Meet astronaut “Billy-Bob” Jean-François Clervoy

jean-francois clervoy

— Watch the video above or read the transcription below —

Hi Space Lovers ! Today we are with french Astronaut Jean-François Clervoy. He did 3 missions in space, he developed the 0G flights in Europe and he is the chairman CEO of Novespace. Jean-François answers some of the questions you asked. Let’s go !


From Space With Love – Hello Jean-François and thank you so much to answer our questions today ! Could you please introduce yourself in a few words ?

Jean-François Clervoy – Hello, good morning all ! I’m 60 years old, I think I have the record of active status because I was selected as an astronaut when I was very young, 26 years old. I am one of the rare astronauts who retired when reaching the age of retirement, which is 60 years old at the European Space Agency. So that’s more than 33 years of astronaut professional activity.

I flew three times in space, aboard the space shuttle. Atlantis first, to study the atmosphere. The second time was also onboard Atlantis, to dock and resupply the russian space station MIR. The third time was aboard the space shuttle Discovery to repair the Hubble Space Telescope which was totalement failed as opposed to the other missions which were maintenance, and not repair. We will go into details if you’re interested ! I was in charge of robotic systems at NASA. I was in charged of developing the man-machine interface of the space station, the “cockpit”. It’s not like a cockpit in an aircraft, it’s a network of 20 or 30 laptops spread around the whole space station that serve as a cockpit.

hubble robotic arm

Jean-François Clervoy piloting the robotic arm to catch the Hubble Space Telescope, 1999

I was the senior advisor astronaut of the european cargo resupply ship of the space station, the biggest advanced spaceship to resupply the space station, called ATV. The first one was named Jules Verne. This was my idea because it was a new kind of ship made by Europe. 21 tons docking to the space station with a precision of less than 1 centimeter.

Besides all of this, when I was training as a flying test engineer, I made my thesis on what we call parabolic flights which are flight with aircraft during which we reproduce for real weighlessness. It’s not a simulation, we litteraly put the aircraft into the arc of an orbit. Then I started managing the first european parabolic flight program more than 30 years ago. During the 10 years I was stationned at NASA, completely involved in the 14th group of NASA astronauts, I delegated the 0G program to a subsidiary of the french space agency called Novespace.

air zero g

Air Zero G plane, Novespace

After the Columbia accident, when I realized in 2003 that my 4th space flight which was planned to the Hubble space telescope again, was canceled, I suggested ESA to detach me for part of my time as the chairman CEO of Novespace, the company that was running the 0G flights. I’m still the chairman of the company and I am involved in all the flight campaigns we do with this aircraft. We do a lot of science, a few flights are for fun for individuals but also for companies that privatize the plane for movies. Tom Cruise flew 4 times with us for the movie “The Mummy”. Champagne Mumm flew 7 times to qualify a bottle that can serve champagne in weightlessness. And I had the opportunity to race with Usain Bolt in Moon gravity in our airplane. We also flew a flew flights where we transform the plane into a night club in 0G, for a private company called Big City Beats. That was amazing !

So my career is basically engineer in astronautics at the french space agency, astronaut for 10 years at NASA with 3 space flights, expert on human space flight program for the space station. And across all this, I was the father of the first 0G flight program in Europe.


From Space With Love – Allright, thank you for this introduction. Now let’s talk about your path to become an astronaut. Why did you want to become an astronaut ? (Question by Space Lover “sevoled_vtt ” on Instagram)

Jean-François Clervoy – You know, you don’t become astronaut by chance. Nobody comes to tell you “We would like you to become an astronaut”. So all astronauts are people who decided by themselves to answer to a call for candidates. When I was a kid I wanted to go to space but I never wanted to be an astronaut. Astronaut is a job. When I was a kid, I thought that going to space was going to be very regular once grown up an adult person.

