France breaks a gender barrier Astronaut: The Soviet-Russian space program has remained almost exclusively the province of men. But Russia is about to help France launch its first woman, a doctor, into space.

Sun Journal

July 13, 1996|By Saskia Sissons | Saskia Sissons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARIS -- All manner of creatures, from monkeys to salamanders, have followed Laika the dog into orbit since 1957, while hundreds of men have succeeded Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut -- but only a handful of women have made it into space in the Russian program.

It may seem strange that whatever giant leaps women have made in earthbound commerce and industry in the 33 years since Valentina Tereshkova became the first female cosmonaut, the Russian space program has remained largely the domain of men.

Only a few years ago a Russian commander, whose crew included Britain's first astronaut -- a woman -- was quoted as saying: "It's not a woman's business to fly into space."

Dr. Claudie Andre-Deshays has made it her business.

Any day now, depending on the weather and the vagaries of Russian bureaucracy -- France's first female astronaut is scheduled to lift off from Baikonur in the steppes of northern Kazakstan on Mission Cassiopee, the latest in 30 years of Franco-Russian collaborations in space.

After two days at the helm of the Soyuz craft, she and her colleague Leopold Eyharts will rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir, which has been rotating the earth at more than 17,500 mph for a decade.

Coincidentally, she will find a female astronaut already aboard. Shannon Lucid, 53, an American, was supposed to end her five-month stay on Mir July 31 but must linger another several weeks because of shuttle problems.

Andre-Deshays, a 38-year-old scientist, has been waiting for this moment since her parents let her stay up to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

"I was only 12," she recalled, "and very impressionable. I spent the whole night alternately watching the television and the moon. This memory must have implanted itself in my unconscious."

Andre-Deshays was born in 1957 at Le Creusot in Burgundy. She graduated in medicine at 24, and went on to specialize in rheumatology.

She confesses that she was driven. "I always had to get the highest possible marks," she says.

But it was not until 1985, when the French National Space Agency (CNES) advertised for trainee astronauts, that her career went heavenward. "The call-up came at just the right moment," she says. "What should I do? I had no children. I was free. Why hesitate?"

From more than 1,000 applications, the CNES accepted only seven candidates, and Andre-Deshays was the only woman.

Her rise through the ranks of the CNES was by no means meteoric. She repeatedly suffered the bitter disappointment of having to play understudy as her male colleagues such as Patrick Baudry and Jean-Loup Chretien were selected for missions. But she learned to be patient, and in September 1993 she was selected for the Cassiopee mission.

There is one area in which a woman astronaut will always outshine a man -- grabbing media attention, which is vital to finance future missions.

The French press has not been concerned with Andre-Deshays' intellect: it has propelled her into the role of "space babe."

Even her colleagues at CNES are not immune. "We could have got Jean-Paul Gaultier to design her space suit," sighs one. "But Claudie would have refused."

Andre-Deshays is blessed with stunning looks. But if like many fictional space sirens, she possesses the stamina and determination of 10 men, she just doesn't let on.

After having been tilted, prodded and spun by the notorious "instruments of torture" at the Yuri Gagarin cosmonaut training center, and enduring three harrowing days in a flight-simulator, she joked: "I managed to overcome all the difficulties of the training program -- except the vodka."

She would, she says, prefer champagne for the numerous toasts that have become part of Mir missions.

She interrupted her training for one week to receive a stream of television crews and magazine journalists in a Moscow hotel. She performed her role as France's aeronautic ambassador with good grace, deflecting questions about her private life and her favorite perfume, while stressing the scientific importance of her mission.

She loves contemporary art, and trawls galleries for little-known examples of lyrical abstract paintings of the 1950s and 1960s. She will be listening to Mozart as she glides through space.

She won't have much time to contemplate the fragile beauty of Earth. Astronauts work an 18-hour day, and she has more than a dozen experiments to complete during her 16 days in orbit.

As well as taking the usual measurements of the physiological disturbances caused by space travel, she will test the effects of zero gravity on the fertility of salamanders.

On Mir she will join two resident Russians, Yuri Onufriyenko and Yuri Usachev, who are stuck in space while Moscow attempts to raise their return fare. The stranded cosmonauts were due to be flown home a few days after her return, but now there is no money to send up their Soyuz rocket.

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