Nicollier returns from mission control

Switzerland is celebrating the achievements of the astronaut, Claude Nicollier, who made history last December by becoming the first European to do a spacewalk.

This content was published on February 14, 2000 - 19:10

Switzerland is celebrating the achievements of the astronaut, Claude Nicollier, who made history last December by becoming the first European to do a spacewalk. Nicollier and his fellow astronauts are on a tour of Switzerland to talk about their mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

If Nicollier's reception by the Swiss government was any indication, he is unquestionably one of Switzerland's favourite sons. Since he and his fellow astronauts kicked off their five-day tour, they have been feted by government heavy-weights - including the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, and the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss - and lauded by the scientific community.

In December, they blasted off from Cape Canaveral to correct the vision of the $3-billion Hubble Space Telescope. During their ten-day mission, they replaced one of the telescope's guidance sensors, which are used to point the telescope in the right direction.

It was Nicollier's fourth mission, but the first time he has done a spacewalk. In such a situation, an astronaut literally becomes a satellite of the Earth, orbiting the planet at more than 1,000 kilometres per hour, alongside his spacecraft.

Nicollier says the experience is very disorientating. "One moment it's light, then dark, then light again. And because you're spinning around the planet in space, concepts like position - up and down - have no meaning."

On the Discovery mission, the average spacewalk lasted six-and-a-half hours. This meant the astronauts were typically in their spacesuits for about ten hours. The suits must therefore have an in-built drinks' supply, as well as the facility to enable astronauts to go to the toilet.

The suits weigh over 160 kilogrammes on earth - when fully kitted out, astronauts must be moved about with a crane - but are naturally weightless in orbit.

While in space, Nicollier and his fellow astronauts orbited the earth several times a day. This presented excellent views of the earth's surface. "The best views were of the Sahara," said Nicollier, "because there is no cloud cover. At one point, we saw an enormous dust storm, thousands of kilometres across, blowing sand into the Atlantic."

A more sobering sight was soil erosion on the island of Madagascar. "The effects of deforestation were clearly visible from space," he said. "We could see top soil from the exposed land being washed into the sea."

Because of delays, the Discovery crew had to spend Christmas in space. The French astronaut, Jean-Francois Clervoy, improved the menu by bringing along some foie gras. And Nicollier insists there was plenty of Swiss chocolate for desert.

The British/American astronaut, Michael Foale, said the food on space missions was actually palatable. Much of it is dehydrated, but he said they have acceptable steaks, bread and fresh fruit. He admits he's no gourmet - "I attended British boarding school, which is perhaps why I don't find the food so bad". The other crew members made no comment.

Since their return the seven astronauts - Nicollier, Foale, Curt Brown, Scott Kelly, Steve Smith, John Grunsfeld and Jean-Francois Clervoy - have been keeping their feet firmly on the ground. Their visit to Switzerland forms part of a wider European tour.

From staff and wire reports

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