My father was a fighter pilot. I was a teenager when Apollo 11 allowed humans to walk on the Moon for the first time. I’ve always been interested in space. When I was 15, I started making my own air models, I was a big fan of remote control aircraft. I did a lot of aircraft modeling remote control. As I was doing my studies after highschool, I wanted to be a telecommander of space probes. I wanted to design, as a job, spacecrafts that go explore the solar system. I wanted to be in charge of the autopilot of satellites, in charge of managing the way we send commands to allow the spacecraft to do what we want here on Earth then billion miles from Earth. That’s what I did ! I started working on french-russian spacecraft called VEGA (Venus and Halley comet exploration mission). I worked also on the Hermes project.

VEGA space probe

VEGA space probe

Then I was selected as an astronaut only 2 years after I started to work as an astronautician, an expert in astronautics. When there was this call for becoming an astronaut, I thought “I’m a skydiver, comet pilot, I like to explore and go work in desert areas… I’m an explorer in fact ! I didn’t realized I was an explorer in my heart until people tell me “There’s a call for being an astronaut, that’s for you ! You’re programmed to be that”. I said “That’s true !” That’s the way I started the exam and the tests which are spread over 1 year.

Every 2 months, you go for 1 day or 2 to a place to do a psychological test, IQ test, psychomotricity test, medical test, space physiological special test like the rotating chair, or the vacuum chamber, or the tilting table… And then you do very expensive test when the filter is kept only like 30 people, which are like the centrifuge which is very expensive. At the end, they kept me, so I was lucky ! To summarize, to become an astronaut you need to feel inside yourself the way to do so. It must come from inside yourself. You don’t only “try” to become an astronaut. That’s something you feel. It’s your calling. It’s your destiny. Then you have to have the chance to be born in a country which has a human space program at the right time, because there is a selection only every 15 years in Europe.

jean-francois clervoy sts-66

Jean-François Clervoy preparing to his first mission in space, 1994

They select people between typically 27 and 37 years old. In practice, it’s between 30 and 35. So you have everything right but there is no selection while you are between 28 years old and 35 or 36 years old age range, you’re unlucky. Right country, right time, with typically a double master or PhD, a high level of studies, whether it’s in operational job like piloting, submarine, skydiver or SCUBA diver, submarine officer, or as an engineer… The wide range of science disciplines. But you need to have a high level of education on the Mathematics side than on Litterature or Lawyer side. At the end, you need to be lucky because when the selection process is almost finished, we declare about 25-30 people all equally fit for the job. But we select only 6 or 7, so “Why me and not the one next to me ?” So that day, I was lucky

There isn’t today a study roadmap to become an astronaut. You can’t tell like for medecine “I want to do that job so I know to do this studies”. For astronauts, we select people who already have a job, from a wide range of disciplines. The astronaut job consists of operating complex machines in hostile extreme environment. This is just that, we are operators. Operating machines means learning how they work, how to operate them in nomally and in off-nominal situations.

jean francois clervoy cockpit

Jean-François Clervoy in the cockpit of shuttle Atlantis, 1994

But we don’t do research as opposed you might ear. Astronauts spend 70% of their time aboard the ISS to operate scientific instruments. But astronauts are not the ones doing the research. People getting the data, analysis the data and publishing articles in magazines are the scientists on the ground. So that’s why initially, 60 years ago, we selected astronauts who were already operators of complex machines : fighter pilots.

But with the era of the space shuttle, we opened the selection to a wide range of professsions, still willing the operators but wider than just fighter pilots : we have helicopter pilots like Tim Peake, we have airline pilots like Claude Nicollier (swiss) and Thomas Pesquet (french), we have also SCUBA divers, Navy seals, submarine officers… But we select also in a wide range of engineering disciplines : engineering propulsion, in materials, in electronics, in computer science… We select among a wider range of scientists : oceanographers, vulcanologists, veterinarian, biologists, physiologists, chemists, astrophysicists, nuclear physicists, heart surgeon… All kind of scientists. Because in space, all disciplines of science have something interesting to do in term of research due to weightlessness and due to very specific, perfect vacuum we have outside.

jean-francois clervoy sts-84

Jean-François Clervoy and the STS-84 crew, 1997

So that’s why when I was selected in 1985 in the second group of french astronauts, among our group we had 2 test pilots, 1 engineer (myself), 2 medical doctors, 1 veterinarian and 1 material physicist. Once you’re selected you feel you have one foot in space. It’s very exciting. Once the chief of the astronauts calls you in his office, you wonder if you did something wrong. He told me “You know Jean-François, I would like to assign you to this mission ten months from now”. Wow ! This is the biggest excitement, this is almost more exciting than the day of launch when we go to the launch pad because the day you are told that you are assigned to a crew, you know it’s going to happen.


