"It's time to go further": six months after his return to Earth, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet has his sights set on the future of European space exploration, which will be marked by missions to the Moon in the horizon 2025-2030.
“In low orbit, around the Earth – around 500 km – we have had a continuous human presence with the International Space Station for 20 years” (ISS), reminds AFP the astronaut of 44 years in Rome, on the sidelines of a conference at the French Embassy in Italy.
“Today it is time for us, the institutional astronauts of Europe, our international partners, to go further”, he adds, saying he hopes “that the private sector will rush behind us”.
“We are clearing this territory so that it is useful to European society,” he says.
An ambitious NASA program
Back in November from his second mission in space, during which he became the first Frenchman at the controls of the ISS, Thomas Pesquet could participate in lunar missions as part of NASA's ambitious program called Artemis - sister twin of Apollo in reference to the historic mission of 1969 – associating Canada, Japan and Europe.
“We seem to be in good configuration: we have a launcher, a capsule, a destination, everything is falling into place”, he notes.
The first unmanned test flight is scheduled for the summer of 2022, before a first manned flight in mid-2024, without landing on the moon, in order to "prepare the trajectories".
“From there, a flight every year, for the moment on the 2025-2026-2027 calendar, with flights to the Moon.
There, the Europeans could have a voice in the matter”, advances the astronaut who recalls the technical difficulty of going into space, “a series of small miracles”.
As a direct consequence of the war in Ukraine, the Russian-European ExoMars mission was suspended in March by the European Space Agency (ESA).
It provided for the launch of a rover bound for the Red Planet using the Russian Soyuz launcher.
Questioned during his conference on the consequences of the conflict, Thomas Pesquet insists on the “collective intelligence” and “the great solidarity” of the astronauts on board the ISS.
“It didn't change a lot of things within the crews (…) We have friends across borders, we know each other, we're on the same boat.
However, “at the political level, between the agencies, it is more difficult”, he qualifies.
“Today, we see that we are honoring the agreements made a few years ago but we are not making decisions for the future.
Sign of a desire for greater independence, European astronauts called in February for the establishment of a European program of manned flights, "a subject which is very important today", recognizes Pesquet.
“We realized that relying on others to access space was not always easy (…) Today we think about it a lot”.
Among his many activities, the astronaut is associated with the selection of the next class of European astronauts.
More than 22,000 candidates have applied for just four to six regular places in the next promotion, which will be unveiled in November.
“Being on the other side makes me think about how lucky I was;
when you see everything that can be eliminatory in a selection like that, it's still incredible to reach the finish line", he argues, specifying that the criteria "have not really changed since his selection in 2009.
"It's very exciting to see all that Europe has of talent, all these people who come from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, the Nordic countries, from everywhere with very rich backgrounds" , he rejoices.
"They all have this thing in common which is the passion for space and European identity, they all speak several European languages, it's the Erasmus generation, they have it in the body so it gives me confidence for the future.
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