When Claudie Haigneré was a 12-year-old girl, Neil Armstrong climbed down a ladder and stepped onto the surface of the moon. As she watched on her television screen, she looked out of her window and the stars ignited something within her. In 1969, imagination finally became a possibility. "Space came a long time after," Claudie tells me. Twenty-four years after, to be exact.
Claudie Haigneré is an anomaly in space exploration: not only is she a female cosmonaut, she's France's first woman in space. "Oui", she nods, matter-of-factly. That's a big deal. "It is a big deal. That's true," she says, smiling. I don't need to remind this explorer of her incredible CV, but many may not be familiar with it. Claudie rocketed into space twice during her career: the first trip was in 1996 as part of the Russian-French Cassiopée mission, and the second in 2001 when she became the first European woman to visit the International Space Station.
But it was back in 1985, when Claudie was still a hospital doctor, specialising in rheumatology and sports trauma injuries, that her space story started. When she saw a notice from the French Agency (CNES) advertising for a scientist to conduct research in space, Claudie jumped at the chance. "Even then I didn't think: this is just for men. It wasn't a question, it was just wonderful to have the opportunity. Why not take it?"
Thirty years later and we're sitting in a deserted canteen on the top floor of London's Science Museum. Claudie has just finished a walkabout of their latest Cosmonauts exhibition and by the time she comes up to meet me you can see the stars in her eyes. The memories are all still there. "Those fifteen years of my life were an extraordinary adventure," she says.
But we're not at the Science Museum merely to admire the exhibits – Claudie is here to speak at an event called 'Women in Space', but only 11 percent of space explorers [that's 59 out of 536] have ever been women. What does she think the barriers are preventing young women from signing up? "It's difficult for young girls to imagine that the door is open, specifically with hard sciences," she says. "What can we do? I think we need to something with schools – with all forms of education – about stereotypes, cliches. They are everywhere: in newspapers, on TV…"
When I tell Claudie how, only yesterday, I walked into a toyshop and noticed how all the space toys were marketed at boys, she gleefully tells me about a collaborative European Space Agency Toy called 'Lottie'. She's not a Barbie, she's an astrophysicist, and after Googling this 'Stargazer Lottie', I can confirm that I want one. "It's true that those stereotypes are everywhere and it starts very young," Claudie says.
Only this week the Russian Federal Space Agency announced a potential all-female mission to the moon in 2029. At a press conference six female cosmonauts, all experts in biophysics, psychology and medicine, were asked how they'd cope without make-up in space (no, seriously). When I ask Claudie whether she was ever treated differently training alongside so many male cosmonauts in the 1980s and 90s, her answer is clear. "No, not at all," she says. "The training was exactly the same."
Is there any difference to being a woman in space? In Claudie's experience, "there was no difference. We need to destroy the cliches, to make these jobs more known. These girls need role models to help them gain confidence."
We had a man on the moon in '69. Should the first human on Mars be a woman? "It would be wonderful," she smiles. "But I am not at all in favour of a purely female crew – what does it mean? Society is diverse and the crew should be balanced. But yes, why not have a woman as the first [person on Mars]? Symbolically it would be important."
When Claudie talks about her experiences in space an invisible line forms between us and it's palpable. It's a line that divides a handful of people who have seen Earth as a spectator and the rest of us who can barely imagine it. What did it feel like to see planet Earth through a window for the first time? She calls it "extra terrestrial": "Before we docked at the space station, the first thing I saw was the Aurora Borealis. It was unbelievable."
Claudie once revealed that she listened to Maria Callas when she was in space. "Oui", she replies. "I was on a short-duration [mission] which means there was a lot of work to be done and I had to find time to really feel the environment. In one orbit [of the Earth, which takes 90 minutes] you see one sunrise and one moonrise. It's noisy in the station, so in order to experience it completely I put some music on." The music she chose was 'Casta Diva' in 'Norma'. "It paralleled an orbit of the earth with constant speed…this music gave me the possibility to experience this feeling. Music is a good adjuvant to contemplation."
The conversation about the nature of space exploration soon leads to a discussion about 'fear'. The mere idea of space travel scares me more than clown entertainers and vegan cafes do here on earth. 'Fear' isn't a word Claudie recognises. I ask her whether she's ever felt afraid during her career – especially in that split second before take-off. She explains how her eleven years training after selection meant she was confident and impassioned. "I have a lot of questions about 'fear' and 'stress'," she says, "but that wasn't the case. You are on the top of the rocket and it's time to go. It is a wonderful moment."
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What about microgravity? What's that like? "This is really astonishing because you cannot reproduce microgravity on earth. This, for me, was one of the strongest moments: discovering the freedom of the body in microgravity. Slow movement, no weight, the possibility to use three dimension of space: it was really enjoyable. It's the revelation of something that you cannot imagine on earth."
After dedicating elevn years of her life to train for a single journey, did the reality of going into space match up to her imagination? "More! You can be trained, you can exchange with cosmonauts, but to feel microgravity and to see the planets through the window? With your own eyes, your gaze and your body floating? It's something that you can't imagine. The reality is better than the dream."
We come back to reality – and that 11 percent. What advice would she give to a young girl in 2015 with dreams of space exploration?
"Dare in your life. Don't wait to be perfect. Why not you?"
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