How Claude Nicollier creates space as an astronaut

Happyplaces Stories (video)

Marcel Kampman
Jun 30, 2016 · 16 min read

Happyplaces Project is a quest to learn how people create space. So, I had a very simple thought: then I also need to talk to an astronaut. And with that thought, I had a flashback of LIFT Conference, where I was a speaker in 2011. Just like a Swiss astronaut, Claude Nicollier — with four trips to space under his belt — sharing his experiences at the international space station, working on the Hubble telescope, and his visions for the future of space exploration.

Claude in his office at the Swiss Space Center at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

I remember that I was very excited to be in this line-up, with an astronaut. An astronaut, one of the most given answers to the question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ amongst little boys I think. Made me think of one time where Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels† visited a small gathering when I was very little in the small city where I live, where people were trading stamps with a space theme. I was so incredibly amazed and captivated by this guy who had been in space. In space! Imagine that! Now Dutch astronaut André Kuipers is doing the same thing, so wonderful, I almost relive and imagine the excitement kids must feel listening to these amazing stories from a place only little people have ever been.

Pictures from LIFT Conference 2011 by by Ivo Näpflin. Left image: Me, delivering my Dreamschool talk. Right image: Claude in conversation with LIFT founder Laurent Haug.

I remember, sitting in the conference room, still a bit high from my talk and all the movement, reactions it evoked which was really amazing, when Claude entered the stage. He got the double amount of time for his talk to share his adventures and views with the audience. But in his introduction, he referred back to some speakers that spoke before him. He also mentioned me. Bliss. LIFT also records all talks, so I dove into their archives to look p his talks, als there it was:

‘I enjoyed the presentations by the ones who proceeded me in this last session of LIFT11. There will be a little bit of overlap in what have been said and what I will say. I must say I enjoyed very much the presentation of Marcel this morning, Dreamschool… (…) and the presentation from Tara Shears about the CERN research, on the Large Hedron Collider and the search for the Higgs particle. There are a lot of correlations between what I will say and what was said this morning in these two presentations. The ‘dream idea’ is very present in space. Going into space represents a very deep dream of humanity…’

For me enough reason to look up his details, kindly shared by Laurent Haug (the founder of LIFT) and sent him a question together with a detailed description of my project:

Hi Claude,

We’ve met some time ago at LIFT in Geneva, where we both gave a talk. You mention me here http://videos.liftconference.com/video/1168592/claude-nicollier-the-reality at 01:38 about Dreamschool. Thank you for that. Made my day.

I have a question. Would it be possible to do a short interview (long is of course always a great option too) with you on camera? I’m working on a personal project: Happyplaces Project. Would be amazing.

Hope to hear from you.

And thankfully, he responded positively to my question, that same day. I was really excited, we agreed on a date and time, I booked a flight to Geneva, rented a car and drove to Lausanne, where Claude is working at the Swiss Space Center at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). I arrived really early, half an hour before our scheduled meeting time at 09am. Because He would only have an hour, and I also needed to build up my camera beforehand and getting lost on those university campuses is rather simple I learned from visits to other professors. After some searching, I located his department and waited. No Claude at 09am. He eventually arrived almost 20 minutes late. I remember feeling a bit sad, because I also had learned that such a short amount of time is not really sufficient to get the kind of comfort for the kind of conversation I’m aiming for. I’m not particularly interested in talking business cards and just stories. That’s where conferences are usually for. I wanted to learn about him, and also a bit about his ‘overview effect’ experience. The Overview Effect, first described by author Frank White in 1987, is an experience that is said to transform astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it. Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

‘I don’t know yet’

So when he arrived, we shook hands, he was a bit rushed and remembered me that he had to leave at 10am. I told him that I needed to build up my camera, do all checks regarding light, audio, settings, so he proposed that meanwhile, he could do his mail. Perfect. I was sitting at a table in his not so spacious office, fiddling with my camera to have it ready as fast as I could, meanwhile trying to to that really focussed not to loose any more time. When I heard Claude ask: ‘I forgot to ask, what are you going to use it for?’. And I heard myself say: ‘I don’t know yet.’ What followed was silence. What wa echoing in my head was my own voice saying ‘I don’t know yet’. I could kick myself. Seconds felt like hours, the silence remained. I felt so incredibly stupid. Having this opportunity and then simply kill it because of an automated response. I looked into Claude’s direction. He looked into mine. He then put his hands on the screen of his laptop, and closed it. ‘Want some water?’ he asked. I said yes. Meanwhile mentally kicking myself. ‘Let’s start’ he said. I asked him if I needed to get him going, ask a question, but that was not needed. We then started recording. He just started to talk. When we recorded over 30 minutes, I stayed to shoot some additional footage. And meanwhile, Claude shared stories. I just wished I could have filmed it all.

