MEET: Christer Fuglesang

27 March 2017

Rebecca Martin

Christer Fuglesang is Sweden’s first - and so far, only astronaut. Born in Stockholm in 1957, he studied at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, before earning his PhD in Experimental Physics at Stockholm University in 1987. Although always fascinated by space, he didn’t start out thinking he was going to be Sweden’s first space traveller.

“When I started at KTH I didn’t plan to become a scientist and going for a PhD but towards my last year at university I started thinking it might be fun to learn more – the more I studied the more interesting it became. Then after my PhD I was awarded a fellowship at CERN in Switzerland, and spent a few years there.”

In 1990, a friend showed him an ad in the paper, calling for applicants to the European Space Agency’s astronaut programme.

“By then, I had actually been thinking about it for a few years. I had been playing with the idea of applying to NASA. Alternatively, I had thought that if I could just come up with a bright idea, which involved an experiment carried out in space – they might have to send me. It was rather farfetched, really.”

This, however, was a different way in. After giving it some thought, Fuglesang applied. In 1992, after rigorous testing and a lengthy selection process, first in Sweden and later by ESA, he was accepted.

“I kept using my maths skills, estimating the odds I had of getting picked. When we were down to 25, I thought I had a decent chance.”

Surprisingly enough, he was not scared before the first mission.

“Once you get to that point, you are so well prepared, you have been training for so long, you have talked to so many that have done it before that it felt almost natural. I slept just as well as I always do the night before and I was not nervous sitting in the space ship waiting for take-off. Of course, you feel some excitement and logically you know that the risks are high, much higher than you would like to take.”

The most nervous or exciting moment wasn’t take off but before his first spacewalk.

“Again, you know it isn’t that dangerous but it is even more up to you, you are in your own spaceship - your suit - and you know you have to be careful and more than anything you don’t want to make a mistake.”

The spacewalk itself is something literally out of this world, says Fuglesang.

“You are outside the spaceship and you are floating along the sides of the station, seeing Earth far below you – it is very, very special.”

Many astropreneurs today are saying that space is the next business frontier and that Sweden could be at the forefront of these developments. Fuglesang is inclined to agree.

“Sweden could play a very good active role in this. We have a very strategic geographic position - with a modest government investment we could launch small satellites from Esrange Space Center outside Kiruna. This would offer enormous opportunities for that area and it is currently the only place in Europe outside Russia from where satellites could be launched.”

According to Fuglesang, such a development would mean a massive increase in knowledge and technological developments.

Another opportunity for Sweden to make use of their strategic location would be to develop the capabilities for commercial suborbital flight, something that Spaceport Sweden outside of Kiruna has been working on for the last few years. However, being at the forefront of a new business idea is not always easy.

“There hasn’t always been that much support from official Sweden. The local government is behind the scheme, but centrally the interest could be higher. Another complication is that the country lacks the legal framework to support this and there are still many who doubt that this will take off.”

In the UK however, things are different.

“They are working very hard, aggressively almost, to develop a spaceport in Northern UK. A lot of money has been put into this from the government’s side through subsidies and many areas are bidding for the project.“

Great news for the space industry, but potentially not for Sweden.

“We are risking losing a competition that I believe we could easily win, if we would just go for it,” says Fuglesang.

Turning 60 this year, Fuglesang is retiring from ESA and will become a full-time professor at KTH. However, some of his time will also be spent in a new project with SCC Member Saab Technologies.

“The business world is completely new to me so I am definitely looking forward to experience this new challenge,“ he tells The LINK.

His advice to anyone who wants success in their life is to identify their goal and work towards it while staying open to new experiences.

“Keep your goal in sight, but also keep an open mind, be ready for opportunities that may come your way.”

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