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40 years ago, Jean-Loup Chrétien became the first Frenchman to travel in space – France

On June 24, 1982, Jean-Loup Chrétien took off from Baikonur to join the Soviet space station Salyut. He became the first Frenchman to fly in space, paving the way, in the midst of the Cold War revival, for intense scientific cooperation between Paris and Moscow. Its mission was called “PVH” (“first manned flight”): an eight-day stay in orbit aboard Salyout 7, ancestor of the Mir station.

Guest of the permanent crew, Jean-Loup Chrétien was the first foreign visitor not to come from a communist country, and the first French astronaut. Quite a symbol. But he had his head elsewhere on the day of takeoff from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. “You don’t think about that. My state of mind was the end of a test of patience, the culmination of a dream… and so much excitement,” the ex-astronaut, now 84, told AFP. year.

“An unforgettable spectacle”

He remembers this “shock moment” when the Soyuz rocket launched, on board which he had settled with Alexander Ivanchenkov and Vladimir Djanibekov. “After two years of training, two weeks of quarantine… Everything happened so fast! » « In less than ten minutes, I found myself in orbit, I discovered the charms of weightlessness. Through the porthole, I saw the Earth… it was an unforgettable sight”, he confides, still moved.

Jean-Loup Chrétien is also an organ enthusiast. (Claude Prigent archives)

A fighter pilot, he was then 44 years old. As a child, the Morlaix airfield (Finistère), near which he lived, had given him a “fascination for the 3rd dimension”. Tintin’s albums “Objectif Lune” and “On a marche sur la Lune” anchor this passion for the sky. 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.

“On the USSR side, everything was secret”

But the Air Force does not retain him in its selection. “At 41, I was too old”. He then presents himself as a free candidate, goes through the various stages, and is “pleasantly surprised” to be finally selected by the CNES (National Center for Space Studies) to prepare for the Franco-Soviet mission, with Patrick Baudry as understudy. “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, East-West relations were once again strained with the war in Afghanistan: “As soon as we arrived, the French ambassador said to us: hold on you ready to leave”. “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 rear base in France”, underlines Lionel Suchet.

On the French side, “the CNES technicians were dealing with Russian interpreters who were in fact engineers in disguise and had no right to give information. Conversely, those who had the right to speak to us knew nothing about it… Everything was extremely slow, whereas we were starting from scratch on manned flights”.

Jean-Loup Chrétien “played a pioneering role”

Fortunately, says Jean-Loup Chrétien, “on the spot we dealt with extraordinary people who did everything to make things go well”. Forging close ties with the Russians, with “diplomacy”, the astronaut “played a pioneering role. We owe him a lot, ”welcomes 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 were working with . It was a revelation for us as for the Russians, who since Gagarin have been doing extraordinary things without being able to share them, ”according to the CNES manager. Scientists and technicians from both countries have worked for years in “symbiosis” on manned flights. This period peaked in the early 2000s.

Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Jean-Loup Chrétien’s flight, this Friday at CNES, will take place without his former crew, regrets the space agency. “It’s sad,” comments Jean-Loup Chrétien, in daily contact with his former Russian colleagues and friends. After “PVH”, he never stopped wanting to find the stars. Going so far as to convince Mikhail Gorbachev in person of the interest of sending a Frenchman back into space, where he counted 43 days. Since then, nine French astronauts have carried out missions there.

letelegramme Fr Trans

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