From Space With Love – I have a question about it : how did your family react when you were selected as an astronaut ? Especially your twin brother ? (Question by Space Lover “checkyminus” on reddit)

Jean-François Clervoy – When I was selected I knew it in july but I was told not tell anybody because it was going to be announced to the press only in september. But of course, I told my very close family members including my twin. He was very excited for me. He was already engaged in medicine. He was an adventurer like me : he did skydiving and SCUBA diving like me. He did do piloting training. He was very very happy for me because me being an astronaut going to space was a big part of him also going to space. He was feeling being part of this adventure.


From Space With Love – You previously talked about the astronaut training. In your opinion, what was the hardest thing during your astronaut training ? (Question by Space Lover “Dj_nat” on reddit)

Jean-François Clervoy – You know, I never felt there was anything hard. When you watch the movie “The Right Stuff” you see a lot of physical torture machines to train astronauts. This is terminated since a long time ago. When I joined the 14th group of NASA Astronaut in 1992, there was no physical training at all. We had one run in the centrifuge to experience what it looks like to go to space, the 8,5 minutes of ascent. The take-off is 1.5G, it goes up to 2.8G on the 8 axis of the body, so you have compressed on your back, on your seat, and then the last minute is 3G. In 3G, not height to feet but your body pressing on your back is quite comfortable. I mean anybody can bear that.

So we had one run in the centrifuge and we had 2 sessions of 2 hours long locked in our weekly agenda to go to the gym and exercise the way we wanted. So I enjoyed playing squash, I used to play squash for 2 hours, or sometimes jogging. Astronauts know that it’s good to be fit physically, not to be a high sportsman or woman, or champion, you just have to be fine in your whole body and to exercise regularly like you would do in your normal life, and that’s enough.

astronaut training

STS-84 crew training, 1997

The training consists mainly of briefing by engineers who design the spaceship and the systems and by astronauts who have already been in space using these systems. So getting the space flight experience from senior guys and then learning in books like you learn when you study engineering. Then we go into simulators. We start with single system simulator then we’re going to full flight simulator which mimics exactly the behaviour of the system of the space shuttle. The cockpit is the same, we have the same 1000 switches in the cockpit and the simulator is connected to the real flight control center as if the data is coming from a real space flight.

In between, instructors inject malfunctions. We don’t know in advance what will fail, neither the ground, controlers. Neither the astronauts in the simulator. We have to find a solution. They are not allowed to give us the scenario with no solution, but they can be very mean to us. Sometimes we have propulsion leak, air leak, fire onboard, short-circuit, the control stick doesn’t respond. We have to find the solution. I would say when you start learning that, it’s when its looks the hardest. Because combinations of malfunctions can be so complex that you may be fool by the sensor which fails but you don’t realize the system fails and you think this is the system that failed. So you have to think that the system is tricky.

shuttle cockpit simulator

Shuttle cockpit simulator

Intellectually, this is the hardest part of training : to get to the point when the spaceship feels like an extension of your whole body, and not like something different or separate from yourself. Few weeks before flight, I would say 2 months, as a crew we feel Superman ! We feel that the ship is our extension. We feel the beats of each system, we feel exactly what’s happening, it’s not anymore a ground calling like in the simulator first, like “Atlantis, this is Houston, we see this temperature moving that way and this voltage going low, we think you might have a problem there, get ready to go page 10 of the checklist to manage this”. We answer “Houston, Atlantis, we ready to listen”.