Missions

He shared the journey he, from when he was little looking up into the night sky, had made to eventually become an astronaut. About his time as a fighter pilot. Stories about the Shuttle. About companionship. About loosing collegues. About acceleration. About spacewalking. And when I asked about the earth, he said: ‘Do you know why they call it a space mission? Because a mission is an carefully prepared aimed effort to get something done. In my case that involved fixing the Hubble amongst other things. My responsibility is to fulfil that mission. Not to study earth.’ Point taken. Continuing: ‘Being an astronaut means that you spend over 99% of your time to prepare for that really short percentage of time that you, or someone else instead of you, might ever be in space.’

Source: Wikipedia

And about those cool mission insignia patches astronauts have on their gear. He told me that this always has been a great interest of him, the high level of influence the team has in the design of them. And how he designed the patch for one his missions and all the symbolism of every element on it. Fascinating.

Source: Wikipedia

Several hours later I left. Hours later. I had to leave, because I had an appointment at CERN. Incredible grateful of all the time and stories Claude gave me. And I learned many valuable lessons, but one in particular: that having no explicit plan, having unfinished thoughts and being totally frank about it is okay. That it gave me time, instead of that it limited my time, what I was afraid of. Since that day, when people ask me where Happyplaces as a project is going, what I’m specifically going to do with it, my answer simply is: I don’t know yet. Thank you Claude.


We go into space in order to achieve something. Whether it is of practical use, for communication or precise navigation. Or a better exploitation of the resources of planet Earth, in the good sense of the term. Not to exploit, to get something for me and less for the others, but a balanced exploitation of the resources of planet Earth. And, of course, the area of knowledge. Knowledge about the universe, the physical process in the universe.

Because we’re human beings, we’re not animals. We have this curiosity about the universe and the processes in the universe, which we don’t share with bees, with elephants, giraffes and other animals. With all the respect I have for animal life. But we have this curiosity about what’s happening in the universe. This is typical human, and space allows us to achieve great steps in that direction.

Fascination

I always had a real fascination for space. And astronomy. As a kid I was always looking up. Trying to take pictures of the sky with a very simple camera in the early 50’s, when I was a teenager. I always had that enormous attraction for space. For being outside the earth’s atmosphere with the black skies, seeing stars and the Milky Way, the planets and the foggy patches of the galaxies. Which of course became very clear objects when you look at them with a powerful telescope like Hubble. So, for me there is the enormous drive for space. And there still is. Right now, I leave to my younger colleagues the privilege of going into space. But I still keep a lot of interest in the space missions and I follow very closely what my colleagues and my successors are doing in space.

Laboratory

Space is a wonderful environment. That is extremely useful. When we think about communication from one continent to the next, possibilities of phoning to somebody from Geneva to Tokyo using your computer and thus the internet, for the price of internet only, we can do that thanks to space communication. And also the wonderful capability we have now for precise navigation with GPS or other similar systems. Like the Galileo system being put in place in Europe, or the Glonass from Russia. So, the practical use of space has changed our lives really. But in addition to that, the capabilities that space offers us to understand what’s happening in the universe, to understand the sun, understand the earth, understand ourselves is remarkable. It’s a wonderful environment and at the same time a laboratory. An area of the universe where we can exercise our talents, our imagination, in order to gather information about what is happening in the universe.

The data that has been collected by Hubble, whether it’s about stellar evolution, the evolution of the stars in our galaxy, or whether it’s about what happened in the relatively short time after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years in the past, are absolutely mind boggling and remarkable. It has opened a huge area of knowledge and this is thanks to space and our ability to use the properties of space. And the abilities and the laboratory that space is.

Reflections

So obviously my missions were oriented upwards. I was working on a telescope, Hubble, that has as an objective to look at very faraway objects, or closer objects in the solar system, for instance. But as an astronaut flying on a spacecraft, whether it’s the International Space Station, or Space Shuttle or Soyuz around the earth, you had to look at the earth as well. And for me, it was never an objective to study the earth, but obviously it’s the backdrop of your activity because it’s always there. Then you ask yourself questions. About the earth, and you have some reflections about what you see.

I was sometimes asking myself the question: ‘If I was an extraterrestrial (coming from outside, on this orbit around the earth0), and I am looking at the earth, could I then perceive that there is life on earth?’ My conclusion was, when you look at the earth during the day, you’re not absolutely sure. I remember passing over northern India. I remember Calcutta, it was a little grey patch on planet earth, just south of the magnificent Himalayas. And I was asking myself the question: ‘If I was an extraterrestrial would I realise that there are 12 million people there, that live on that grey patch?’ And the answer was no. During the day it is very difficult to figure out that there is life on earth. During the night however, you can definitely see it. Because, where there is light, there is life.

It is very interesting to see, also, the intensity of the light during the night versus factors like the density of population, and the inhabitants per square kilometer, and the level of life. There are areas where there are a lot of people and the density of population is very high, but a relatively low life level, so the brightness of the light was not that high. This was a very interesting experiment, to look at the earth during the night and figure out this relationship between the intensity of light and two factors, the density of the population and the level of life. The Unites States was, for instance, very bright on the east coast. The west coast, and the central area, less. Japan was very bright all over. Java, the island, has a very high population density but a relatively low level of life so the light was moderate, not extremely high. India has many more inhabitants than the United States, about three times as much, but didn’t produce as much light as the United States. So, I found it fascinating to correlate what we were seeing during the night, especially during the night and less during the day, with what’s happening on earth. Where people live, and what are their living conditions.

