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MEETING | Claudie Haigneré – Scientist, astronaut and woman with a mission to pass knowledge on

 

Claudie Haigneré, the first female European astronaut, is a very inspiring person.
Her dream as a little girl, to reach for the stars, has come true ! After a career rich in experiences—she is a doctor, rheumatologist, specialist in neuroscience, former Minister for Research and New Technologies, President of Universcience (Palais de la Découverte & Cité des Sciences)— Claudie Haigneré was also, until recently, advisor to the Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA).

 

 

As a woman of influence, she assumes her role as an inspiring example for younger generations with benevolence and enthusiasm, carrying the message of empowerment for young girls.

We met with her to learn more about her universe.

 

Who are you, Claudie Haigneré ?

Initially a professional scientific astronaut (thanks to the CNES, National Centre for Space Studies in France), I had the opportunity, thanks to successive training in Russia and several missions, to pursue an exciting career: scientific astronaut, engineering astronaut, space policy manager in space agencies and the government, and designer of manned exploration projects on the moon with the ESA (European Space Agency). This adventure has become my life, my environment, my family. Today, after having had the privilege of two missions, I am preparing, on the ground, the path for the young generation of European astronauts. Inspiring by example, passing on and motivating the commitment of the younger generation, is what fulfills me these days.

 

 

Was becoming an astronaut a childhood dream ? What triggered your vocation ?

Absolutely ! The space adventure was a childhood dream for me, starting with the first step of man on the moon.

On 20 July 1969, I was at La Grande-Motte campsite, where I spent my holidays with my family. That evening, the excitement was huge: at 3.56am, men would walk on the Moon! Fascinated by explorers, a passion passed on to me by my father, I watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon with my eyes glued to the screen. I looked up at the sky and thought “they’re up there !” A spark lit up then in my little girl’s mind, “It’s possible” !

Over the next few months I devoured space magazines and Jules Verne books. At the age of 15, after passing my Baccalauréat, I entered medical school and left with a doctorate to practice as a rheumatologist at the Cochin hospital in Paris. It was there that one morning I came across a call for applications from the CNES, which was recruiting scientists to carry out space missions. The desire resurfaced. Among the thousand candidates, only 10% were women. I was lucky enough to be one of the seven astronauts chosen. I was going to make my dream come true, it was an immense joy !

 

Being the first European woman to travel in space (the 1996 French-Russian Cassiopeia mission) what did that trigger for you? What ambitions, particularly in terms of what you could pass on ?

We are only 565 people who’ve had the privilege to go into orbit (60 of them women).
So, it is indeed an extraordinary experience from which we come out transformed. Not so much on a physiological level (where the body’s ability to adapt to microgravity and then readapt to earth conditions is quite astonishing), but certainly on an operational level. In order to succeed in a professional career as an astronaut, one must, through lengthy training, become multitasking, multifunctional and multicultural in a complex and hostile environment. This has a definite impact on the breadth of the spectrum of our skills and abilities that give us skills for the future. It is also clearly an individual transformative experience, brought about by the global view of our planet, which the astronauts describe as an “overview effect”. We all return as ambassadors, witnesses to the vulnerable beauty of the planet and our responsibility in terms of humanity. If that were not enough, the way our fellow citizens look at our lived experience undoubtedly impacts our behavior, pushing us to set an example. We carry the dreams of many.

 

 

After having been in the operational management of missions, today I am in the transmission of knowledge; I try to share and inspire. Actively preparing for the future, encouraging careers, raising awareness of global issues and the contributions of space research and associated technologies, exploring new territories intellectually or technically, this is what motivates me every day. To ensure that every child has a dream, big or small, and that they dare to embark on their path to success. Education and imagination are two pillars of our future on which I strive to act.

I am actively working on the “return” of crews to the Moon (with women this time… within the ESA), to learn how to live and work there. Beyond scientific research and technological performance, to live in a hostile environment, constrained and with limited resources, it is an incredible place of experimentation to give us the means to pursue our Exploration objectives (manned Martian missions still require a lot of research to take place safely), to push back the limits of knowledge, to break down the boundaries of territory and culture, to tackle ignorance and reduce doubts, to discover new vistas (both intellectual and physical), to better preserve our beautiful and vulnerable planet. Keeping this “objective moon” in mind is also a way of thinking about our humanity so that we cooperate in a peaceful and united way for our survival and elevation. As Oscar Wilde beautifully wrote, “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”.

 

 

What impact can we have in helping and advising young girls who would like to embark on an ambitious scientific venture, and why not, to become astronauts ?

Cultivating curiosity, giving confidence, deconstructing clichés to open up possibilities in the minds of young girls from early childhood to adolescence, at school, in our families, in the media. We are all active parties, men and women. Reconciling science and culture by creating new narratives with meaning and commitment. Influencing the organization of work and acting together to optimize the work/life balance. Recognizing the true value of each individual’s talents. Being exemplary in our individual and collective diversity practices. But let’s not fool ourselves, we will sometimes have to push for change, and let’s be determined, because we have not yet gained all the levers of optimism. Come on girls, dare science and dare to be you !

 

Give us a dream: what was it like up there ?

On 17 August 1996, when “Soyouz” took off, I was harnessed in my seat. After we arrived at the space station, I discovered the northern lights through the porthole of the orbital block, on the horizon of the Earth, like a moving green veil. A magical moment, multiplied tenfold by the happiness of floating, free of all tension, listening to Maria Callas. In ninety minutes, I circumnavigated the world, that is to say sixteen sunsets in one day ! I contemplated our planet.

Wrapped in the atmosphere, this thin bluish film, it seemed so fragile, so vulnerable… We must preserve it. Through the opposite porthole, the Milky Way and the billions of stars that surrounded me give me the exhilarating sensation of being part of the cosmos, of accessing the third dimension: a kind of transcendence.

 

 


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