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'I’m pinching myself': Meet ESA's newest astronauts picked to blast off to the ISS

Sophie Adenot, left, and Raphael Liégeois, right, are the new picks by the European Space Agency for its next mission to the International Space Station in 2026.
Sophie Adenot, left, and Raphael Liégeois, right, are the new picks by the European Space Agency for its next mission to the International Space Station in 2026. Copyright European Space Agency
Copyright European Space Agency
By Anna Desmarais
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A former French helicopter test pilot and a Belgian biomedical engineer are ESA's newest graduates selected to fly to the International Space Station (ISS).

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Sophie Adenot spent hours reading biographies of famous female astronauts from her childhood home in Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire, France, hoping one day to do the same.

That dream came true for the 41-year-old former helicopter test pilot this week as the European Space Agency (ESA) chose her as one of their new recruits for a 2026 mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

"Every day I’m pinching myself saying 'this can’t possibly be my life,'" an enthusiastic Adenot told Euronews Next.

Adenot and her classmate Raphaël Liégeois, a biomedical engineer from Namur, Belgium just recently finished their one year of basic training with ESA as part of their most recent cohort of future astronauts, culminating in their graduation ceremony on April 22 in Germany.

Josef Aschbacher, ESA's director-general, made the announcement during the Space Council in Brussels on Thursday, calling Adenot and Liégeois’ appointments a "significant milestone" for Europe’s ambitions in space.

"As exploration activities develop at an unprecedented rate, sending two newly graduated ESA astronauts to space is a crucial stepping-stone in the path of preserving European knowhow," Aschbacher said.

France's Adenot is set for takeoff first, with Liégeois not far behind.

"I’m feeling great, it's an important moment in a career, in a life," Liégeois said in an interview with Euronews Next.

"I’m looking forward to starting this two-year adventure".

From Tintin to the third Belgian in space

Liégeois’ fascination with space started with a love of the classic French character Tintin, who ends up going to the Moon.

"I was going there with Tintin," the 36-year-old said. "I would say that that was a defining moment for me".

Then, it was watching two of his Belgian idols blast off for space as he was growing up in Namur.

Liégeois is only the third Belgian astronaut, following in the footsteps of his idols turned mentors, Dirk Frimout and Frank De Winne. He was four when Frimout made history on the space shuttle STS-45 as a payload specialist in 1992.

Both men have given Liégeois some advice: to cherish family and friends to get them through this transformational moment.

"It’s a bit overwhelming at times to be [following in the footsteps] of these people I’ve been dreaming with… but I’m trying not to think too much about that responsibility," Liégeois said. "Instead, I’m trying to just focus on my day-to-day job".

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Before becoming an astronaut, Liégeois took on the world of biomedical engineering by studying at the University of Liège and paired it with a Master’s degree in fundamental physics from the University Paris-Saclay in France.

Then it was straight into a neuroscience PhD in Belgium, where his research defined new neuroimaging markers of neurodegenerative diseases.

He’s also been working as a research fellow or scholar at Stanford University, the University of Geneva, and the National University of Singapore.

Flying to new heights

France’s Adenot knew that becoming an astronaut would be difficult, so she decided to focus on building a career path that she loved first.

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Then maybe the dream of blasting off to space would follow, she said.

"Flying is what makes me happy, being able to see the Earth from above," Adenot said. "That’s really what matters to me".

That’s exactly what she did. Adenot chose to start her career designing helicopter cockpits with Airbus Helicopter in Marignane, France after finishing her Master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US and the Institut Superieur de l’Aeronautique et de l’Espace in Toulouse, France.

From there, she enlisted in France’s military, enlisting with the forces in 2005 for basic military and flight training to become a helicopter pilot. Eventually making her way up through the ranks, Adenot became France’s first female helicopter test pilot in 2018.

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France awarded Adenot with their National Order of Merit in 2022 along with the medal of the French National Assembly for being an inspiring ambassador for gender equality in science.

Around that time, Adenot joined the ESA's newest batch of recruits: one of two women chosen, along with Rosemary Coogan from the UK.

Adenot doesn’t know how she’ll feel when she flies higher than ever before on this mission.

"What astronauts normally report is that it's very beautiful, that it’s overwhelming," she said. "I’m very honoured".

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Two years of gruelling training before takeoff

The announcement marks the beginning of a long, gruelling two years of training for Adenot and Liégeois.

They’ll both be doing a loaded training programme of theory, operational, and emergency response. There will also be lots of time in the pool, which will give them an idea of what it is like to be suspended without gravity during their missions.

Adenot said that it is also important for her to get to know the members of her crew, since they will have no one but each other to rely on for six months during the mission and will have to be ready for anything.

The ESA said in a statement that Adenot and Liégeois will perform "numerous scientific experiments," along with medical research, contribute to Earth observation, and do some maintenance tasks on the International Space Station.

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