A weightless world with Patrick Baudry

Patrick Baudry, the second Frenchman to travel in orbit around the Earth, told us the conquest of space' story. Extract from Les Others Magazine Volume II

T
he surface of the Earth still had a great deal to teach us during the 17th century. You could choose to become an explorer, to scour the globe’s most secluded nooks and crannies and be the first to set foot upon them. If this was still the case during the 19th century, even at the beginning of the 20th, there aren’t any unexplored regions left on today’s map of the world. Nowadays, great explorers can only be found in history books and children’s tales. So, in order to satisfy his thirst for conquest and search for his origins, Man set his eager eyes on space.

By joining the American Discovery mission in 1985, Patrick Baudry became the second Frenchman to travel in orbit around the Earth, an experience that would change him forever. We met with him in Lacanau, in the southwest of France, to look back on this event, chat about man’s place in the universe, and weigh up on the global space race. A UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, he also talked about the meaning of his actions helping children in Europe and Africa.

How did you discover the world of aviation?

When I was young, my father was a meteorologist and used to work for airports in Casablanca, in Algiers, then in Mérignac in France. That was the starting point. I always dreamed of flying and becoming a pilot for as long as I can remember.

Can you tell us about your journey?

If you’re lucky enough to have a vocation, all it takes is to follow a path. In my case, the easiest path that could take me towards my goal was to go to an engineering ‘Grande Ecole’, then to Flight School, and finally to an Air Force Academy. After that, I became a fighter pilot and I passed an exam to become a test pilot. I worked very hard and had to make many sacrifices, but everything was worth it in the end.

Was your dream to go to space from the start?

Not at all. I was attracted to space, but I couldn’t see how, as a Frenchman, I could possibly go. Right up until the day before the CNES (National Space Studies Center) launched its call for applications for a French citizen to join a Soviet mission, it wasn’t even a talking point. It quickly became one afterwards, of course. I filled in my application form and spent the following months doing physical and mental trials, sitting psychological tests and having medical check-ups. I was eventually chosen, along with my friend Jean-Loup Chrétien, to join Star City, the Russian astronaut training center.

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What was your experience like over there?

It was like going into the ministry. We were entering a cathedral. At that time, the Cold War was going on, and for two original servicemen to end up working amongst the Soviets, it was incredibly special, politically speaking. Special but grandiose. The Russians had already advanced on the project, the Americans had already gone to the moon; we felt we were at a major turning point, it was magical. And the soviets were fabulous, professionally but also humanely speaking. We were working with guys we really admired. Some had already been to space, that really got us involved. It was very hard, but as today’s athletes say, it was just pure bliss. I knew from the get go that I would only get to fly if older Jean-Loup, higher ranked than I, encountered a problem. Actually, I really hoped he would (laughs). But I also knew that if the mission was carried out as planned, I’d be at the top of the list for the next voyage. Everything worked out perfectly, he was the first Frenchman to visit space and it enabled me to join the American mission.

Did everything go as well as it did with the Russians?

At the beginning, not really. I was integrated to the Challenger mission at first, but its flight was constantly being postponed due to technical problems, until it was completely cancelled altogether. In the meantime, I came back to France to answer spying accusations I was victim of in the press because of my trip to Star City. Once cleared, I headed back to the States to train for the Discovery mission. My time had finally come. A few months later, Challenger exploded at takeoff, killing its entire crew.

What emotions travelled through your body preceding the Discovery launch?

Before departure, you simply feel happy. You’re like a kid just before summer vacation. You make the most of each and every moment.

©NASA
©NASA

How was the takeoff and arrival in space?

Takeoff is quite Dantesque. There are lots and lots of stages, but to summarize, it starts off with the famous countdown, then the engines are fired up, followed by a real explosion that causes the entire machine, your entire body, to vibrate. From then on, there’s a nine minute acceleration, when you go from 0 to 30,000km/h. Such acceleration is just pure bliss, you never want it to end. In just a handful of minutes, you’re out of the atmosphere and in the vacuum of space, and the engines turn off. You usually have to wait a while before taking your seatbelt off, but I just couldn’t resist the urge to float around the cabin. You don’t weigh anything, you move around effortlessly. It creates a sensation of total freedom. Your first reflex is to go up to an accessible porthole to look out of and then… it’s even more beautiful than anything you could ever imagine.

What’s a typical day in space like?

During a short flight, seven days in my case, the days are incredibly busy. You live according to your watch. Across twenty-four hours, sixteen hours are dedicated to work, and eight hours to rest. You work as much as you can during the work period. I’d do various physics experiments, the body’s acclimatization to weightlessness, etc. You also have three fifteen minute meals that enable you to chat a little. During your rest periods, you keep yourself busy. It’s very difficult to sleep in the beginning because, unlike on the ground where your body relaxes on a surface, up there, you shut your eyes and nothing happens. But as you have to make sure you don’t disturb the others, you use that time to think and listen to music, glued to the porthole. I brought Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons albums with me. Looking at the Earth, the lights and space with that kind of music in your ears, gave everything such an epic dimension. 

Is there a particular light in space?

Light is life, it’s our life, and it is very different up there. When you’re on Earth, there are lots of different elements: trees, roads, buildings. Up there, you have Earth and you have space. So light plays a crucial role. It’s a lot purer because you’re out of the atmosphere. Besides, in orbit, there is a day and a night every ninety minutes. The ten seconds it takes for the sun to rise offers a very varied color palette, each color more beautiful than the last, and an outstanding luminous intensity. And you can make the most of the show sixteen times every twenty-four hours.

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Before the mission, you were militantly in favor of bringing a bottle of wine on board the shuttle.

