An interview with Jean-François Clervoy

This interview of Jean-François Clervoy was conducted by Louis de Gouyon Matignon for Space Legal Issues on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in the CNES office of Jean-François Clervoy in Paris, France.

Hello Jean-François Clervoy and thank you for receiving me. Could you present yourself?

Thank you very much. Yes, with pleasure. My name is Jean-François Clervoy and I’m sixty years old. I started working in 1983 at CNES (Centre national d’études spatiales or National Centre for Space Studies), the French space agency, as an engineer responsible for the satellite attitude and orbit control system, after having studied at the École Polytechnique (a French public institution of higher education and research in Palaiseau, a suburb located south from Paris) and the ISAE-SUPAERO – Institut Supérieur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace. One year after joining CNES, I started a selection to become an astronaut; the approach is personal, one never comes to ask an astronaut “hey, we would like you to be an astronaut”, all astronauts are people who have had the personal step to become an astronaut.

They took me after one year (the tests are spread over a year or so), and there, the CNES sent me to do the EPNER (École du personnel navigant d’essais et de réception), the French test pilot school, based on the Istres Le Tube Airbase, France, one of the five main test pilot schools in the western hemisphere. The school is near Marseille. There are many formations offered there (test pilot, test navigational engineer, test navigator experimenter…).

So I became a test engineer. I did my dissertation on parabolic flights. I studied how, depending on the specific characteristics of an aircraft, we can define the ideal manoeuvre for this aircraft, allowing it to create true weightlessness, depending on engine performance. It depends on the altitude and the speed. Not necessarily the same duration of weightlessness, depending on altitude and speed. In the Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet, a light attack jet and advanced jet trainer co-manufactured by Dassault Aviation of France and Dornier Flugzeugwerke of Germany, I have experienced forty seconds of weightlessness. On a big carrier, it’s more like twenty seconds.

In the process, I proposed to CNES that we develop in France a parabolic flight program: these are flights in which we create true weightlessness, but it lasts only twenty-two seconds, dozens of times per flight (thirty-one times in total). All accumulated, it’s twelve minutes of weightlessness. At that time, European scientists went to the United States of America to carry out experiments, so the CNES boss told me that if I could convince other European scientists to go on our plane, if we could develop one, then I would have carte blanche.

That’s how I created the first true parabolic flight program in Europe, based on a Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle, a French short/medium-range jet airliner, which later was succeeded by an Airbus A300, and now an Airbus A310. So I took care of that, of this project. I was part-time astronaut attached to the Hermes program (Hermes was a proposed spaceplane designed by the French CNES; Hermes was to have been part of a crewed space flight program) and half-time detached to the flight test centre, so I was program manager to develop these parabolic flights.

At the end of the École Polytechnique, I chose the DGA (Direction générale de l’armement). I left CNES in 1992 to join the ESA astronauts. So I entrusted the parabolic flights to a subsidiary of CNES called Novespace. ESA seconded me to NASA. And there, I spent ten years treated by the Americans as one of theirs. I joined the NASA Astronaut Group 14. NASA Astronaut Group 14 or “The Hogs” was a group of twenty-four astronauts announced by NASA on December 5, 1992. The group’s name derived from The Muppet Show skit “Pigs in Space” and from the group’s sponsorship of a pot-bellied pig at the Houston Zoo. NASA has assigned me flying as an American.

I was one of the first of my promotion to fly, the first flight dedicated to the study of the atmosphere. There was not a single ESA manipulation in this flight. Second flight, it was to supply the Russian space station Mir (Mir was a space station that operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001, operated by the Soviet Union and later by Russia. Mir was the first modular space station and was assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996. It had a greater mass than any previous spacecraft). During this flight, there was a little ESA experience. Then the third flight, I was assigned to Hubble’s repair mission. After, I returned in 2001 to France.

I suggested to ESA that the agency integrate me into the program that developed the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). It’s a big supply ship, the biggest and most powerful of all: totally automated. The Automated Transfer Vehicle, originally Ariane Transfer Vehicle or ATV, was an expendable cargo spacecraft developed by the European Space Agency and used for space cargo transport. The ATV design was launched to orbit five times, exclusively by the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle. I told them that I could help to develop the ATV, having refuelled the Mir station. That’s how I was Senior Advisor Astronaut of the ATV project. Then, the director of ESA told me that they were planning to put me on a fourth flight, on Hubble again, but not as a pilot of the robotic arm, but in EVA output, it was around 2005. Then, the Columbia accident stopped everything. So I did not fly a fourth time.

At that time, the CEO of Novespace was retiring, so I told ESA that I could fulfil the duties of CEO, while continuing my work as an astronaut on the ground. For an astronaut, the main working time is on the ground, it’s a chance to fly. We have a role of consultant, expert to test materials. From 2006, I was CEO of Novespace. In 2008, I opened the Novespace parabolic flights to the public. For six years, flights have been open to tourists. Since December, I left the active body of ESA. In summary, throughout my career, I have been an astronautics engineer on the Spot, Hermes and Vega projects, astronaut about ten years at NASA, Senior Advisor Astronaut of the ATV, CEO of Novespace. I continued half-time to my role as an astronaut on the ground.