But close to the flight, we’re so good that we detect first what’s going to happen although we have less data than the flight control. We call “Houston, here Atlantis, we fell we are going to lose that system because we see this temperature, this sensor… We are to go page 20, tell us if you’re OK”. And we are right, we are a head of the flight controllers on the ground and we feel we are ready to go to space. So I would say to answer your question that the hardest part in training is to get to the top intellectual level of competence and expertise that makes us feel totally at ease with the mission and very sereine in terms of ability to save our life and the mission in any circumstances.


From Space With Love – Now, let’s talk about your space missions because our followers have a lot of questions about them. First, how did you during the take-off ? (Question by Space Lover “full_formal_jacket” on reddit)

Jean-François Clervoy – On my first launch, I was surprised by nothing, because I’ve talked a lot with our senior colleagues. We construct a picture in our mind of how it will feel that is very precise. And the launch, the ascent which 8,5 minutes, was exactly like I have pictured myself in my mind. You’re excited, you’re focused. For my first launch I was at the mid-deck. I had no responsibility to control the spaceship. My only responsibility was to do critical tasks in case we had to go out in flight. Because after the Challenger accident in 1986, we modified the cockpit and the mid-deck of the space shuttle in order to allow a scenario of jumping out in flight in case we canno’t join the runway.

I felt the pressure on my back. We are sitting like in an aircraft, except that an aircraft is pointing the nose up to the sky. So you rest more on your back than on your legs. The pilot was calling in the intercom the altitude. The altitude indicator runs through 3 different units. Initially, it is feet, then it is kilofeet and then the altitude is measured in nautical miles. So the unit change a few times. It’s the same for the velocity by the way. For the velocity it is nods. At a certain level of nods it is Mach number, the number of times we fly the speed of sound. And above my Mach 5, the velocity is expressed into kilofeet per second. So when you go up, after the feeling of having huge power under your back, you feel you go somewhere. You don’t know where, but you go somewhere. You feel the push.

shuttle launch

Shuttle Atlantis launch (STS-66), 1994

After 2 minutes, we are flying still vertically 5 times the speed of sound, then the sky becomes black. There is only a very small window on the mid-deck, on the side. The launch was mid-day, at noon. When you are high enough, the color of the cosmos is black. You don’t see stars, it’s just dark, emptiness, black. And after 8,5 minutes, you hear the pilot calling the countdown to “micro” main engine cut-off. You are compressed with 3G on your seat, on your back. And all of the sudden, we go in weightlessness. It is abrupt.

The week before flight we are isolated, in quarantine in our crew quarters. And Story Musgrave who has already flown 5 times, told me “Since you are on the mid-deck, you can afford to close your eyes, and tell yourself you are walking along a cliff with a very very heavy backpack on your back. You feel very heavy. And suddenly, you make a false move, a step on the side and you start free-falling off the cliff.” Because weightlessness is free-fall. Weightlessness is not the absence of weight, it’s when the only force is weight. It’s when the only remaining force on your body is gravity. And nothing helps to stop you from free-falling freely. Nothing to slow you down like the atmosphere when you skydive – after a few seconds your regular descent speed is 200km/h, 50m/s, because of the air friction. But when it’s vacuum, nothing slows you down, and you just free-fall forever, unless something stops you.

astronauts weightlessness

STS-66 crew in weightlessness, 1994

Of course, if you free-fall vertically at some point something will stop you : the atmosphere then the Earth. But if you have an horizontal velocity of 28000 km/h the free-fall trajectory has the same curve as the Earth. So you free-fall forever, indefinitly, until you do something to come back. Basically, to come back you just slow down a bit your velocity, your rocket engines on those spaceships, so that the natural free-fall trajectory will not miss the Earth continuously, but will intercept the atmosphere of the Earth because the trajectory will go down. In this sense, nothing different from what I predicted : the push on the back, the black sky, the sudden transition to weightlessness.

