Michel Tognini, ESA Astronaut Centre

Michel Tognini, the head of ESA’s astronaut centre, is the man responsible for training the next generation of European space pioneers. Berenice Baker reports.

There can be few people who have gazed up at the night sky or watched reports of the latest space mission and haven’t dreamed for a moment what it might be like to be an astronaut.

Indeed, the recent recruitment programme by the European Space Agency (ESA) must be one of the most oversubscribed in history, with tens of thousands thought to have applied for just a handful of positions.

The application process is now closed, but if you were tempted to send off your CV, you could find no better role model than Brigadier General Michel Tognini, the man who will oversee the training of Europe’s next generation of astronauts.

A handsome and youthful 59-year-old ‘spationaut’ — the French term for astronaut — Tognini has been head of ESA’s astronaut centre in Cologne, Germany, since 2005. He holds a fistful of honours, including France’s National Order of Merit and the National Order of the Legion of Honour.

When asked what makes a good astronaut Tognini described the type of all-rounder ESA requires as meeting a high, flat curve of qualities in many areas. ‘A good astronaut has to be good at everything,’ he said. ‘We don’t want someone who is a top scientist but bad in sport, or a very good sportsman but bad in science. We need people that are very good in science and engineering, very good as a pilot and at sport, very healthy, and able to speak with the public and write reports.’

Tognini embodies this ideal. A fighter pilot then a test pilot closely involved with engineering, he has flown over 90 different aircraft. He has spent 17 days in space, flown aboard Soyuz and the Space Shuttle, and taken part in missions in MIR and the International Space Station (ISS). Fluent in English and Russian, he is an effective ambassador for manned space exploration.

Throughout his career, Tognini has worked closely with engineers, and has even trained as one himself. ‘In France a fighter pilot first becomes an engineer and only then a pilot, so you have knowledge of both sides of the system.’ he said. ‘As a test pilot, the relationship with engineers is extremely close as you work with them to develop the mechanics of your aircraft. You work together to design a flight plan that will test the limits of the plane.’

According to Tognini, the process for spacecraft is similar. Between missions, the astronaut liaises with engineers to improve future designs. One example was the ISS’ Columbus module that was launched earlier this year. Engineers built it with a great deal of input from European astronauts to improve the point of contact between Columbus and astronaut. They also worked on developing the ‘Jules Verne’ automated transfer vehicle (ATV) for the ISS, and helped develop training for it.

Tognini was also hired to work on the ill-fated Hermes project, an ESA-backed initiative to design a mini space-plane to carry three astronauts. Although the project was cancelled in 1992, Tognini hinted that the lessons learned from Hermes could be applied to future shuttle projects, such as the proposed European/Russian manned capsule.

Over the 20 years he has been involved in the space industry Tognini has seen some interesting changes, not least in the design of human-machine interfaces. ‘If you fly on MIR, you operate everything by an on/off switch or a dial,’ he said.

‘On the ISS commands are made using a laptop computer, which allows systems to be operated in space or from the ground through communication links. This saves more time to carry out science experiments instead of doing routine operations.’

The improved communications means a radio and TV link to the ground is available 80 per cent of the time. Astronauts can even talk to their families when the link is up, using an IP phone.

What has changed very little in space station design is the way microgravity is handled. ‘You need to have lockers and to attach everything to the walls and the floors using fixing devices to stop them floating around and being a hazard,’ said Tognini.

‘Everything, including the restroom, has to be specially designed to compensate for gravity. Even when working with just your hands and arms, you need foot straps to hold your feet. And you sleep vertically — you don’t need to lie down, as it makes no difference whether you are vertical or horizontal; you just anchor your feet.’

When it comes to launch and flight, there is more for a pilot to do aboard the Space Shuttle than on a Soyuz spacecraft. ‘If you fly in the Soyuz, it’s fairly automatic,’ said Tognini. ‘You have to take care of the radio and life support system and, when are in space, you have to correct attitude — but this can be done manually or automatically. The docking is automatic, but if something goes wrong you have to do it manually, something for which you train thoroughly,’ he added.

The shuttle, he said, is more manual. The launch is also carried out fairly automatically, but once in space the docking is manual. Tognini added that re-entry is automatic, with a manual override if required, and the pilot lands it like a glider — manually.

Though Tognini was a mission specialist rather than a pilot on the Space Shuttle, he has flown the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA).

‘When you fly the shuttle manually, you fly below Mach 1, so it is like an aircraft. When I flew in space and we landed, I heard the commander, Eileen Collins, say it’s exactly like the simulator, and certainly the look of the two is very similar.’

Given his experience of spacecraft and aircraft, Tognini finds it hard to put his finger on his favourite. ‘All planes are nice to fly in their own way,’ he said. ‘I really like the Mirage 2000 — its flight control is excellent. But I even enjoy flying a glider.’

With robotic missions becoming so advanced, he still believes it is worth the risk of sending people into space. ‘Our goal is to explore, and we have explored a lot on two dimensions around the surface of the Earth,’ he said. ‘Now it’s time to explore the third dimension, and travel vertically.

‘We’ve been to the moon and the next goal is Mars, not only for scientific purposes, but also for Man’s fate and to pave the way for further exploration,’ he said. ‘So it is a risk, but as well as accomplishing a very difficult task, you help industry and encourage students to study more and get involved in mission projects. The resulting engineering projects help keep a high level of engineers in Europe, and this is a driver for better education in the future,’ he added.

Manned missions to Mars are still a long way off, and Tognini believes in the immediate future there will be many more visits to ISS to carry out the raft of scientific experiments waiting to be carried out. He also thinks relationships will strengthen between the five ISS partner countries to work together towards manned moon missions.

Lucky applicants short-listed for the ESA astronaut role could benefit from Tognini’s wise words about the pros and cons of life as an astronaut. ‘It’s all is good, nothing bad’ he enthused, then added a note of caution.

‘The training is very hard, because when you fly to the space station, you need a minimum of three years’ training, during which you travel between five different training centres. So it is very difficult for you, your stamina, and your family. All of that means we need a very strong person with a very good family right from the start.’