Frank De Winne: "You have to believe in achieving your dreams"
European astronauts regularly come to the Erasmus building of the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk (the Netherlands). There they learn to work with the experiments of the laboratory modules of the International Space Station (ISS). Belgian ESA astronaut Frank De Winne visited ESTEC in April to prepare for his upcoming mission late October.
What have you been doing at ESTEC?
I got acquainted for the first time with the scientific experiments for my mission. A lot of experiments will be performed with the Microgravity Science Glove Box (MSG). The scientists made a presentation of their experiments and we talked about which tasks will have to be done, which data the investigators want to have, the things I have to take care of, and about what's possible and what's not.
Have you been training in different places?
The main part of my training is in Russia. It is rather exceptional that I'm in Europe. This only happens for the scientific programme. It would be difficult for all the scientists to come to Russia. In Europe, a part of my training is in Belgium, another part at ESTEC and yet another in Cologne, where the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) is situated. It depends, among other things, on the availability of training models. At ESTEC there is for instance an MSG training model. So it is normal that we train at ESTEC part of the time.
Can you give a short summary of the experiments to be carried out during your mission?
A number of the experiments concern life sciences. How does a human being function in space, physiologically and mentally? How does the brain work? There will be experiments in the field of the natural sciences, especially crystallography. Some biological experiments will look at how the osseous system functions in microgravity. Osteoporosis for instance is an important problem for an aging population. It affects astronauts in space more rapidly than on Earth. These experiments try to establish which elements are important, on the cellular level. This will help new medicines to be developed.
Will your flight be a Belgian mission?
I think you can best describe it as an international flight with a Belgian accent. It is international because I will fly aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as Flight Engineer. It is also an international mission because we will do experiments in the Russian as well as in the American part of the Space Station. And not only Belgian investigators are involved - but also scientists from all over Europe and the rest of the world. I will also conduct experiments for the Americans and the Russians.
What does the profession of astronaut mean for you?
It is something I have always wanted to do. I think it's great to be able to fly into space. More generally I think that mankind always tries to step forward, to explore and to look further. I think we should continue in this way. The next step will be the further exploration of space beyond the Earth, returning to the Moon and then go on to Mars and the other bodies in the solar system.
Is your work still a pioneering job?
The pioneering part of space exploration lies behind us and I think that's good. More people should be able to go into space. We must increase the number of space flights to reduce the costs. The decision makers can then concentrate on the further exploration of space. We can not afford to stay in Earth orbit for 20 more years. We must have the courage to step forward.
According to you, how will space research evolve after the Space Station?
On the one hand one thinks about improvements on the Space Station. A number of problems are becoming clear now, like the capacity to send data of certain experiments to the ground. New systems are being thought of to send data to the ground at higher speeds. On the other hand the Space Station can be a spring-board to the other bodies in the solar system. We can test new life-support systems, which are building blocks for the further exploration of the solar system.
Is there enough political will for a mission to Mars?
Not in the short term. First the infrastructure of the International Space Station has to be completed. But later on I think there will be a political will to step forward.
You get acquainted with Russian and Western space technology. What are the main differences? Would you not have preferred to fly with the American space shuttle?
The most important for me is to be able to fly into space. I'm very happy to fly with the Russians since I have an important function as Flight Engineer aboard their Soyuz spaceship. Since I have a background as a test pilot this is important for me. I will be flying aboard a new version of the Soyuz spaceship - the Soyuz TMA - and this is unique. For the first time a European will participate in a test flight of a new spaceship.
The Russians have a different approach to things than the Americans. The Americans like state-of-the-art technology. The Russians prefer a more tactical approach. They make use of what they already have, a working concept, and step-by-step they improve a number of things. The Soyuz TMA is still equipped with a number of old computers and it can still be controlled manually. Another example of this approach is the living module of the ISS, which is in fact an improved version of the former Russian Mir space station.
In which ways the Soyuz TMA is a new spacecraft?
The control panels are new, as are a number of computers, which got new software. The procedures have also been changed.
Was the Russian language the most difficult barrier during your training?
At the beginning it was. It is a big barrier when you want to establish friendly and long-standing relationships. With my current knowledge of Russian I'm able to perform my duties as Flight Engineer. I also did exams in Russian without a translator. The training sessions with the simulators are completely in Russian with Russian manuals.
Will you be making several space missions?
At this moment I'm not able to answer that question. But missions like my taxi flight are meant to get the necessary experience with the Space Station and with space missions. When our own European scientific laboratory Columbus is launched to the ISS in October 2004 we will be able to make longer flights with a duration of three, four or five months.
What does your family think about your special activities?
They are used to it. Already in 1991 I participated in the first astronaut selections. So at home we talked frequently about spaceflight and the fact that I loved to be an astronaut.
Which message do you give to youngsters, who have the same dream of flying into space?
Make sure you get a good education as an engineer or a scientist. Try during the course of your career to take a number of steps which get you closer to space research. Try to find operational, scientific or technical work in the astronautical sector. And most of all… keep believing in your dream and do everything you can to make it come true!