To Mir with love

To Mir with love
Dr Claudie Haigneré (centre) putting her hand on husband General Haigneré's shoulder in a group photo.

They may look like your ordinary down-to-earth French couple. But Brigadier General Jean-Pierre Haignere and Dr Claudie Haignere (above) have shared out-of-this-world experiences.

The two former European Space Agency astronauts are among the rare husband-and-wife pairs who have been to space, not once but twice each.

They even have an asteroid, 135268 Haignere, named after them.

General Haignere, 67, and Dr Haignere, 58, were in Singapore yesterday to give a talk on space exploration and research as part of Voilah! 2015, a festival that celebrates Singapore's 50 years of diplomatic relations with France.

They first met in 1985 when they were among the seven selected out of 1,000 candidates in a search for astronauts by the French National Space Agency.

But the couple did not get to share any space missions. Dr Haignere was a back-up crew member for her husband, who went on space missions in 1993 and 1999. She finally made it to space in 1996, spending 15 days in the Russian Mir space station, as France's first woman astronaut.

In 2001, Dr Haignere also became the first European woman to visit the International Space Station (ISS), where she stayed for eight days conducting scientific experiments.

"I did not feel different as a woman on the crew, because we were so success-oriented and such a diverse team. But when I came back, I realised that the experience set me apart," she said.

Inspired

Dr Haignere said that as a 12-year-old girl, she was inspired by Neil Armstrong, the first person to land on the moon in July 1969.

"I read a lot of science fiction after that, because from this event I witnessed how a dream became reality," she said.

She studied medicine and was working as a doctor when she was selected for the opportunity to train at Star City, Russia's cosmonaut training centre near Moscow.

There she met and fell in love with fellow trainee and test pilot Haignere, who came from an engineering background in the French Air Force.

The space training was tough, and the crew also had to learn Russian since it was a Russian flight.

"There were lots of technical things to master, but Russian was the most difficult," she said.

There were other challenges for the couple, especially in 1999, when General Haignere went on the six-month Perseus mission on Mir station and could only occasionally talk to his wife at Star City.

"It was frustrating becomes sometimes I could get through to her, but we could not understand each other because the line was fading. I would not be able to talk to her for weeks at a time," said General Haignere.

Space walk

There were also amazing highlights. For example, while conducting biological and comet dust experiments in 1999, he had the chance to space walk.

"It was a pleasant sense of freedom, one of those special moments that impacts the rest your life," he said.

He said that adjusting back to normal life on earth was the hardest part of his career as an astronaut.

Although he has published three books since 2006 containing photographs that he took in space, he could not bear to look at the photos until two years after his last space mission.

"After seeing such extraordinary things in space and doing significant scientific research, you start to feel like you are not important any more when you return," he said.

Dr Haignere, on the other hand, said that she did not even have time to think about adjusting back to life on earth.

"I was immediately given a job by the government as minister of research and new technologies and I took up the new opportunity," she said.

These days, the couple are happy to talk to young people about their adventures in space.

"So few have been in space and we have the privilege to be able to explain this perspective. Being in space is more exciting, more beautiful than I could have ever imagined," said Dr Haignere.


This article was first published on May 6, 2015.
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