Claude Nicollier visits CERN

Switzerland’s first astronaut, Claude Nicollier, paid a short visit to CERN on Thursday 22 June, to lead a colloquium about the Hubble Space Telescope. With the Shuttle programme soon coming to an end. Nicollier recalled the enriching experience he had at NASA and gave us a preview of the futuristic project that he is currently involved in.


The colloquium, Hubble, the astronomer, the telescope, the results, surveyed the three themes suggested by its title: the fundamental discoveries made by Edwin Hubble in the early 20th century, servicing the telescope in orbit and the main results recently obtained relating to the structure and history of our universe. Nicollier spoke from the rare perspective of an astronaut who has had real contact with Hubble in orbit and included some of his own photography from the missions. Nicollier has an intimate relationship with the telescope that very few astrophysicists share. “I had the opportunity to service Hubble twice, both from the comfort of the Space Shuttle and in the vacuum of space,” he explains. “The telescope is a wonderful discovery machine and it was my desire, as a former astrophysicist, to visit it and help in keeping it healthy.”

After completing his Masters degree in astrophysics in 1975, Nicollier was selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1978 along with two others astronauts, Ulf Merbold and Wubbo Ockels, to support Spacelab – the first joint project between ESA and NASA. Although Nicollier did not fly on the Spacelab missions, it allowed him time to complete full training for working on board the Shuttle – which included related aspects of astronautics, such as space walking and robotics. “I trained in Houston, Texas with American and eventually Canadian, Japanese, and other European astronauts, and it was during this time that he became good friends with Charles Bolden” explains Nicollier. “Interestingly, it was Bolden who later piloted the Space Shuttle Discovery into orbit in 1990 with Hubble in the payload bay.”

Claude Nicollier and General Charles Bolden Jr. during their visit to CERN. 

What Nicollier did not anticipate was that, during his visit at CERN, General Charles Bolden Jr. happened to be onsite visiting the now fully operational Payload Operation and Control Centre of the AMS collaboration. A brief meeting was arranged and both Nicollier and Bolden were overjoyed; it had been years since they last met (see article in The Bulletin issue 26-27).

Due to delays resulting from the Challenger disaster, Nicollier did not take his first spaceflight until 1992. The following year he flew again, this time on STS-61 – the first servicing mission to Hubble. Nicollier says that, “It was a very important mission because NASA was embarrassed because of the optical flaw that was present in this two billion dollar telescope. They said, ‘Go and fix it, and have success.’” The primary goal of this mission was to install the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR), an optical corrector that exhibited the same error as the faulty primary mirror, only with the opposite sign, which made an exact correction. Nicollier acted as robotic arm operator and flight engineer on this flight, and the crew was successful in every task they were sent to accomplish.

It was not until 1999 that Nicollier returned to Hubble on STS-103 to perform an eight-hour spacewalk. Nicollier explains that returning to Hubble on his final spaceflight was emotional, “Approaching the orbiting observatory was a very special experience and I had a very good feeling. I felt like it was a good friend that I had not seen in six years and to see him again and functioning well at the end of the mission was a source of great satisfaction.”

Hovering over the Space Shuttle Discovery's payload bay, Claude Nicollier and C. Michael Foale service the Hubble Space Telescope.

The spacewalk involved the complicated task of replacing the telescope’s main computer, but Nicollier explains that NASA provides its astronauts with the necessary training to make such a difficult objective manageable. “We trained about ten times the planned space walking time in water with high fidelity models of the telescope so that we were really familiar with the environment. Water is an excellent simulation of the absence of gravity. During my space walk, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Claude, you can do it,’ because everything was so familiar.”

Nicollier’s personal photography complimented an array of magnificent pictures produced by Hubble in recent years, which have provided us with significant insight into the nature of our Universe – from protoplanetary disks to the Ultra Deep Field, which allowed us to peek 10 billion years back in time. While the LHC continues to probe for particles predicted to have existed moments after the Big Bang, the relationship between astrophysics and particle physics continues to grow, and of course, as Nicollier says, “There’s obviously a relationship between anything and particle physics, because we, and everything else, are made of particles!”


Solar Impulse: Nicollier’s next challenge

Nicollier currently holds the position of full professor of Spatial Technology at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, but he has recently become involved in the Solar Impulse project. “I like the classroom and the lab environment, but I also like to be in the field and the Solar Impulse was an opportunity to get back into the open air,” explains Nicollier. The Solar Impulse is a revolutionary aeroplane that is scheduled to complete a journey with several stops around the world in 2014, relying exclusively on solar energy. Nicollier acts as Head of Test Flight Operations and his team is likely to be involved in the testing of the final version of the solar aeroplane in 2013. “Our team is probably going to be involved again in the flight testing of the final aeroplane because we gained a lot of knowledge about its behavior and also about cockpit design,” explains Nicollier. “We are involved in cockpit design as well and that is very rewarding.”

 Watch Nicollier’s colloquium online and follow the Solar Impulse’s progress on the website.

by Jordan Juras