40 years ago, the first French astronaut to fly to the stars

40 years ago, the first French astronaut to fly to the stars

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Paris (AFP) – On June 24, 1982, Jean-Loup Chretien took off from Baikonur to join the Soviet space station Salyut. He became the first Frenchman to fly in space, paving the way, in the midst of the revival of the Cold War, for an intense scientific collaboration between Paris and Moscow.

Its mission was called “PVH” (“First Manned Flight”): an eight-day stay aboard the Salyut 7, the predecessor of Mir Station.

A permanent crew guest, Jean-Loup Chretien was the first foreign visitor not to come from a communist country, and the first French cosmonaut.

Quite an icon. But he put his head elsewhere on liftoff from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. “Don’t think about it. My state of mind was the end of a patience test, the culmination of a dream, and a lot of excitement,” a former astronaut, now 84, told AFP.

He remembers the “moment of shock” when the Soyuz rocket he rested on board with Alexander Ivanchenkov and Vladimir Dzhanibekov took off. “After two years of training, two weeks of quarantine… it all happened so fast!”

The launch of the Soyuz T-6 rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, June 24, 1982 -AFP / Archives

“In less than ten minutes, I found myself in orbit, and discovered the magic of weightlessness. Through the window, I saw the Earth… It was an unforgettable sight,” he said, still moving.

Childhood dream

A fighter pilot, he was 44 years old. As a child, Morlaix Airport (Finisterre), near which he lived, gave him a “fascination with the third dimension.”

Tintin’s albums “Objectif Lune” and “On a marche sur la Lune” cement this passion for the sky. And when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space (1961), a student at the Salon de Provence Flight School set himself the ambition of becoming an astronaut.

Frenchmen Jean-Loup Chretien (right) and Patrick Baudry train in a replica of Soyuz on October 24, 1981 in Star City near Moscow
Frenchmen Jean-Loup Chretien (right) and Patrick Baudry train in a replica of Soyuz on October 24, 1981 in Star City near Moscow Georges Ben Dhaim Agence France-Presse / archive

But the Air Force doesn’t keep it in its pick. “At 41, I was very old.” He then presents himself as a freelance candidate, skips the various stages, and is “pleasantly surprised” to be finally retained by the CNES to prepare for the Franco-Soviet mission, with Patrick Baudry as a backup replacement.

“PVH” represents the culmination of the French desire to cooperate with the Soviet Union led by de Gaulle, who in 1966 was the first Western head of state to go to Baikonur, in the course of relaxation, explains Lionel Suchet, Director General of the USSR. French space agency.

Soviet secret

But when Jean-Loup Chretien began his training in Star City near Moscow, relations between East and West again soured with the war in Afghanistan: “As soon as we arrived, the French ambassador told us + that you are ready to come back again.”

“It was a complicated period. On the part of the Soviet Union, everything was a secret. Jean-Loup and Patrick suffered from it, they were trained in a +tight + manner, without connection to their rear base in France” confirms Lionel Suchet.

President François Mitterrand receives Jean-Loup Chretien (center) and Patrick Baudry at the Elysee for a celebration on July 14, 1982
President François Mitterrand receives Jean-Loup Chretien (center) and Patrick Baudry at the Elysee for a celebration on July 14, 1982 PHILIPPE BOUCHON AFP / ARCHIVES

On the French side, “CNES technicians had to deal with Russian interpreters who were in fact engineers in disguise and had no right to provide information. Conversely, those who had the right to speak to us knew nothing… very slow, while We were starting from scratch on manned flights.”

“pioneer”

Fortunately, says Jean-Loup Chretien, “we immediately dealt with extraordinary people who did everything to make things go well.”

Lionel Suchet, who weaves close relations with the Russians with “diplomacy”, salutes Lionel Suchet, “He played a leading role. We owe him a lot.”

On these bases, Paris and Moscow were able to build space cooperation, which accelerated in the early 1990s. “With the fall of the Berlin Wall, we finally saw the people we were working with in a subtle way. For us as well as for the Russians, who since Gagarin are doing extraordinary things without being able to share them,” according to the CNES director.

Crew of a Soyuz T-6 (Russian Alexander Ivanchenkov and Vladimir Dzhanbekov and French Jean-Loup Chretien) in Star City near Moscow before take-off on June 21, 1982
Crew of a Soyuz T-6 (Russian Alexander Ivanchenkov and Vladimir Dzhanbekov and French Jean-Loup Chretien) in Star City near Moscow before take-off on June 21, 1982 -AFP / Archives

Scientists and technicians from both countries have worked for years in “symbiosis” in manned flights. This period reached its climax in the early 2000s.

Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Jean-Loup Chretien’s flight will take place, Friday at CNES, without his former crew, the space agency regrets.

Jean-Loup Chretien writes his name in chalk on a Soyuz capsule, on July 2, 1982, while returning from the Soyuz T6 space mission in the Kazakhstan desert
Jean-Loup Chretien writes his name in chalk on a Soyuz capsule, on July 2, 1982, while returning from the Soyuz T6 space mission in the Kazakhstan desert Staff AFP / Archives

“It is sad,” comments Jean-Loup Chretien, in daily contact with his former Russian colleagues and friends.

After “PVH”, he did not stop his desire to find stars. We went so far as to personally convince Mikhail Gorbachev of the interest of sending a French man into space, counting 43 days.

Since then, nine French astronauts have conducted missions there.

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