Claude Nicollier, First Swiss Astronaut and Europe’s First Shuttle Spacewalker, Turns 70 Today

Despite being Switzerland's first spacewalker, Claude Nicollier wore a U.S. flag (as opposed to the Swiss flag) on the arm of his space suit during his EVA to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in December 1999. Photo Credit: NASA
Despite being Switzerland’s first spacewalker, Claude Nicollier wore a U.S. flag (as opposed to the Swiss flag) on the arm of his space suit during his EVA to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in December 1999. Photo Credit: NASA

Claude Nicollier—who became Switzerland’s first and so far only space traveler, the first non-U.S. shuttle mission specialist, the first European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut to perform a spacewalk from the shuttle, and the first non-American and non-Russian to participate in as many as four discrete spaceflights—celebrates his 70th birthday today (Tuesday, 2 September). During the course of a remarkable career, which began in December 1977, Nicollier served as a member of two Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing crews, including the first, and aboard both Tethered Satellite System (TSS) flights. In his subsequent professional life, Nicollier worked in the astronaut office’s EVA Branch and was Lead ESA astronaut at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, before his retirement in 2007.

In fact, it was Nicollier’s interest in the joint U.S.-Italian TSS program which first drew the attention of the NASA astronaut who served as payload commander of its first flight. One day in 1987, Nicollier approached Jeff Hoffman—a veteran of shuttle Mission 51D—with an invitation to join him at a meeting about TSS. He thought the idea of a tethered satellite to develop electrodynamic potential would “intrigue” Hoffman. At the time, a year after the tragic loss of Challenger, many astronauts were midway through advanced degrees and Nicollier was about to be sent to the Empire Test Pilots School in Boscombe Down, Hampshire, in the United Kingdom, to work on the development of ESA’s proposed Hermes spaceplane. The two men duly attended the meeting and Hoffman was hooked. So began a nine-year association with one of the strangest shuttle experiments of all timean experiment which astronaut Marsha Ivins once described as “weird science.”

Yet Nicollier could hardly have imagined as a boy that he would ever become an astronaut, much less fly aboard a U.S. spacecraft, far less as many as four times and with virtually no hope of venturing outside his pressurized home in a space suit. “My first dream as a child was to become a pilot,” he told a NASA interviewer years later. “My second dream was to become an astronomer.” In his professional life, he did both.

Claude Nicollier (far left) became the first Swiss spacefarer and the first European shuttle mission specialist when he participated in the STS-46 flight aboard Atlantis in the summer of 1992. Photo Credit: NASA
Claude Nicollier (far left) became the first Swiss spacefarer and the first European shuttle mission specialist when he participated in the STS-46 flight aboard Atlantis in the summer of 1992. Photo Credit: NASA

Born in Vevey, Switzerland, on 2 September 1944, the son of a civil engineer, Nicollier graduated from high school at the Gynmase de Lausanne in 1962. He studied physics at the University of Lausanne and earned his degree in 1970. Several years of postgraduate research at the university’s Institute of Astronomy and at the Geneva Observatory followed and Nicollier earned a master’s degree in astrophysics in 1975. By this time he had also been a Swiss Air Force pilot for almost a decade, and he joined the Swiss Air Transport School in Zurich in 1974 to fly the DC-9 commercial airliner. A research fellowship in airborne infrared astronomy at ESA’s Space Science Department at Noordwijk, The Netherlands, began at the end of 1976, and in July of the following year Nicollier was selected—alongside West German physicist Ulf Merbold and Dutch physicist Wubbo Ockels—from over 2,000 applicants as one of the first European astronauts. Initially assigned to prepare for a payload specialist position on the Spacelab-1 mission, in May 1980 Nicollier began training as a shuttle mission specialist candidate. At the time of the Challenger disaster, he was scheduled to fly on Mission 61K in August 1986. Designated the Earth Observation Mission (EOM)-1/2, the flight eventually morphed into ATLAS-1.

