In collaboration with le Parisien Magazine / Aujourd’hui-en-France Magazine
Believe it or not, a few weeks ago when I saw that a spacewalk was on my agenda, I did not jump for joy. I am a rational person and know that our schedules can change. To give you an example, my launch to the International Space Station was moved at least five times. But the days went by and the date did not move. Little by little, I realised that I really was going to go outside in a spacesuit – every astronaut’s dream! It is a dream, because it does not happen to everyone. Besides having to train for it on Earth, one must also have a specific physical predisposition. Moving around in space wearing a spacesuit is like climbing in armour. The whole suit weighs nearly 200 kg. Tightening your fist feels like trying to crush a tennis ball. If you’re not muscular, especially in the upper body, you’re bound to struggle. You can’t be claustrophobic either. The first time I put on the harness, I remember feeling like I was locked up in a small box with only a tiny window to look outside.
On top of that, spacewalks are very rare. It happens that astronauts who can do a spacewalk never get the opportunity to put on the spacesuit! This type of operation takes time and is difficult to organise. When you do go out there, it is for a good reason. So when I had this extraordinary chance, I did not lose sight of the fact that I was not here to realise my fantasies, but because I have a job to do.
The morning of the spacewalk I woke up in top form. I was eager to cross the Space Station’s entrance gate, even though there are of course risks to going out into space. Our spacesuits are very sophisticated machines that protect us, but errors can happen. In 2013, during a spacewalk, water began to leak into the helmet of my Italian colleague and friend Luca Parmitano. He had to be pulled into the Space Station urgently in order to avoid drowning.
There’s something else we have to be wary of. A spacewalk is mostly performed for maintenance operations or installing machines around the Station. We therefore walk with a bunch of tools that must be used with care. Should any of them be set free, this would be very problematic. Depending on its trajectory and speed, the object could enter orbit and collide with the International Space Station. That was my main concern, though I did not dwell on it for long. I trained for this and knew I was ready. Plus, I knew I would be out there with my American colleague and commander of the Station Shane Kimbrough, who had done a spacewalk before.
We got up at six in the morning to get ready. It took us almost five hours to put on our spacesuits and do a final check. Then, around 13:00 GMT, we crossed the threshold of the airlock! My first sensation was exceptional. Strangely enough, I was not stressed. On the contrary, I felt very serene. Being inside the spacesuit reminded me of my training on Earth so it felt familiar. I feel good in this cocoon that I know by heart from training in neutral buoyancy facilities.
All of a sudden, it started to heat up. What we do not notice much due to the air-conditioning in the International Space Station is that the sun’s rays are very harsh in space. It is not stifling, but it does take you by surprise. For a few minutes, while I was waiting for Shane, I had the opportunity to take in my surroundings and snap some pictures.
What an extraordinary feeling to stand in front of the immensity of space! Under my feet was Earth and I could make out the continents, seas and clouds… Everything looked tiny. Ten minutes into our spacewalk, we had to start on our tasks. Time went by so fast! Though we stayed outside for six hours, it felt like thirty minutes. As is the case with all exceptional experiences, the senses are so overwhelmed that your memory struggles to retain everything. After some rest though the memories come back. I remember seeing my reflection wearing the spacesuit. I understand why astronauts are represented like that in the collective imagination. The spacesuit makes us look like knights, even superheroes. While I am none of those things, I have to admit I am aware of looking cooler than in the jeans and t-shirt that I wear 99% of the time.