Fragility

I was always very touched by the views of the earth from space. For me there was first the beauty. An incredible beauty. I remember sunrises, sunsets, which were absolutely magnificent. And also at the horizon, the rapid motion of the stars. The stars move 16 times faster in the sky then they do when you look at them from the earth. We go around the earth in an hour and a half. There are 16 times an hour and a half in 24 hours. I was touched by the beauty of the earth, but by its small size also. I realise how small the earth is. Because we go around it in a hour and a half. Of course we go relatively fast, but still, not that fast. From a cosmic point of view, our speed of eight kilometres per second is relatively modest. So, the earth is tiny, it’s beautiful and it’s fragile. You can see this very clearly, mainly because of the thinness of the atmosphere. The atmosphere is a very, very, very thin layer of gas around the surface or our planet. And obviously, it’s fundamental for the maintenance and the quality of life on earth.

We could not see a lot of air pollution. Because you look at the layers of air from above and the optical depth is limited. I remember passing over Mexico City, and it didn’t look like there was a lot of air pollution. Although we know there is. You could see very well the water pollution. I remember seeing the mouth of the Amazon river in the Atlantic Ocean. It was all muddy. That was not directly pollution, but it was erosion. Mainly the deforestation in the Amazon Basin is creating all that erosion on the banks of the river, the big river. And this manifests itself in that mud, deposited in the Atlantic Ocean. The views of the earth are very touching and very interesting from the point of view of life developing on the planet. And again, it is mainly at night that you can see that there is life. And during the day you can see some of the scars that we, humans, leave on the surface of planet Earth. I mentioned the erosion of big rivers like the Amazon river, but there is also the deforestation and the burning of vegetation that is very visible from space. This is the case, mainly in the Amazon Basin, but also in Central Africa and Indonesia. These are the scars left by humans that are very visible from space.

So to summarise the views of the earth, beauty is one thing. And how small the planet is. But I also had the feeling that it is very isolated. Because during the day when the sun is above the horizon, you see the earth with a very dark black background. Then you have the feeling that it’s a very isolated planet. The fragility and the scars that we humans produce on planet earth create a risky situation in the future. We really need to be careful.

View

You tend to, in time, and with this job as an astronaut, focus more on the global than on the local. On the long term than on the short term. I remember passing over Madagascar, where there was a lot of vegetation burning on the east coast of the island, the side of the Indian Ocean. There was a wind, from the east, so the smoke from these fires of the vegetation were blown over the surface of the island. And I was thinking. This is not a good situation, obviously, but everyone doing these fires locally, thinks locally. It’s not a big deal if I burn some vegetation in my garden or the fields around my farm. But in space you see the global situation. You see the addition of all of the individual actions being done. And, you realise that globally, it is a disaster. Although locally it seems to be a very small thing. This is where the perspective of space gives you a true vision on what’s happening globally. On planet Earth. And people tend to focus only on what’s happening locally. Whether it’s local farmers or individual people or politicians — they think local. But when you spend a relatively short time in space, you see the global, the long term.

Link

Yes, of course, you see the huge varieties of the landscape on planet earth. You fly over desserts, you fly over the rain forests, very large rain forest areas, you fly over oceans a lot of the time. I remember being so impressed by the number of small atolls in the Pacific. The Pacific is huge. It took us about 20 minutes to cross the Pacific from Indonesia to the American continent. The earth is fascinating because of the variety of its landscapes. Of course there are some areas that touch you in particular. Where youhave a special link with. Because this is where you live, or you have been living or where your family is living. Or areas that you have visited, that have left a deep impression on you. I’ve been in Southeast Asia a few times. I like Thailand a lot, and Myanmar, the former Burma. These are countries that I like a lot, so I devoted a particular attention to them. I like desserts too. The Sahara dessert, the Atacama dessert in northern Chili, were areas where I focussed very much on. I took a lot of pictures of them.

Answers

We are the only species that asks itself questions about its own origin, and again, its not something the dogs and the cats are doing, or butterflies. Asking questions about our own origin, this is specifically human. And a lot of what we are doing in space is answering those questions. Or the big question: are we alone in the universe? Which is a fundamental question. And a lot of the activities of astronomers, and a lot of activities in space try to answer this question. Are we the only form of life in the universe or are there others. Of course Mars is a candidate, or there are other objects in the solar system where there could have been life. Or where there is life, like Titan, the biggest satellite of Saturn. Europa, one of the satellites of Jupiter which is covered with ice but with liquid water underneath it. Is there any life there or has there been life? These are big questions. And we really really like to answer these questions. I think this century will have an answer to this question. Is there life elsewhere than on earth? The answer, hopefully would be: Yes!

Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project, a playful research project to better understand all dimensions of space to eventually create happy places.

Marcel Kampman

Written by

Owner at Happykamping, astronaut at Happyplaces Project.

Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project, a playful research project to better understand all dimensions of space to eventually create happy places.

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