Photo: Raphael Lejuice During a visit to NASA's Lyndon Johnson Space Center in Houston in December 2023.
At the end of 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) proudly presented its new cycle of astronauts in Paris. Rafael Liegua, as he is known, also includes a Belgian. Since his choice, 35-year-old Wall's life has completely changed. He moved with his girlfriend and two young children to Cologne, where the ESA training center is located. In April 2023, Leigua began his training there, with four other “professional astronauts” training. This includes a one-year basic training course during which future astronauts are introduced to the principles of space travel, learn how to operate and operate spacecraft such as capsules and space stations, practice spacewalking, and learn some Russian as well.
Although his basic training is not over yet, Leigua has already seen another astronaut from his class depart for space in January. Swede Markus Wandt flew a special mission for the American company Axiom Space. The destination was the International Space Station (ISS), where Liégeois would also go in a few years. However, Wandt was selected to be a “reservist” and not part of ESA's regular astronaut corps — reservists receive only limited mission-specific training. His space mission will only last about two weeks, and he is scheduled to return this weekend.
We had the opportunity to speak to Liégeois during the Space Conference held in Brussels at the end of January. What was he thinking and feeling when he saw his colleague, who he trained with last year in Cologne, making his first space flight? “I'm very happy for Marcus. He looked very comfortable during the launch and on the ISS. But as a trained fighter pilot, he's pretty ordinary. And of course I also thought: I'll be there soon.”
However, Markus Wandt had been selected as an astronaut just one year earlier, just like you. Are you also ready for a space mission now?
“Physically yes, because that's what we were selected for. But as professional astronauts, we are trained for long-duration missions of about six months, where we have different responsibilities and have to perform different tasks. That's why we need training.” Selected Reservists for short missions like those in Axiom Space. It's a plus if you're already a pilot like Marcus.
Basic training ends in April. What comes next?
'then Pre-mission training, where we will delve deeper into, among other things, the International Space Station, the parts that make up the space station, and the systems that operate and control it. At least, that would be the case for four out of five professional astronauts in training. After all, one of us will be assigned to a mission in May, and then depart for Houston to receive mission-specific training at the NASA Training Center.
You are usually in Cologne. Does training there seem like a full-time job?
“In terms of hours, it's comparable, yes.” The difference is that we have a very diverse program and it requires us to have maximum concentration in every part. I feel compelled to do this, also because of the teachers who prepared themselves for months to teach us.
I recently did a full day of training in the pool, because the conditions are fairly close to weightlessness, so you could do a space walk for example. The day before I had prepared well for training, the next day a comprehensive assessment followed. One activity can easily take an entire week.'
What has been the hardest for you so far?
“It's not the training itself, but the fact that I'm away from home a lot. We often travel, and that also includes conferences like this one. Our family has had to find a new balance since we moved to Cologne (Liegua previously worked as a brain researcher at the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne.). And also because we now live in a country where not everyone speaks English.
I expected you to call it a crash course in Russian.
“We had a total of eight weeks of Russian. It wasn't easy, of course, but I expected it to be more difficult. Overall, it wasn't too bad.
Don't you sometimes miss the science, the brain research, that you've ultimately studied for for years?
“I still follow my field, for example, I sometimes read a new study that has been published. But of course I don't delve into it anymore. (He laughs) I do it now in the pool. I miss that by the way. As a scientist, I had the luxury and time to study things very carefully. This is often not the case in current training. We have learned in so many different areas that it is impossible to zoom in on every detail. There's no time for that, and I miss that depth a little bit.
In addition to your PhD in Brain Science, you also have a diploma in balloon piloting. Have you traveled since your selection?
The last time was in January 2023, a year ago. I haven't had time for that since. “I think I might have to renew my license if I want to fly again.”
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