Claude Nicollier, who took part in four space missions, is worried by today’s dangerous geopolitics but believes the wonderful global collaborations in astrophysics and astronomy, such as the SKAO, show the very brightest side of humanity.

As a boy Claude Nicollier skied and hiked in the mountains surrounding Les Diablerets, the town chosen for this week’s inaugural Cosmology in the Alps conference, hosted by SKACH. Decades later, on a mission to repair the Hubble Telescope, he looked back at the Earth from space to see these very mountains that inspired him as a child.

Welcoming the more than 80 experts in the field of radio cosmology studying the universe on large scales, Nicollier hosted an evening of stories on his missions into space, what inspires him and why he believes the study of our universe remains so important.

“I like the spirit of Les Diablerets and I’m very happy that Cosmology in the Alps is happening here in a place that is dear to my heart and the roots of my family,” he told the audience. “At a young age I was already looking at the sky and I remember the ECHO satellite, which is a very bright satellite, in 1960 at the very beginning of the space age.”

Nicollier began his career as an astrophysicist, and a Swiss Air Force pilot in parallel before being selected in the first group of astronauts for the European Space Agency in 1978. He was detached to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Texas for full training on the US Space Shuttle and served as a crewmember on four missions, including two on-orbit interventions on the Hubble Space Telescope.

“The mission that was the most striking for me was the first one to repair Hubble as I had been an astronomer and became an astronaut. The feeling of responsibility was huge because Hubble opened up the marvels of celestial objects and had a huge impact in terms of knowledge of what’s happening in the universe. On this first and critical first Hubble servicing mission NASA made it clear to us that failure was not an option, so my motivation to succeed was enormous,” Nicollier explained.

Since Hubble, the James Webb Telescope, the most powerful space telescope ever made, has been deployed and the Square Kilometer Array Observatory, the world’s biggest radio telescope and largest scientific facility ever built by humankind is under construction.

“Recently I realized that the dark side of humanity is coming back as a big, dangerous wave and I’m worried, but at the same time we have the undisputable value of what is being done in science and, in particular, astrophysics – these wonderful developments in multicultural, multi-country international cooperation in the field of science and engineering. This is the very bright side of humanity and we should continue to actively pursue these kinds of collaborations,” Nicollier told conference.

He also described his spacewalk of more than eight hours, undertaken during his last mission in 1999 to install new equipment on the Hubble Telescope. In all, Nicollier spent more than 1000 hours in space during his four missions.

“It’s a very deep experience. I was always impressed with how black space is during the orbital day. It felt like I was seeing the Big Bang after 13.8 billion years of cooling down, and then you see this beautiful blue and white planet and it’s clear how small and fragile the Earth is and how isolated we are. We have to fix our problems ourselves because, surrounded by space, nobody else is going to help us, we need to take care of it because it’s our responsibility. Of course, I looked at the Earth as astronauts mostly do but Claude, the astronomer, was also often looking above the horizon and the sky, during the orbital nights, was really spectacular!”

Cosmology in the Alps has brought together experts in the field and early career researchers to foster interactions in three key areas: developments in radio Cosmology, highlighting young researchers from around the world and emphasizing Swiss contributions to the global Cosmology landscape. So what advice did Nicollier have for those just starting out in the field? 

“Live with passion, because if you live with passion, your whole life will be a happy episode. The treasure of humanity is to be able to understand what’s going on and put it in mathematical form and the beauty of the laws of the universe are breathtaking. Young people should continue doing this and push it forward, spread it to the world to inspire people to understand our past and future in a deep manner. This is what makes us human.”

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