And then going to the window on the fly deck like 15-20 minutes after litftoff I had to take some pictures from the cockpit windows. We were above Europe. We took-off at noon in Florida and 15 minutes after we were flying above France and Germany. France was still illuminated by the sun, Germany was already at night. The terminator, the name we give to this line separating the day side and the night side of the Earth, was in between France and Germany. Above Germany, there was a huge thunderstorm. Few hundreds kilometers wide. We could see the masses of clouds illuminated from inside by the lightnings. So my first scenary of Earth seen from space was a very large, maybe 200 kilometers wide thunderstorm with very energetic lightnings. Under the clouds, we could see a big mass of cotton illuminated from inside, here and there, the lightnings were transfering their energy from one site to another location, then another location… It was like these masses of clouds were talking to each other using lightnings. It was magic.

sakurajima

Sakurajima volcano eruption from space

Earth is powerful. Earth has its own powerful meteorological life, climatic life. Then in the course of that first mission we saw volcanoes starting erupting like the Sakurajima in Japan which started erupting 3 days after liftoff. You realize Earth is powerful. Earth is not fragile like you hear many of us say. It’s a very short way to remind that we have to take care of our environment. Earth has is own climatic tectonic, cosmic life. When you see impacts of meteorits, like in Canada you can see a huge landmark left by a huge asteroid billion years ago on Earth, you realize Earth is an object in the cosmos. We will be impacted in the future again by big asteroids. It’s rare, but it happens.

What is fragile is us, life. When you look at Earth on the horizon about 250 km from Earth, beyond that distance it’s behind the horizon, you see the atmosphere from the side. You don’t see it from above but you see it from aside, 90° horizontally. You realize that it’s very very thin relatively to the size of the Earth. Compared to a globe that sometimes we have in our desk, about 30 cm diameter, taken to the scale of this kind of globes, the atmosphere is typically the thickness of a sheet a paper. It’s very thin. So this is when you realize life, plants, animals, us, we humans, depend on a very very thin layer of gas. This is when your realize how fragile is the current equilibrium of our ecosystem which allows us to be on this planet.

earth atmosphere

Earth atmosphere

Coming back to the overall mission, I want to remind the characteritics of this first flight. We were studiying the atmosphere, that means two characteristics : we were flying most of the time upside-down, on our back. That means I was watching the Earth through the overhead windows in the cockpit, which are on the “sealing”. And we were on a high inclination orbit above the equator plane. That mean from Florida we launched in direction more to the north than “due east”. So we don’t benefit much the centrifugal effect of the Earth rotation. That is why our altitude was quite to 300 kilometers altitude. But we reached an altitude of about 60° which means our field of view could reach the polar circle typically.

On my second spaceflight, resupplying the russian space station MIR, the orbit is less inclined above the equator plane, so we benefit a bit more of the centrifugal force of the Earth rotation so we could fly higher, 400 km. What was nice is docking to a space station, to a spaceship which is already there in space, with people inside, it’s very moving. So we changed 4 tons of equipments (clothing, food, spare parts, also a huge 200kg system which converse water from urine into oxygen, and also 1 crew member.

mir astronauts

MIR space station crew, 1997

In my third spaceflight, to repair the Hubble space telescope, we were twice the altitude of my first spaceflight because we launched due east. We wanted to benefit to the maximum expect the centrifugal force of Earth rotation because the Hubble space telescope has no propulsion system. It’s just an assembly of metallic pieces, electronics and optics. It is purely free-falling. There is no way to change its orbit when it’s flying by itself. So in order to prevent the telescope coming back due to atmosphere friction (because in space even at 300, 400, 600 kilometeres there is still atmosphere, very low pressure 0.000001 bar but there is still atmosphere). So at 300 km altitude, if the telescope had been there, within 1 year it comes back on Earth. But at 600 km it will take more than 10 years for the telescope to come back naturally by slowing down the velocity due to the residual atmosphere. But in between were missions to reboost the telescope.

So it was a low inclination orbit, very close to the equator, I could see only a few thousands miles north and south above and below the equator, but I was at the highest altitude ever by an human spaceflight, not counting the Apollo missions. So I did three different missions : the first one was dedicated to Earth with the best orbit combination to look at the Earth, the second was very moving for humans, and the third was the best mission for serving science because on this mission Hubble was totally failed. When I released the Hubble space telescope in space I was in charge of flying the robotic arm. On Christmas day, the ground told us “The telescope is fully repaired, 100% operational”. So we were happy, that was the best Christmas gift for me.