Coca-Cola was about to take off, and I thought it would be a shame if it arrived up there before wine, which represents our culture, our savoir-faire, and even a part of the history of humanity. So I did everything in my power to take some wine with me, in a symbolic way, and I succeeded. We didn’t make the most of it, unfortunately, as you can’t drink any alcohol on American spaceships. I’m sure it would have been a different story with the Russians (laughs).

What was the trip back like? Did you ever consider going back one day?

Whether you spend seven days or six months up there, you regret having to return so quickly. Everything stops at once, and it’s a little sad. And because you’re so obsessed by your work, time goes by very quickly. But then, I didn’t decide to go back.

I eventually saw everything with a very realistic and quite constructive frame of mind. What I had in mind was the conquest of space, literally. A collective conquest to which I participated, along with people I admired. I sincerely believed we were at the beginning of something very big.

Was that not the case in the end?

In 1985, with the budgets at the time, the most logical and cost effective strategy for manned flights was to go and live on the moon by 1995, then to start exploring Mars from 2000 to 2005. It was high time we took the plunge. But the importance of lobbies and economic stakes hidden behind the shuttle, which, as its name suggests, is used to go back and forth between Earth and space stations, convinced the Americans to continue using it. In order to justify these costs, they built ISS, the International Space Station, and began sending scientists, most of them overqualified for what they were actually doing there. We’ve been going round in circles around the Earth now for more than half a century. We send robots. That’s good, they’re beautiful objects. But robots that cost three billion dollars to build, and only cover 80 meters per year, as it is the case for Curiosity. We can’t call that conquering. In order to move forward significantly, we would need to send humans over there, but that would require a true political decision, which could entail the loss of life. Nowadays, politicians prefer not to make waves. One thing is sure, the problems that prevent the spatial conquest from making progress are neither financial, nor technological.

What do you think are the character traits that make men want to explore?

Curiosity is what pushes men to explore the world. The desire for knowledge, the need to know. That’s what pushes men to go beyond their boundaries to discover a territory, whether it be geographical or intellectual. No other living being is capable of that, and that’s why it’s important, because it’s what makes the nobility of our species. Additionally, it allows us to dream, and thus to live. It’s a fundamental pillar of our existence. For me, the true people responsible for progress are those who invent, build, and eventually make things materially possible, not those who run countries and vote budgets.

What were your personal motivations to explore space?

The history of humanity has always progressed in three stages. First comes exploration in the pure sense of the word, like Christopher Columbus did, to name the most famous one. Then, there is the occupation phase, where you learn to live on a new, freshly discovered territory. You organize yourself, you survive. Finally comes the colonizing phase, where you develop and exploit the new territory to benefit from it. The stage that I am personally interested in is the exploratory phase. It’s part of my character. There, in the distance, I can see the dune that hides the ocean. I could not go on living without knowing what’s on the other side of that dune. I would have cut down a tree and crossed a lake to find out. That’s what drives me. Part of my dream came true with that journey into space. And even if we’re not entirely moving forward today, eventually, everything will resume seriously.

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©NASA

What memories do you have of that journey?

I often compare it to a birth. First, there is a fairly long gestation period, then the journey, and finally the return. From then on, you head on into another life. Man is put back into perspective in the universe and things are analyzed with the wisdom of hindsight. When you see Earth from space, you witness the very violent paradox between the power of your ego, your consciousness of existing, and the evidence of your non-importance, therefore of your non-existence. When, moreover, you think of what a human being’s lifespan represents compared to the universe’s, which, besides, is still unknown, you become aware of your minuteness. You can’t see your own life in the same way once you’ve admitted what’s obvious, not that it’s of no use, because that’s a very relative term, but that it didn’t have any importance. Even Mozart, humanity’s biggest benefactor, was only just passing through, whereas he’s the one who bestowed on us the most sumptuous heritage. With that global vision of the world, we try to do things that matter, for the good of all.

As it happens, can you describe the Space Camp to us?

In most places in Europe, access to education is easy, but you have to help the kids find their way. There’s nothing worse than going to school without knowing why. Space Camp’s goal is entirely educational, and aims to help these children understand a number of physical and astronomical phenomenon through dynamic activities modeled on those from Star City. A child who has a dream, a goal, is a child who is saved. It’s a one week course that, even if it doesn’t have the same impact on everybody, has already participated in the creation of many vocations.

What is your mission within UNESCO?

Just like with the Space Camp, I have always committed to children, mainly in Africa, in order to create schools, centers and many educational projects. The AVU (African Virtual University) is probably our most accomplished project. Its aim is to make agreements with universities, so that they may deliver diploma-giving lessons at an engineer level to students in thirty-five countries today.  We’re also working on smaller projects, like the one we set up in Niger with an association called Les Puits du Désert (The Wells of the Desert). The goal is to drill a well, so that the children have more time to go to school, a school which we’re also building. The first thing children need in the world, aside from food of course, is education, so that they can be granted a better future than the one they have at the moment.

How do you imagine the future? What kind of Earth will astronauts be able to observe in the coming decades?

There are two visions, one is pessimistic and the other optimistic. The first is in compliance with what you see nowadays, which tends to prove that, as a fragile species, we’re heading towards the disappearance of the possibility to live on the surface of the Earth. It’s almost inevitable when you analyze the evolution of things. The second, optimistic then, sees us identifying the solutions before the situation becomes too critical. If we can’t refrain from destroying the planet that welcomes us, every day we can progress in many different domains, notably technologies and social sciences. I see myself more in that camp, but we’ll have to hurry up. These problems are truly captivating and the way we’re going to face them in the future is just as enthralling. I’d say the only thing I’m sure of, is that we will continue to witness the most exhilarating events.

Words by Thomas Firh. 
Photos by Simon Meheust.

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