers. Tintin and Snowy, who, let's remember, were the first to walk on the moon, were obviously part of the adventure.
A stone's throw from the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, a space event took place in October as part of the Belgian Space week. Nicole Stott, Robert Thirsk, and Reinhold Ewald, three astronauts, came to talk about their experience with students from UCLouvain as well as students from Belgian secondary schools.
Gwenhael took the opportunity to show them drawings from the well-known albums Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. Is their experience and that of Tintin similar? Let's discover these wise adventurers.
What was your favorite moment?
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2023
  • Nicole Stott (NS) : All of it, but it all wraps up in seeing the Earth from space. This is not only figuratively appreciating our home, our Earth, but also literally: everything we’re doing in space is ultimately about improving life on Earth.
  • Reinhold Ewald (RE) : I like the combination of applying technology to achieve good science. This was the most rewarding thing about my flight, despite all the difficulties, that we brought back good science. I would have missed this part if it would have been for the personal experience of the space flight only.
  • NS : Bob and I got the opportunity to fly together and we talked about exactly what Reinhold said: what is it about this experiment, how is it going to do something good on Earth, what is the positive impact of our participation in it.
  • Robert Thirsk (RT) : Everything about spaceflight became a favorite moment. It is hard to highlight one moment. I am saying that because the flight experience is not only about the exploration of space, but also about the exploration of oneself. The challenges of training as well as the flight itself regularly took me to my limits - physically, mentally, emotionally - and I liked exploring these limits.
What was the most surprising one?
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2023
  • RE : I take the station. Despite the training and the fact that I knew every switch, every button, everything on the station, up there I needed to ask my friends whether I could do this, I could put things there, etc. It only worked because there were humans on board and not thanks to the procedure. It takes human ingenuity to integrate the whole thing and I got good help from my Russian colleagues.
  • RT : On orbit, there are a lot of novel things you discover about the spaceflight environment. Even towards the end of my time aboard the Station, I was discovering more efficient ways of performing tasks. When I first arrived, the Station resembled an unfamiliarvehicle. I therefore depended on my crew mates who had arrived earlier to tell me how best to manage a work day, how to prepare a meal or a drink, how to brush my teeth in the unfamiliar weightless environment … I learned a lot. But even towards the end of my 6 month stay, I was becoming more productive. Learning how to live and work optimally in space is a months-long process.
  • NS : I agree… There is this evolution. The longer you do pretty much everything, you discover something new. I love watching how that happened for us. The floating, the efficiency in the work we were doing,… in all of that the big surprise was how beautifully our bodies and our brains adapt to a new environment. When you get up there, you are very clumsy at first, doing things in a much bigger way than you need to, but then our brain and our body figure out the finesse and the ballet of moving effortlessly. On the downside though, they realize we don’t really need bones or muscles in microgravity, and then don’t waste any energy maintaining them. But as humans, we find ways to counteract that (like 2 hours of exercise each day) as we know we want to be healthy to come back to Earth at some point!
If you were to fly again, where would you go?
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2023
  • RE : None - I would be happy with the International Space Station.
  • RT : I would venture to Mars. I love challenges, and a Mars mission will surely be the ultimate challenge. I have been to low Earth orbit before. The moon is a bit too close, a bit too familiar for me. Mars is further away, more elusive and more challenging, so I'd like to go on Mars.
  • NS : I am for the Moon! There are so many important reasons for us to go back to the moon. But I also love the idea of seeing Earth from Space, of knowing that I can get back to Earth in a relatively short time and that I can still explore some of the most remote places such as the South Pole.
Pick the ideal partner to go back to space: Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock or Dirk Frimout?
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2023
  • RT : Living aboard a space station is not like vacationing ata 5-star hotel. Life in space is rather rustic, akin to living inside a submarine. The interior structure is fabricated ofsteel and titanium with no décor or aesthetics. I think I am also speaking for Nicole when I say that the research activities that interested us most were the ones that involved caring for plants and animals. Bringing nature aboard the Station in the form of research specimenshelped us stay psychologically connected to Earth. So, since the presence of nature aboard a spacecraft is of benefit to the crew, I would pick Snowy as an ideal partner for a spaceflight.
  • NS : I am all about Snowy too. We want to bring the nature of Earth as well as photography, art, music, up there. But if I could have my son as well to hold the leash of Snowy, that would be good!
  • RE : Then I would have to pick Dirk! Dirk and I agree: we would rather see the young generation flying to space than repeat the experience.
Many thanks to Nicole, Robert and Reinhold for sharing these wonderful thoughts with us!
Biographies (from www.belgianspaceweek.be)
  • Nicole Stott (NS): Nicole Stott is a NASA astronaut, artist, mom and author of Back to Earth What Life In Space Taught Me About Our Home Planet — And Our Mission To Protect It. Nicole Stott creatively combines the awe and wonder of her spaceflight experience with her artwork to inspire everyone's appreciation of our role as teammates here on Spaceship Earth. Nicole is a veteran NASA astronaut with two spaceflights and 104 days of living and working in space as a crew member of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle. Some of the personal highlights of her time in space include performing a spacewalk (10th woman to do so), piloting the robotic arm to capture the first Japanese cargo ship, working with her international crew in support of multidisciplinary science aboard the orbiting laboratory, the painting of a watercolor in space (now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum), and of course the life-changing vision of our home planet. As part of her post-NASA mission, she co-founded the Space for Art Foundation, uniting a global community of children through the awe and wonder of space exploration and the healing power of art. www.npsdiscovery.com ; www.spaceforartfoundation.org