From Space With Love – I have a question about Hubble. One follower asks how hard was it to handle Hubble with the robotic arm and how did you feel during this maneuver. Did you feel tense or concentration ?… (Question by Space Lover “RoninTarget” on reddit)

Jean-François Clervoy – You know, I was assigned to this mission sooner than expected because it was not yet my turn to fly again in space. When the chief of the office called me, he started on a joke. He started to make me believe that I had made a mistake in the air on a T-38, a supersonic twinjet aircraft that we use for travel. I was very concerned then he started laughing and told me “No, I want to assign you to an Hubble mission”. WOW ! He said “You know, it is not your turn but we know you are one of our best astronauts for flying the robotic arm and we want an astronaut ready to go within 6 months” instead of 1 year of training, because normally we train 1 year for a space shuttle program.

So I was assigned on this mission because of my specificity expertise on the robotic arm which allowed me to get a very specific authorization from the flight director, I was the only one to get it. I was told “You are allowed to fly the robotic arm in course mode of velocity”. Because the robotic arm can be flown in two given modes : very slow motion or fast motion. And there is a rule which says that normally if you are less than 10 feets from the structure, fast motions are prohibited. But I was so precise, I demonstrated such a master of my task, that the flight director told me “Jean-François, you are allowed for fast motion because I trust you to not put in danger the crew member sometimes attached at the tip of the robotic arm, or to not damage the telescope.

hubble space telescope

Hubble Space Telescope approaching the space shuttle, 1999

And the day before launch, Dan Goldin, the administrator of NASA, came to visit us in quarantine on september 18, 1999. He said to all of us “We’ve just lost the space probe on Mars because of a stupid errror on mixing units. We count on you to relight the image of NASA. And you Billy-Bob – my nickname at NASA – when you are in charge of capturing the Hubble space telescope, I know that it will not be stable because it lost altitude control. Remember that you will have a $ 6 billion equipment in your hand. We count on you to catch this wobbling Hubble telescope”. So he tried to put the pressure but he knew I was very at ease. You know, once I saw the telescope I was told it was not going to be cooperative as opposed to all the other Hubble missions. And it was upside down instead of being up right, and it was wobbling, rotating slowly around itself.

The instructors told me “We canno’t predict which orientation it will have” because what had failed on the telescope were the gyroscopes, little spinners, small pieces that turn very fast and allow fine-tuning orientation. And the commander of Discovery wanted to stop Discovery exactly still on altitude of the telescope, but he couldn’t do it because the only way to move Discovery are small rocket engines. It’s either too much up or too much down. So I was keeping telling “Curt, I feel fine, I can grab it even if it is drifting slightly, I’m ready”. “No, I want to offer you a better telescope relative positioning”. After two minutes, he told me “OK Billy Bob, you have it, I canno’t do better”. You know, I felt the robotic arm was like an extension of my all body. It was like my third arm. Without feeling under pressure, without finding the task too hard. I moved the tip of the robotic arm close to the telescope.

jean-francois clervoy hubble

Jean-François Clervoy piloting the robotic arm to catch Hubble, 1999

I started to matching the drifting “rights”, the rotation “rights”. At the same time I was closing towards the telescope, I grabbed it, I called on the radio capture. On the ground they were very relax, reassured that everything was fine. Then I moved the telescope using fast rate. I made a pirouette with the telescope, horizontally then vertically in order to fix it on a craddle in the cargo bay of the space shuttle. Quite fast actually. The ground controller in charge of the robotic arm was a bit concerned because I was very close to triggering the velocity max rate alarm. I stayed within my limits and then we were ready to do the spacewalks the next days !