As circumstances transpired, Nicollier and Hoffman ended up flying together on the first TSS flight, which also featured the deployment of the European Retrievable Carrier (EURECA) science satellite on behalf of ESA. They were named as mission specialists for STS-46 in September 1989, working toward a scheduled launch date in May 1991, but after many delays the mission launched aboard Atlantis on 31 July 1992. In addition to Hoffman and Nicollier, the mission included four Americans—one of whom, Franklin Chang-Díaz, was Costa Rica-born—and Italy’s first astronaut, making STS-46 the first spaceflight to feature representatives of as many as four discrete nations. During training, they even informally added Hoffman’s English-born wife, Barbara, to the crew roster. “It never ceases to amaze me,” said STS-46 Commander Loren Shriver, “how quickly crews coalesce into a highly-functional unit. Once you get worked out who is going to be doing what…then the plans start to fall in place and you go off and start training and everybody knows what they need to do.”

One of Nicollier’s key responsibilities during the mission was the deployment of EURECA, using Atlantis’ Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm. Six hours into the mission, he finished his checkout of the RMS with no anomalies and positioned the huge boxy satellite “above” the payload bay, in a so-called “overnight park” position, preparatory to its deployment on 1 August 1992. However, mission events began to slip when a series of intermittent data problems were encountered with EURECA whilst attached to the RMS. At the “lower hover” position above the payload bay, the orbiter’s payload data interleaver lost its communications link with the satellite, although the solar arrays and antenna were successfully unfurled. It was decided to postpone the deployment by 24 hours, whilst ground controllers commenced troubleshooting, and it was not until the late evening of 1 August that Nicollier once again returned EURECA to its pre-deployment position. At length, at 3:07 a.m. EDT on 2 August, he released the satellite into free flight.

Claude Nicollier (foreground) participates in pre-launch training with his STS-61 crewmates, as Jeff Hoffman wears a virtual reality helmet. Photo Credit: NASA
Claude Nicollier (foreground) participates in pre-launch training with his STS-61 crewmates, as Jeff Hoffman wears a virtual reality helmet. Photo Credit: NASA

Returning to Earth on 8 August, the international flavor of STS-46 was illustrated through the astronauts’ post-flight adventures. “We went on a very nice European tour,” Jeff Hoffman told the NASA oral historian, “because Claude was ESA’s first mission specialist astronaut. After the ESA part of the tour was over, Claude’s Swiss friends invited us to Switzerland for a week, so it was great. We were being driven around in Mercedes and Rolls-Royces and staying at five-star hotels. I remember a couple of the wives … had never even been out of the country and they were just totally blown away.”

Hoffman and Nicollier flew together again a year later, on STS-61, the first HST servicing mission. Hoffman was named in August 1992 as part of the four-member EVA team, whilst Nicollier was assigned in December as operator of the RMS, with responsibility for plucking Hubble out of orbit, anchoring it into shuttle Endeavour’s payload bay, maneuvering the spacewalkers around their intricate repair tasks, and finally deploying it back into space. According to Tim Furniss, writing in Flight International in March 1994, Nicollier was specifically requested by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin for the RMS task, “to reflect the European involvement in the Hubble program.” Having received such a plum assignment, the STS-61 team bore the brunt of much good-natured ribbing from their fellow astronauts. On one occasion, spacewalker Kathy Thornton quipped to her crewmates: “Well, guys, everybody is gonna hate us now!”

Hubble was far larger than anything with which the shuttle had previously rendezvoused in orbit, and during the 11-day STS-61 mission in December 1993 Nicollier was faced with the unenviable challenge of maneuvering his EVA crewmates, along with phonebooth-sized pieces of hardware, into position with extreme delicacy and precision. “The integrated operations,” said Commander Dick Covey, “of shuttle maneuvering, RMS activities and EVAs, although now commonplace, wasn’t back then. So integrating all of those activities and the crew activities together was a big part of my role as the commander.”