Jean-François Clervoy, what is the job of astronaut?

The job of astronaut is to be a complex machine operator in a hostile and extreme environment. It’s an operator’s job. We are entrusted with complex machines, we learn how they work, and after, how to use them, which is not the same thing. You can learn to drive without understanding how a car works and understand how a car works without knowing how to drive. An astronaut must know how his car works and how to drive it. An astronaut must know his ship and, in a second time, learn to perform the right manoeuvres in the right order and react to breakdowns. This is our training. That’s why astronauts are initially selected from the complex machine operators.

So what are the most complex machines before astronautics? These are the fighter planes. These are machines that condense in the smallest volume a complex mechanism, and there is only one operator to make the decisions quickly. That’s why we are selected here. Patrick Baudry and Jean-Loup Chrétien are fighter pilots. But since the American Space Shuttle era, it has changed. The selection has opened wide.

Today, we select the astronauts among the professions of engineers. In materials, computer science, electronics, propulsion… And also in telecommunications, techniques that have to do with space anyway. An extremely wide range of scientific professions. There are PhD students in volcanology, oceanographers, chemists, biologists, physiologists, doctors (cardiac surgeons), veterinarians…

And even among the operators, we opened, it is not only fighter pilots but also pilots of helicopters, professional divers, submariners… It is very broad. Once selected, we are all in the same boat, we learn and all do the same job. A veterinarian will be trained in the same tasks as the volcanologist. Astronauts do not do research in the ISS, they are operators of scientific equipment and science is done by ground researchers who receive the data, analyse the data and publish in the journals.

People think that scientific astronauts are selected to practice their science in space. There has been a bit of that in the past, with the category called Payload Specialists. A payload specialist (PS) was an individual selected and trained by commercial or research organisations for flights of a specific payload on a NASA Space Shuttle mission. People assigned as payload specialists included individuals selected by the research community, a company or consortium flying a commercial payload aboard the spacecraft, and non-NASA astronauts designated by international partners. The term refers to both the individual and to the position on the Shuttle crew.

I am part of the first officially international promotion, NASA Astronaut Group 14. This NASA Astronaut Group 14 responds to NASA’s call to its partners, which said: “You will be a partner of the International Space Station ISS with us, so that you have already experienced astronauts, send us one or two astronauts from home, selected on certain criteria, and we will treat them as ours. They will fly in the American Space Shuttle, they will experience spaceflight”. I would like to point out that Claude Nicollier. Claude Nicollier is the first astronaut from Switzerland. He has flown on four Space Shuttle missions. He is the first non-American to fly with the title of Mission Specialist, a professional astronaut title for NASA. At NASA, the two astronaut professions are Pilot (as part of the Space Shuttle) and Mission Specialist. Today, the pilot function no longer exists, it is Flight Engineer (and there are different degrees for different systems).

Jean-François Clervoy, what is the status of astronauts?

I have a military status because of my choice to join the DGA after École Polytechnique. Initially, the astronauts were military: the first Russians, Americans, Chinese and French… Not the first Europeans (a Dutch and German scientist, a Swiss scientist pilot for Swiss Air). In space agencies, the astronaut has a status of the company. The astronaut functions according to the civil regime of the organisation. Organisations that have employed astronauts, other than Chinese and Russians, are civilian organisations. They gave a civil status to the astronaut. At first, the Russians were military. Among the Chinese, it is the military that manages manned flights. Roscosmos became a civilian organisation. The Chinese have selected for the first time last year civil scientists. It’s interesting to notice that there are more and more scientists and fewer and fewer military pilots.

Jean-François Clervoy, how much does an astronaut make?

It varies enormously, but the astronaut remains an official. At ESA, we belong exactly to the same salary grid that we call European coordinated international organisations (NATO, European Commission…); it’s the same grid. It starts at four thousand euros after tax. At the end of the career, it’s around ten thousand euros after tax. In Russia, it is an important motivating factor. Some Russian cosmonauts chose to be cosmonauts for the money, it was then an important criterion. Americans earn as soldiers on a base.

Jean-François Clervoy, and the Overview Effect?

For me, Jean-François Clervoy, the Overview Effect is a combination of sensory effects that lead to emotional and intellectual effects, sometimes spiritual. The field of view carries far, the contents change quickly, it is beautiful because the Earth shelters the living, with a real activity. It is very contrasted and colourful. It moves, it makes even cry. It raises questions about how the Earth works and what our role is on Earth, the big spaceship. It elevates the soul, the reflection of the human above material things, conflictual or relational. We understand the fragility of the living (and not the Earth), it is an experience that makes it possible not to see the artificial boundaries. What is also interesting in the Overview Effect is that international crews are watching the planet together and no longer feel separated.

Thank you very much Jean-François Clervoy.