ESA's first Spanish astronaut, Pedro Duque, "did a fantastic job in orbit and has a great future in the space programme", declared Curt Brown, the commander of the Space Shuttle Discovery which returned this past weekend from its STS-95 mission. Brown was speaking during a press conference on Sunday, the day after Discovery touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Duque's STS-95 flight was the latest in a series of manned missions for Europe that have been amassing valuable experience for the International Space Station, the first element of which is to be launched next week.
The international crew also included the oldest ever astronaut John Glenn (77) making his return to space 36 years after he became the first American to orbit the Earth.
But Glenn was not the only crew member to go into the record books. Duque became the first Spanish national to go into space and, born in March 1963, more than a year after John Glenn's epic flight, he was also the youngest crew member.
After returning to Earth on Saturday, Duque said he felt fine and would like to return to space in the future as an ESA astronaut on the International Space Station.
"This mission, and ESA's direct involvement in the Space Station, shows that Europe is fully committed to exploiting space to the benefit of all people on Earth," said Duque. "I would certainly like to be a part of that." During the Space Shuttle flight of almost nine days, Duque's responsibilities included monitoring the performance of ESA's scientific experiment facilities, which carried experiments from scientists in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain Sweden and Switzerland. He also played a key role in the mission's medical experiments.
The mission was a final test for some of the ESA science facilities, and experiments into the effects of weightlessness on various materials and substances, that may be flown in Europe's Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. Investigators are already analysing telemetry data sent from the Shuttle, and samples from ESA's Biobox and the Advanced Protein Crystallisation Facility (APCF) are now being prepared for post-flight processing. The experiments in the other three ESA research facilities (MOMO, AGHF and FAST) will be recovered from the Shuttle, as scheduled, in late November or early December.
Note to editors:
The first element of the International Space Station is scheduled to be launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on 20 November.
ESA is one of five partners in the International Space Station programme, the largest international technical project ever undertaken. The other partners are the United States, Russia, Canada and Japan.
ESA is currently in discussion with the partners to have ESA astronauts take part in missions to assemble the Space Station. Once the Space Station is operational, one or two European astronauts will board it each year for up to three months. Working as part of the six or seven-member crew, they will conduct scientific research, monitor experiments and contribute to general Space Station duties.