Nicollier’s performance was nothing short of exemplary, with each step completed with near-perfection. In February 1996, he and Nicollier became the first pair of shuttle astronauts to embark on a third mission together, as crewmates aboard STS-75, the second flight of the TSS payload. With Nicollier hailing from Switzerland and two other crewmen from Italy— Maurizio Cheli and Umberto Guidoni—STS-75 became the first shuttle mission to include as many as three ESA representatives. In addition to completing a 16-day flight, the mission supported numerous experiments in microgravity research and applications.

Franklin Chang-Diaz, Jeff Hoffman and Claude Nicollier enjoy a meal in their sleep stations during STS-75. Photo Credit: NASA
Franklin Chang-Diaz, Jeff Hoffman, and Claude Nicollier enjoy a meal in their sleep stations during STS-75. Photo Credit: NASA

More than two years later, in July 1998, Nicollier was named as one of four EVA crew members for the third Hubble servicing mission, planned for launch aboard Columbia on STS-104 in June 2000. Together with NASA astronauts Steve Smith, John Grunsfeld, and Mike Foale, he would support a record-setting six back-to-back spacewalks to install new hardware aboard the telescope. “The ambitious nature of this mission,” said Dave Leestma, then-director of Flight Crew Operations, “made it important for the payload crew to begin its training as early as possible.”

Original plans called for the six EVAs to replace Hubble’s Faint Object Camera (FOC) with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), replace Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS)-2, replace both solar arrays with rigid, high-efficiency ones, and replace an Engineering/Science Tape Recorder (ESTR) with a new Solid State Recorder (SSR). Ancillary tasks included fitting a cooling system to the telescope’s aft shroud in order to upgrade the thermal protection capacity of its systems, installing a new technology cryocooler for the Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), and attaching six voltage/temperature improvement kits to enhance Hubble’s battery-charge capability. Repairs to the telescope’s aging thermal insulation on its Sun-facing side were also planned, following a discovery by the second Hubble servicing crew of areas of peeling.

However, six back-to-back EVAs on a single flight was more than had ever been attempted in the shuttle program’s history and, according to David Leckrone, Hubble’s Senior Project Scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., it was “shaping up to be quite a lengthy and complicated mission,” which pressed the envelope in terms of capability. With the mission assigned to Columbia, all eyes were on getting her STS-93 flight off the ground in mid-1999, such that NASA’s oldest orbiter could complete several months modification and refurbishment in Palmdale, Calif., to meet a June 2000 launch date. However, the lengthy delays to STS-93 and the need to tend to extensive wiring inspections meant that Columbia would be out of service for far longer than intended.

Claude Nicollier (center, on RMS arm) and Mike Foale work on the Hubble Space Telescope during STS-103 in December 1999. Photo Credit: NASA
Claude Nicollier (center, on RMS arm) and Mike Foale work on the Hubble Space Telescope during STS-103 in December 1999. Photo Credit: NASA

Matters were compounded by troubles with Hubble itself. By March 1999, three of its six critical gyrodynes had failed and NASA exercised the option to split the third servicing mission into two halves and fly the first half as STS-103, aboard Shuttle Discovery, in October 1999. Three more astronauts—Commander Curt Brown, Pilot Scott Kelly, and Frenchman Jean-Francois Clervoy as RMS operator—were assigned, but the mission was postponed until 19 December. The requirement for Discovery to be back on Earth before the end of 1999, to accommodate fears of the much-hyped Y2K computer “bug,” also forced the mission to be cut from 10 to eight days, and its four EVAs were cut to three.

With Smith and Grunsfeld slated to perform EVA-1 and EVA-3, it turned out that Foale and Nicollier drew the short straw by having just one spacewalk to perform on STS-103. (They had already lost EVA-6 from the original, six-spacewalk flight and had now lost EVA-4 from the revised mission.) It would be the only EVA of Nicollier’s astronaut career and began at 2:06 p.m. EST on 23 December 1999, four days into the STS-103 mission. Their task was to install the DF-224 computer aboard Hubble, which comprised a radiation-hardened Intel 486 processor to replace the telescope’s 1970s-era brain. In becoming the first ESA astronaut to spacewalk outside the shuttle, Nicollier received radioed congratulations from fellow European spacefarer Clervoy.

