Just 25 years ago, Vaud astronaut Claude Nicollier boarded the Space Shuttle Atlantis for the first of what would be four missions in space. We sat down to talk with Nicollier about this exciting experience ahead of a special commemorative event that will be held this week in his honor.
Claude Nicollier, an EPFL professor since 2004, will always be known as Switzerland’s first man in space. He took part in four US space shuttle missions in the 1990s; the first aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on an eight-day mission some 300 km above Earth. To mark the 25th anniversary of that flight, which took place from July 31 to August 8, 1992, SwissApollo is holding a commemorative event at EPFL’s SwissTech Convention Center on 3 November. We met with Nicollier - a modest man with a warm smile - to get a first-hand account of his amazing story.
- Can you tell us how your first space mission came about?
"An astronaut’s first space mission is like all important firsts in life: unforgettable. My first mission was the culmination of 14 years of training, starting the day when the European Space Agency selected me for the team. The Challenger disaster in 1986 delayed my flight for six years. Delays were also caused by the fact that I was the only non-American taking the full Space Shuttle Mission Specialist training - NASA had told me that I would take part only in missions where the payload contained a substantial amount of ESA equipment. That was true for the Atlantis, which carried an Italian tethered satellite system and the EURECA satellite [European Retrievable Carrier, now on display at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Luzern].
- What were the days leading up to the mission like?
We were flown to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida three days before take-off, on one of the T-38 Mission Support Aircraft that NASA used to carry astronauts. Around two weeks earlier, at the same site, we did what NASA called a "TCDT" - terminal count-down demonstration test - a kind of trial run where we go through every step of the take-off procedure except starting the engines. NASA simulators had given us a good idea of what take-off would be like. But on the day of take-off, when we experienced it for real and the entire shuttle started shaking, it was an extraordinary feeling.
- What did it feel like?
There was a lot of shaking and vibration. The space shuttle weighs 2,000 metric tons, so you need 3,000 metric tons of power just to get it off the ground. It feels like you’re in a machine of a very, very large mass. Out of the seven astronauts on the mission, just two of us were rookies: Franco Malerba, Italy’s first astronaut, and me. We reached orbit in just eight and a half minutes. We felt anxious, of course - because our mission was dangerous, no doubt about it - but also like we were doing something completely crazy, with such a display of force and fuel. We felt as if we were at the very start of a big adventure. And we knew we had our work cut out for us; deploying the EURECA from the payload was a fairly routine operation, but we were a lot less certain about how the tethered satellite system deployment would go.
- And what did zero gravity feel like?
Like we were floating. It was disconcerting at first, especially when we shut off the main engines. When you go from 1 G to 0 G, it feels like there’s a force lifting you up. I was always afraid of banging my head on the ceiling! Plus we were wearing heavy orange space suits that restricted our movement. We also felt nauseous, like we were seasick. But we had to learn to live under those conditions. It was hard to sleep the first night. The next day we felt better, but the zero gravity still bothered us. It took me a full 48 hours to get over it. At the same time, it was all fantastic - the sky was filled with stars at night, and during the day we could see the Earth rapidly passing by.
- But you got the job done, despite the physical discomfort...
I had an important role to play in the EURECA deployment: operating the robotic arm that sent out the satellite. Once it was deployed, we had to fly in formation with the satellite for a few hours until ground control activated a propulsion system that lifted the satellite to a higher orbit. Then we moved to the next step, deploying the tethered satellite system. And there we ran into all kinds of problems. I would say that out of my four missions, that was the part that went the least well. The satellite was connected to the shuttle by a 20-km long cable. We were afraid the cable would slacken, and that’s exactly what happened, after only 200 meters had been released.
- What was the problem?
The cable dispenser jammed. Since the cable was elastic, the satellite came back towards us. The cable had lost all tension at that point. Given the gravity gradient, the satellite was going to drift upwards. We had to make sure the satellite was properly oriented for when the cable would eventually tighten so that the satellite wouldn’t start spinning. We controlled the cable’s attitude using an alphanumeric keypad, which was like trying to drive a truck by pressing buttons on a keyboard! Not easy! We were really sweating! In the end we were able to stabilize the satellite and bring it back to the shuttle.
- Can you share any other highlights from the mission?
There was the televised conversation with Adolf Ogi, then a Swiss Federal Councilor, during which he made his famous comment: Freude herrscht! Which means, maybe, joy? That powerful expression became a principle, almost an ideology, both for me and for him. An extremely positive message.
- What has changed with these types of missions today?
Mainly that procedures aren’t written on paper anymore! And that space missions get much more media coverage these days. We saw that recently with French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who posted frequently on social networks during his mission on the International Space Station. Our missions took place almost in secret. Not that they were easier - sometimes they were even harder because we were doing things nobody had ever done before. Today, a lot of the work astronauts do at the International Space Station has already been mapped out. The spirit of our space shuttle missions was different - we were headed into the great unknown! Our missions were shorter and always involved extremely complicated, and pretty crazy, tasks. Another difference is that we could talk with our families for just 20 minutes a week. But today, thanks to digital phones, astronauts can stay in regular contact with their loved ones.
The show Claude Nicollier - Un Suisse dans l’espace will take place at the SwissTech Convention Center at 8pm on Friday, 3 November and will be attended by Nicollier and key people from his life including Derib, a cartoonist and childhood friend, astronauts Charlie Duke and Jean-François Clervoy, and astrophysicist Michel Mayor. Information and tickets at www.swissapollo.ch