"I never ever thought there would be such enormous interest as there has been," said ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang, commenting on the European post-flight tour he has just completed together with the rest of the STS-116 Space Shuttle crew. In just nine days the crew worked through an intensive schedule of presentations and visits in five European countries.
With crewmember and Swedish ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang as their host, the crew passed through Stockholm and Gothenburg in Sweden, as well as the Danish and Norwegian cities of Copenhagen and Oslo. In each city they talked to packed out audiences in museums, parliament, Royal palaces and universities, about last December's Shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
Christer Fuglesang was proud to be able to show the rest of his crew around Europe. "I was surprised about how strong the attention has been growing in Sweden, Denmark and Norway," he said. "Even three months later during this post-flight tour we experience that the fascination is still there. I hope the interest will continue."
Nearing the end of their European stay, the crew also took a couple of days to visit two of ESA's sites in Germany and The Netherlands. "I think it is fitting that in our last two days we've visited the heart of ESA by going to the European Astronaut Centre and now here at ESTEC," said STS-116 Commander Mark Polansky, as he introduced his crew to the audience at ESA's research and technology centre, ESTEC, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands – the venue for their final presentation before flying home to Houston, in the United States.
"We also get to see the thing that we like to see – the real space hardware that is going to go into space!" Polansky added, referring to their viewing of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Europe's re-supply spaceship for the ISS, currently in the ESTEC Test Centre ahead of shipping to its French Guiana launch site.
After Daniel Sacotte, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration, had welcomed the crew to ESTEC, they presented a summary of their 13-day mission and answered questions from the audience.
Reflecting on how well the crew got on together during their mission, Polansky explained that it comes down to some mutual respect. "As a crew you have to respect each other and work and play well together. It's pretty much common courtesy – as if you are on a very long camping trip together, but in space you can't walk too far away."
By all accounts Fuglesang's crewmates were also impressed with the welcome they were given in Europe. "It was very refreshing seeing the reception that Christer gets, particularly in Sweden and Norway," said STS-116 Mission Specialist Nicholas Patrick. "It shows me how much interest there is in spaceflight. That is something that we almost forget in America where it has become more routine."
For Mark Polansky, the tour has also been an eye-opener. "You get to see the international component of what we do," he said. "We've seen the excitement throughout Europe. We realise that we are doing incredible work, not just in the United States, but in cooperation with our international partners."