Home‎ > ‎Blog‎ > ‎

European astronauts – hitching a ride in the space race

posted 9 Aug 2016, 02:54 by John O'Sullivan

First published in Engineers Journal 09 August 2016

John O’Sullivan’s new book tells the story of how European astronauts lived on board the International Space Station, helped construct the space laboratory and performed valuable scientific experiments. Read on for a chance to win a copy

The Soyuz ‘crew taxi’

The history of European human spaceflight is not as straightforward as its American or Russian counterparts. Europe was not a competitor in the ‘space race’. As a collection of nations with different languages, cultures and goals, the vision for space has been complex.

For the first three decades of the space age, Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain. Even today, the European Space Agency (ESA) does not build or fly a human-rated spacecraft. But despite all these factors, there is a rich history of Europeans travelling to space on a variety of spacecraft and performing a variety of missions.

As Europe is not a single country with a manned space programme, European astronauts must ‘hitch a ride’ to get into space. This has resulted in many different routes to orbit. Before the period covered by this book, astronauts from communist countries and from France had flown on Soviet Soyuz spacecraft to the Salyut and Mir space stations.

Columbus European astronauts

Fig 1: The ESA-built Columbus module being moved to the Harmony module (NASA)

Later, astronauts from other Western European space agencies and ESA flew to Mir. Western Europeans represented their national space agencies and ESA by flying on NASA space-shuttle missions. Naturalised US citizens from around the world, including quite a few Europeans, succeeded in joining NASA’s astronaut corps by applying to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

Spacecraft and missions

European astronauts have travelled to the International Space Station (ISS) in two types of spacecraft: the American Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz. They have been resupplied on board the station by payload in the Italian-built Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLM) carried aboard Shuttles and also by a variety of unmanned vehicles – the Russian Progress, the European ATV, the Japanese HTV and the SpaceX commercial Dragon spacecraft.

Soyuz European astronauts

Figure 2: The Soyuz ‘crew taxi’

European astronauts have conducted many types of mission on board the ISS. There have been week-long visits, where the ESA astronaut travelled to the station to deliver a new crew, returning to Earth with the previous crew. There have been assembly missions where the ESA astronaut helped deliver a new module or conduct a spacewalk to add solar arrays or antennae. And there have been long duration missions where the ESA astronaut has been a member of a six-month expedition, in one case (Frank de Winne) commanding the facility. While the book covers all 18 missions from 2000 to 2012, here are samples of each type of mission.

Cervantes, A Visiting Mission
Astronaut: Pedro Duque
Mission duration: Ten days, one hour, 37 minutes
Launch date: 18 October 2003

Pedro Duque European astronauts

Figure 3: Pedro Duque during an interview with Spanish TV. (NASA)

The Cervantes mission had four objectives:

  1. To exchange the Soyuz ‘lifeboat’ at the ISS;
  2. To carry out a programme of scientific and technical research organised by the ESA and the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology via the Centre for Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) . A number of experiments from the Odissea mission were to be repeated. Educational and promotional activities would be undertaken with the aim of bringing the European human space programme and research performed in space to a wider public, and to young people in particular;
  3. To increase operational experience aboard the ISS; from a European perspective the Cervantes mission was important because it would increase the experience of ESA’s astronauts ahead of the launch of the Columbus laboratory module;
  4. To exchange the ISS Expedition crews, because Expedition 8 would fly up on Soyuz TMA-3 and Expedition 7 would return to Earth with Duque on Soyuz TMA-2 .

Celsius, An Assembly Mission
Astronaut: Christer Fuglesang
Mission duration: 12 days, 20 hours, 45 minutes
Launch date: 10 December 2006

European astronauts

Figure 4: The kink that developed in the port-side solar array of the P6 truss segment during the first attempt to retract that array on 13 December 2006. (NASA)

ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang became the first Swedish astronaut to venture into space when he flew as a Mission Specialist on Space Shuttle Discovery for the STS-116 mission that undertook ISS Assembly Flight 12A.1. The STS-116 mission had many objectives:

  1. The P5 truss segment was a ‘spacer’ that was installed between the P4 and P6 segments, both of which carried solar array assemblies. The P6 segment had been installed early in the assembly process by being temporarily placed on the Z1 truss atop the Unity node. STS-120 in October 2007 was to transfer P6 to its permanent position at the end of P5, thereby completing the port side of the integrated truss;
  2. NASA astronaut Sunita Williams replaced ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter as the second Flight Engineer of the Expedition 14 crew;
  3. Although primarily an ISS assembly flight including spacewalks for Fuglesang, a number of experiments in human physiology and radiation dosimetry were conducted for the ESA Celsius mission;
  4. Delivery of 2.5 tonnes of supplies, equipment and research payloads in the SpaceHab Single Module.

