The story of the first French astronaut to fly in space

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By Redaction Reform with AFP

40 years ago, on June 24, 1982, Jean-Loup Chrétien became the first Frenchman to fly to the stars and join a Soviet space station.

That was forty years ago. On June 24, 1982, Jean-Loup Chrétien from Baikonur took off 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 orbit stay aboard Salyut 7, the ancestor of the Mir station. Guest of the permanent crew, Jean-Loup Chrétien, was the first foreign visitor who did not come from a communist country, and the first French astronaut. What a symbol. But he had his head elsewhere on the day of takeoff from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

“You do not think about it. My state of mind was the end of a test of patience, the culmination of a dream … and so much excitement”, the former astronaut, now 84 years old, tells AFP. He remembers this “shock moment” where the Soyuz rocket was fired, whereupon he was installed with Alexander Ivanchenkov and Vladimir Djanibekov. “After two years of training, two weeks of quarantine … It all happened so fast!” “In less than ten minutes I was in orbit, I discovered the charm of weightlessness. Through the porthole I saw the Earth … it was an unforgettable sight”he confides, still moved.

“On the USSR side, everything was secret”

As a fighter pilot, he was 44 years old at the time. As a child, the Morlaix airfield (Finistère), where he lived, had given birth to one “fascination for the 3rd dimension”. Tintin’s albums “Objectif Lune” and “On a marche sur la Lune” anchor this passion for heaven. And when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space (1961), the student at the Salon-de-Provence Aeronautical School set himself the ambition of becoming an astronaut. But the Air Force does not keep him in its selection. “As a 41-year-old, I was too old ”. He presents himself as a free candidate, goes through the various stages and is “pleasantly surprised” to finally be retained by the CNES (National Center for Space Studies) to prepare for the French-Soviet mission, with Patrick Baudry as stand-in.

“PVH” marks the culmination of a French desire to cooperate with the USSR, driven by De Gaulle, who in 1966 was the first Western head of state to go to Baikonur, in a context of relaxation, explains Lionel Suchet, director general of the French space agency. But when Jean-Loup Chrétien started his training in Star City near Moscow, relations between East and West were again strained with the war in Afghanistan: “As soon as we arrived, the French ambassador told us ‘get ready to go'”. “It was a complicated period. On the USSR side, everything was secret. Jean-Loup and Patrick suffered from it, they were trained in a ‘tight’ way, without contact with their back base in France. “emphasizes Lionel Suchet.

Russian friends

Fortunately, says Jean-Loup Chrétien, “on the spot we dealt with extraordinary people who did everything to make it go well”. To weave close ties with the Russians, with “diplomacy”, astronauts “played a pioneering role. We owe him a lot”, greets Lionel Suchet. It is on these bases that 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 worked with in a hidden way. It was a revelation to us as to the Russians, who since Gagarin did extraordinary things without being able to share them. “according to a CNES official.

Researchers and technicians from both countries have been working for years “symbiosis” on manned flights. This period reached its peak in the beginning of 2000. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Jean-Loup Chrétien’s flight on CNES on Friday will be without his former crew, the space agency regrets. “That’s sad”comments Jean-Loup Chrétien, in daily contact with his former Russian colleagues and friends.

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