  • Robert Thirsk (RT): Robert Thirsk is a Canadian engineer and physician and a former Canadian Space Agency astronaut. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Calgary, a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a Doctor of Medicine from McGill University and a Master of Business Administration from MIT Sloan School of Management. Robert was selected into the Canadian Astronaut Corps in 1983 and began training in 1984. He has participated in various Canadian Space Agency (CSA) projects, including parabolic flight campaigns, cardiovascular research and simulations of assignments. In 1996, Robert Thirsk flew as a Payload Specialist aboard Space Shuttle mission STS-78, the Life and Microgravity Spacelab mission. During this 17-day flight aboard Columbia, he and his six crewmates carried out 43 international experiments dedicated to the study of life sciences and materials. In 2004, he trained at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow and earned flight engineer certification for the Soyuz spacecraft. For many years in the mid-2000s, Robert served as Capcom at Mission Control Center in Houston and as Eurocom at Columbus Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany to support Space Station crew activities. In 2009, Robert Thirsk became the first Canadian to participate in a long-duration expedition. Roman Romanenko from Russia, Frank De Winne from Belgium and Robert were launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. After docking with the Station, Robert and his ISS Expedition 20 and 21 crewmates performed an unprecedented amount of multidisciplinary research, robotic operations, maintenance and repair work on the Station's systems and payloads. Robert Thirsk resigned as a CSA astronaut in 2012 to join the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Ottawa. In 2014, he retired from the federal government and served as Chancellor of the University of Calgary from 2014 to 2018. Robert remains committed to Canadian space initiatives and public outreach.

  • Reinhold Ewald (RE): Reinhold Ewald holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Cologne and a Master of Science in Experimental Physics. Ewald also earned a doctorate in physics and a degree in human physiology. In 1990, Reinhold was selected into the German astronaut team, training for the Mir '92 mission. In 1995 he began training for the second German Mir mission and in February 1997 he flew to the Mir space station with Soyuz TM-25, spending 20 days in space. Reinhold performed biomedical and materials science experiments and conducted operational tests in preparation for the International Space Station. In February 1999, he joined the European Astronaut Corps at the European Astronaut Center (EAC) in Cologne, Germany. From 2006 to 2011, Reinhold headed the Flight Operations Division within ESA's ISS Operations Department at the Columbus Control Center near Munich. In this role, he led a team of ESA Mission Directors managing the Columbus Laboratory delivery flight in February 2008 and Columbus science activities thereafter. Reinhold was an adviser to the Chief of Staff to the Director General at ESA Headquarters in Paris from 2011 to 2014, then held a position at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, promoting the scientific achievements of the ESA's research program. ESA on the International Space Station. In September 2015, he was appointed Professor of Astronautics and Space Stations at the Institute for Space Systems (IRS) at the University of Stuttgart. Reinhold has received numerous awards, including the German Federal Cross of Merit (First Class) in 1997. Reinhold is a member of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (German Physical Society) and the Association of Space Explorers. He is also a full member of the International Academy of Astronautics.

About the author :
Gwenhaël W. De Wasseige is assistant professor at UCLouvain in astroparticle physics. Each month, Gwenhaël will tell us through her Little Story of Infinity the latest news about the universe and the domain of the infinitely small.
Gwenhaël W. De Wasseige
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