Promisse, A Long Term Expedition
Astronaut: André Kuipers
Mission duration: 192 days, 18 hours, 58 minutes
Launch date: 21 December 2011

European astronauts André Kuipers

Figure 5: André Kuipers in the ESA Cupola sending a postcard from space. (ESA)

ESA astronaut André Kuipers was delivered in December 2012 for the fourth European long-duration mission to what was now a fully operational ISS. His term as a member of an international six-person crew was scheduled to last almost six months. The mission objectives were as follows:

  1. Microgravity: Kuipers was himself a medical doctor who had been actively involved in microgravity research for at least a decade. As he posted on his ESA blog, “The data I will collect from myself can bring valuable information about the effects of weightlessness on the human body. This research may help to prepare for a future mission to Mars.”
  2. Scientific experiments: he undertook around 30 ESA experiments covering human research, fluid physics, materials science, radiation, solar research, biology, and technology demonstrations. Most of the experiments were carried out in the Columbus laboratory, which would mark its fourth anniversary in orbit during his mission. Countermeasures against bone loss in weightlessness, the study of headaches in space, and mapping the radiation environment inside the ISS were among the experiments related to human exploration. In addition, André carried out at least 20 experiments on behalf of NASA and the Japanese and Canadian space agencies involving almost 30 research facilities in the various laboratories of the ISS;
  3. Flight engineer: as a flight engineer, Kuipers had assignments ranging from station systems to payload operations. He had to be on hand to deal with visiting spacecraft. He was the prime crewmember for docking ESA’s ATV-3 named ‘Edoardo Amaldi’. He was also involved in berthing the new Dragon spacecraft that had been developed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX as part of NASA’s commercial resupply programme;
  4. Education: André Kuipers shared some of the magnificent views of Earth from the ISS’s Cupola and invited children to become involved in a wide range of educational activities. Spaceflight is uniquely able to inspire primary and secondary pupils to learn about biodiversity and climate change on Earth. André transmitted to classrooms across Europe, demonstrating experiments on convection and wet foam formation. Being an advocate for health and well-being, he also encouraged new generations of space explorers to stay fit by following the international education initiative Mission X: Train Like an Astronaut;
  5. Science: around 30 experiments were carried out during the Promisse mission, covering a wide range of disciplines. Kuipers had an extensive science, technology and education programme focused on life on Earth and looking ahead to future global human exploration missions.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has a long history of human spaceflight, flying in space with both NASA and the Soviet/Russian space agencies over the years. John O’Sullivan’s new book tells the story of the ESA astronauts who have visited the International Space Station over its first decade and how they have lived on board, helped construct the space laboratory and performed valuable scientific experiments.

In the Footsteps of Columbus, European Missions to the International Space Station is published by Springer-Praxis. It is available as kindle or paperback at www. Amazon.co.uk, 391pp; ISBN: 978-3319275604

European astronauts

John O’Sullivan, author of In the Footsteps of Columbus: European Missions to the International Space Station pictured at the National Space Centre in Cork

John O’Sullivan BE, Dip Phys Sci, Dip PM, CEng MIEI, PMP, FSP, CMSE ® studied Electrical Engineering at University College Cork. He has over 20 years’ experience in the automation and control sector delivering solutions to the life-science industry in Ireland. He is a Chartered Engineer with Engineers Ireland and a Project Management Professional with the Project Management Institute. He has always had a fascination with aviation and space, leading him to gain his Private Pilot Licence in 2003 and to study Astronomy and Planetary Science with the Open University. Since 2010 he has been awarded a Certificate in Astronomy and Planetary Science and a Diploma in Physical Science by the OU, as well as a Diploma in Project Management from the Cork Institute of Technology. He was an unsuccessful applicant for the ESA Astronaut Corps in 2008, and lives in East Cork with his wife and daughter.