In collaboration with le Parisien Magazine / Aujourd’hui-en-France Magazine
If I am honest with myself, I am a very lucky man. Not all astronauts spend six months on the International Space Station and get to do a spacewalk. I did my second one 24 March, and there may be a third one coming up. What an incredible feeling to see Earth rotating underneath one’s feet! Spacewalks are a chance to leave the Station, to aerate, despite the discomfort of wearing a spacesuit. We do not think about this much before launch, but when we commit to leave for the International Space Station, we sign up to live in a closed space. In this restricted environment there is no escape. You see the same five faces every day, you cannot open a window, there is no natural airflow. Inevitably, sometimes, you feel stifled. It is at these moments that we feel most fortunate to able to contact people on Earth.
I heard that astronauts on the Mir station could only call their families once a month for five minutes. I do not know how they managed. I call my family and close friends almost every day. It is an automatic energiser. Silly as it may sound, it makes me happy to talk about things as banal as a broken fridge or even interior decoration with my partner, or more poetic things of course. It reassures me. We think about work so much that we welcome anything that can take our mind off things. Never before did I ask my family about their well-being as much as I do now, I think I obsess over these concerns because I am so far away. If there were indeed any problems, I could not simply hop on a plane to meet them and help them.
In reality, it is with my colleagues on Earth that I communicate the most though. The work of an astronaut is a team effort. I am trained in carrying out experiments but I do not know all of the procedures by heart. When conducting them, I am in constant contact with the scientists on Earth. These conversations start off a little bit like this: “Hello, this is Thomas on the Space Station. I am on procedure 1.5.230 / Step 4.5 and I do not understand what is written here.” Then they give me instructions from the control centres in Houston, Munich or Moscow.
I speak to these people several hours a day and know many anecdotes about them, though I have never seen them in person. It is funny when you think about it: I am creating connections with… voices. Among them, there are scientists but also people who tell me about what is going on on Earth. Now, I admit that the news is depressing, but when I have time I do force myself to read the articles and videos sent to me, to keep up to date. There is no reason for me to become out of touch. I could not stand returning to a world that I do not understand. Societies evolve quickly. When I took off, Obama was still the president of the United States. When I come back, it will be Trump!
Hearing from scientists, my close ones.. this is my daily life. Some exchanges stand out. There are calls that I will never forget. The other day, a class of children from a remote village in Guyana contacted me via radio. They went through a lot of trouble to reach me, but they did not give up. That was moving! Children are who I would like to reach out to the most. Thanks to a UNICEF initiative, I was able to speak to thousands of school children in France at once. It was magical to inspire them and perhaps give them an idea of career paths.
That is also why I am very active on social networks and post so many photos on my Twitter account. To inspire people, but also because I think the public deserves to know about the work that is being done up here. Sure, going to space has made me very happy. It was my dream but it is so much more than my personal adventure. This is being done with public money. Astronauts come here for the greater benefit of humanity, to further research and to improve the world we inhabit and share.