Thomas Pesquet, backup for Expedition 48

Thomas Pesquet, backup for Expedition 48

The European Space Agency’s French astronaut has trained as backup for the crew of Expedition 48 of the ISS which will take off on board Soyuz MS-01 at the end of June. If needed, he’s therefore ready to go!

Thomas Pesquet, along with 5 other people, was selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) as an astronaut in 2009. But it’s a long road to space, because after a tough selection process, astronauts need to learn the job and then wait to be assigned a mission. And once that’s done, you have to train for your flight!

Thomas Pesquet - NASA - Houston

Like all astronauts preparing for a mission to the ISS, Thomas Pesquet has gone through the training centres of the space station’s 5 partner space agencies (NASA for the United States, Roscosmos for Russia, ESA for Europe, CSA for Canada and JAXA for Japan). Here, he is at NASA’s Johnson Centre in Houston familiarising himself with the American spacesuits. Image credit: NASA

But that’s not all. During this preparation, an astronaut often takes on the role of backup within a crew. What does this mean? In Russia, the entire crew for a future Soyuz flight is assigned a backup crew, ready to take over in the event of a problem (health or injury for example).
And this will once again be the case for Thomas Pesquet at the end of June.

The backup must be ready to leave!

In June, the changeover of half the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) will take place, firstly with the scheduled return on 18 June of Timothy Peak (British, ESA), Timothy Kopra (USA, NASA) and Yuri Malenchenko (Russia, Roscosmos) on board Soyuz TMA-19M. The trio remaining in space, (the American Williams and the Russians Ovchinin and Skripochka) then become the first half of Expedition 48. The second half is due to take off for the ISS on 24 June on board Soyuz MS-01 (new version of the venerable Russian three-seater spacecraft).

MS-01 crew - ISS

From left to right: Kathleen Rubins, Anatoli Ivanishin and Takuya Onishi. These are the three that are scheduled to take off to the ISS on board Soyuz MS-01 at the end of June. Thomas Pesquet is one of their backup crew. Image credit: NASA/Stephanie Stoll

These are Anatoli Ivanishin (Russia, Roscosmos), Takuya Onishi (Japan, JAXA) and Kathleen Rubins (USA, NASA). While the backup crew is comprised of Oleg Novitskiy (Russia, Roscosmos), Peggy Whitson (USA, NASA) and Thomas Pesquet (France, ESA).
The principle is that the backup crew must be ready to depart in exactly the same way as the primary crew. In theory, including the day before and even the day of launch itself!

MS-01 - doublure

The backup crew for MS-01 (from left to right): Peggy Whitson, Oleg Novitskiy and Thomas Pesquet. They are sat in front of a Soyuz simulator at the Star City training centre in a suburb of Moscow. Image credit: NASA/Stephanie Stoll

Preparing for such a role is certainly very useful as training for a future mission, but it also means a lot more work for the astronauts. Thomas Pesquet knows the situation well since he was backup for flight Soyuz TMA-18M in September 2015 on board which his ESA colleague, the Danish Andreas Mogensen travelled to the ISS.

Mogensen - Pesquet - ESA

Thomas Pesquet (right) next to Andreas Mogensen. Last year, the Frenchman was part of the backup crew for that of his ESA colleague. Image credit: ESA

Thomas Pesquet talks about his backup training

Despite a busy schedule, the Frenchman, who prior to his selection was a pilot for Air France, continues to share his experiences on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. He’s very fond of this method because he sees it as a lively and effective way of involving the general public in the space adventure. So on 20 May he posted on Facebook: “Another intense week of training comes to an end in Star City. After the hardships of the centrifuge, it is the turn of the manual override. Next week: final tests in Soyuz simulator and ISS modules. Then: heading to Baikonur are the crew of Soyuz MS-01 and their backups: us!”
Star City is the Russian training centre in the Moscow suburbs. Furthermore, the French TV channel TF1 recently broadcast a report on Thomas Pesquet’s preparation..

Like the primary crew, the backup crew must pass the exams that certify them ready to leave. Giving the Frenchman an opportunity to communicate using his trademark sense of humour. So, when asked whether the exams went well, he tweeted “We rocked: just enough mistakes to make the prime crew look better tomorrow! ;)”.
In June, Thomas Pesquet will once again be ready to leave just in case. But in November, it will no longer be “just in case”, this time he will be part of the primary crew with the American Peggy Whitson and the Russian Oleg Novitskiy with whom he is backup crew for MS-01.

Pesquet - Cité des Etoiles

Thomas Pesquet shakes hands with one of his instructors: the exam for Soyuz is successful! The Frenchman and his 2 colleagues are therefore fit to leave as backup crew if necessary. Image credit: Thomas Pesquet’s Facebook account

From November 2016, Thomas Pesquet will be part of Expedition 50, then Expedition 51 of the ISS. The ESA section of the mission is entitled Proxima. A year ago, in May 2015, he gave us his feelings about his fast-approaching departure for Earth’s orbit.