French astronaut Pesquet to make country's first space mission in eight years

François Guillot, AFP | French astronaut Thomas Pesquet pictured in Paris in March, 2014

Thomas Pesquet has grabbed wide media attention in France ahead of his journey to the International Space Station, the first mission for a French astronaut in almost a decade.


Pesquet, 38, and team members on Thursday will take off from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 20:20 GMT at the start of the six-month “Proxima” mission. He will be the tenth Frenchman in history to travel into space, and the first in eight years.

“Thomas [Pesquet] will conduct a wide range of experiments on the Station, an out-of-this-world research outpost that serves as a stepping stone for human exploration," said the European Space Agency, which will provide a live feed of the launch.

“During Proxima, Thomas will perform around 50 scientific experiments for ESA and France’s space agency CNES as well as take part in many research activities for the other Station partners,” it added.

He will be joined aboard the Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft by Roscosmos commander Oleg Novitsky and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. Three other astronauts will be waiting for him at the Space Station.

Media exposure

Days ahead of the launch, the photogenic astronaut has featured prominently in French news reports.

He has recounted how he was a “space fanatic” as a child growing up in the northern French city of Rouen. 

In his family home he would play in a cardboard "space shuttle" built by his father, and beg his parents to buy magazines that specialised in space exploration. He said he made career choices that almost “unconsciously” led him to become an astronaut.

After getting a degree in spacecraft design and control, he started his career as a satellite and spacecraft engineer. He was later selected by Air France’s flight training programme and became an airline pilot. In May 2009 he was chosen to be an European Space Agency astronaut -- one of only six picked from a list of 8,413 candidates.

‘Space ambassador’

"Thomas is a remarkable guy," former ESA chief Jean-Jacques Dordain told AFP in a recent interview, recounting how he helped pick Pesquet when the pool of candidates had been reduced down to just 10 people.

"He boasts both an interesting professional curriculum and important social attributes that allow him to be comfortable with everyone around him. And finally, he is passionate,” Dordain said. “That makes him a great ambassador for Space."

In addition to English, Spanish and German, Thomas Pesquet has also spent many hours learning Russian. “It’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in the last few years, but we are going to have to use it almost on a daily basis in the Russian vehicle,” he told FRANCE 24 in a recent interview at the ESA’s headquarters in Paris.

Looking back on his life’s path towards space exploration, the astronaut has said he was lucky to have had “a very stable childhood” in northern France. “My parents gave me roots, but also wings."

Despite his busy schedule, Pesquet says he tries to fit in visits to his girlfriend, who works for the United Nations in Rome.

She will be in Kazakhstan with Thomas’ parents for Thursday’s launch. Their last glimpse of him for the next six months will be through a plate-glass window -- official quarantine procedures that form part of the space mission.

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