From Space With Love – One or two questions to conclude. Let’s talk about your point of view about future human spaceflights. How do you see the human spaceflight in 10 years, and in the future aside from low Earth orbit, the Moon and Mars, in your opinion what will be the next big step for humanity in space ? (Question by Space Lover “AnubisTubis” on reddit)

Jean-François Clervoy – I think we will probably never have anymore one day we’re all humans are on Earth, including aboard aircrafts. I think we are always at least one or two humans in space. 10 years from now, there will be one big space station around Earth, the chinese one for research, open to international cooperation. There will be likely a smallest space station for private business, for tourism, hotels in low Earth orbit.

We will have again humans on the Moon and around the Moon because the new space station will be assemble in the next decade around the Moon. We call it the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. It will be manned about 1 month per year and sometimes one of the crew members will go to the surface of the Moon. I think that the next big step in the next decade will be that humans will be again far, very far from Earth. Still under the influence of Earth, because the Moon is the satellite of Earth, but they will be in direct influence of an other celestial object, the Moon. They will orbit the Moon, they will walk on the Moon, they will work on the Moon.

nasa artemis

NASA Artemis mission on the Moon

In the next decade after that, in the 2030’s, I expect the first human mission to go to Mars. Not on the surface of the planet Mars, but flying around Mars and coming back. We can expect the first humans to go so far about 20 years from now. It will be the biggest step in humankind, even biggest than the first man on the Moon. Because for the first time people will not see the Earth, will not be able to talk to the Earth in real time, and worst of all won’t be able to come back very quickly in an ultimate emergency scenario.

From the beginning of human spaceflight there has always been a scenario available in the checklist onboard all spaceships since the Gagarin flight : “How to go back to Earth NOW”. From the Moon it took between 2 or 3 days, from low Earth orbit, from the space station it takes few hours, maximum half a day. But once you fly towards Mars, whatever happens you are commited to stay in space aboard your spaceship for 7 months. That will be new. That’s why I think the first mission to Mars will take another around 15 years.

mars simulation

AMADEE-18 Mars simulation

And then, after this first mission towards Mars, but not landing, flying around and controlling robots real time from Mars orbit – we will do a robot control more efficient than from Earth, maybe in the 2040’s we can expect the first human to land and walk on the surface of Mars. That will be a big big deal !


From Space With Love – OK, so to conclude, I have a funny for you. You were in the weightlessness plane with Usain Bolt. So, were you faster than him in weightlessness ? (Question by Space Lover “zamix7160” on Instagram)

Jean-François Clervoy – Yes indeed I was lucky to fly in space with Usain Bolt last fall. It was a fly to demonstrate how a bottle design developed by Mumm, which is working in weightlessness to search champagne, still respected the AOC criteria. Many journalists were on board to attend the demonstration of how this bottle works. Usain Bolt being an ambassador of the Mumm champagne brand, he was on board. He was supposed to race back and forth on the Moon gravity. Because in our plane we can reproduce not only pure weightlessness but we can also reproduce the true real field of gravity like on the Moon or on Mars. Not 0G, but reduced gravity.

And then with the designer of the bottle, we decided “You know, we should run with it, it’s more fun !” Then I said “Yes, we are used to weightlessness and to this aircraft, we will beat him. We have to win.” But actually, he has such wide strides, such a fast pace with his long legs that he surprised us. To answer your question, he won the race on the Moon gravity but we won the control of our body. Because during the race, he hit twice the walls. So if we count the criteria that the race must remain on the floor, we won. But if we count the criteria was who is the fastest on the Moon gravity to go back and forth, using floor and the walls, he won. He was very happy, he turns back, he sees us (the designer and myself behind him). He hit his chest and says “Yes, I won” and then we drunk champagne on board.

usain bolt weightlessness

Usain Bolt running in weightlessness


From Space With Love – So you won the style contest, and he is the fastest !

Jean-François Clervoy – He is the fastest man, not only on Earth but also on the Moon !


From Space With Love – So thank you very much Jean-François for this interview, it was great !

Jean-François Clervoy – Thank you for asking these questions, I hope I was not too long ! But anyway if you want answers to more questions I will be happy to do it again.


From Space With Love – OK, goodbye and thank you Jean-François !

Jean-François Clervoy – Bye-bye !

Images by NASA / ESA / Novespace / AMADEE-18 / Daderot

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