Built around the Intel 80486 DX2 processor, and running at 25 MHz, the new chair-sized computer was made up of three identical boards for redundancy and was 20 times faster and carried six times as much memory as its predecessor. Additionally, it could operate on just 30 watts of electrical power, as opposed to 100 watts for the earlier computer, but NASA engineers joked that it represented the most expensive 386-to-486 upgrade in history. “A 486 by most people’s standards is out of date, but this is a pretty special 486,” Mike Foale explained before the mission. “It’s able to withstand all the radiation and there’s very strong radiation up at the high altitude the Hubble flies without causing the program to crash.”

It was also a difficult upgrade, since it was hard for Foale to see critical connectors on the left side of the box. He had to take exceptional care not to impact connectors on a nearby data management unit. “All the connectors are on the side of the box where you can’t see them,” said John Grunsfeld before the mission, “so Mike has to do that basically without the aid of stereoscopic vision. He’ll have one eye as he’s reaching around to do that and on the left of him, on the [aft shroud] doors is the data management unit and huge bundles of delicate cables. The challenge there is how do you jam yourself as close as you can to that without touching it, so you can see the connectors you have to disconnect, without damaging the cables.”

Providing clearance cues, Nicollier positioned himself close to the aft shroud doors and Foale had successfully hooked up the new computer by 4:30 p.m. EST. Shortly afterwards, aliveness tests confirmed that it was functioning as expected. Foale and Nicollier’s next task was the installation of FGS-2, which had been removed during SM-2 in February 1997 and returned to Earth for refurbishment. It took two attempts to properly seat the sensor in its alignment rails, but was completed successfully, prompting Steve Smith to radio Mission Control to ask if the spacewalkers could press on with the replacement of the Optical Control Electronics (OCE) package. The OCE replacement was meant for EVA-3, but Capcom Steve Robinson replied from Mission Control that Foale and Nicollier’s spacewalk was already heading toward the seven-hour point and they should call it a day and begin cleaning up their work site. By the time the spacewalkers returned inside the airlock at 10:16 p.m. EST, they had been outside for eight hours and 10 minutes, concluding the third-longest EVA in shuttle program history.

Claude Nicollier. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/
Claude Nicollier. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/

Although much attention had focused upon the spacewalkers, the task of Clervoy as RMS operator was a monumental one. His task was incredibly delicate, requiring him to manoeuvre the EVA crewmen and their tools with great precision and stop and start their motions at specific times. However, he could not apply the arm’s brakes. “The arm will be in running mode at all times, so I will have to protect the sticks to ensure that nobody bumps into them,” he said. “I will have to stay concentrated for several hours and Claude Nicollier will be my backup for that job, when Steve and John are outside, and John Grunsfeld will be my backup, when Claude and Mike are outside.” By his own admission, Clervoy believed that Nicollier or Grunsfeld would probably take over about 20 percent of the whole EVA time flying the RMS to allow him to take a breather.

Following his return from STS-103 on 27 December 1999, Claude Nicollier had accrued 42.5 days in space, spread across four shuttle missions. At the time of his landing, his EVA marked the third longest in history, following an eight-hour-29-minute excursion by Pierre Thuot, Rick Hieb, and Tom Akers on STS-49 and an eight-hour-15-minute spacewalk by Smith and Grunsfeld on STS-103. Since then, the eight-hour-56-minute excursion of Jim Voss and Susan Helms during STS-102 in March 2001 and the eight-hour-17-minute spacewalk by Expedition 33 astronauts Suni Williams and Aki Hoshide in August 2012 have pushed Nicollier’s EVA further down the table. However, he and Foale retain to this day the record for the fifth longest spacewalk in history.

After several years assigned to the astronaut office’s EVA Branch and service as the Lead ESA astronaut at JSC, Nicollier began teaching at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in 2004 and became a full professor in March 2007. Sadly, his wife, Susana Perz of Monterrey, Mexico, died in December 2007, leaving Nicollier widowed with two daughters, Maya and Marina.



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