STARMUS Festival Zurich: Interview with Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier

Posted on 06/08/2019 by Eileen Schuch
STARMUS Festival Zurich

That Switzerland’s cheese is out of this world is a well-known fact. BUT: do you know who the first – and (so far) only – Swiss in space is? Claude Nicollier!

Born in the small town of Vevey in our home canton Vaud in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, this man has made an astronomical career: participant in four Space Shuttle missions, first spaceflight in 1992, final one in 1999, two servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, participated in a spacewalk, and became the first ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut to do so… appointed full professor of Spatial Technology at the EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), expert board member of Swiss Space Systems… and Swiss STARMUS ambassador.

Rey met the Swiss astronaut for an interview at the STARMUS press conference. The panel was completed by Garik Israelian, STARMUS Director and Astrophysicist, and Michel Hintze, Founder CQS and philanthropist.



The festival program was absolutely exciting (Recap on These were our highlights:

Day 1: Stephen Hawkin Medal for Science Communication Ceremony, Official Opening: Once Upon A Time On The Moon, in homage to the Apollo missions followed by a concert. The concert “Once Upon a Time” was arranged and directed exclusively by Hans Zimmer and also featured Brian May and Rick Wakeman.

Day 2: Keynotes by John Logsdon, Space Race Historian, Yuri Baturin, Cosmonaut, Chris Hadfield, Astronaut, and many more about Apollo Program, Soviet Lunar Programme, Moon, Mars and beyond…

Day 3: 108 Min, CERN Research, ESA plans for Gateway, Lunar and Mars exploration, Blue Moon, Space X, Mission Moon 3D, Prospects for Humanity, Film Screening and panel discussion «Space Race in US and Soviet films », Apollo 11.

Day 4: Nobel Laureates Donna Strickland and Elizabeth Blackburn, Claude Nicollier and Robert Williams (Servicing Hubble on orbit), Nobel Panel Discussion.

Day 5: Moon bounce session, Earth from Space, Beyond Pluto, China lunar program.

Day 6: May-Britt Moser Concert-Lecture featuring Trondhem Soloists and Steve VAI, In the Universe, a panel discussion with George Smoot, Life in the Universe panel of microbiologists, biochemists, astrophysicists, ethologists, and evolutionary biologists, STAR PARTY.

Talk about mingling with the stars! Never again, at least not in the following years, will we have that much scientific brainpower and space experience concentrated in one place in Zurich!


STARMUS Festival Zurich


What excites you the most about your job? If the answers is: the weekend, maybe it’s time for a career change…

If you work hard and you reach for the stars, everything is possible! Look at Brian May in the photo here above. Yep, that Brian May: lead guitarist at the legendary rock band QUEEN, songwriter, singer BUT also Doctor of Astrophysics (BAM!), and STARMUS co-founder and board member. How is that for an atypical parcours?

Turns out, Big Bang Theory was right all along: Scientists are the new rockstars! Or vice versa. Who knows… what we do know is, there was a BIG BANG this summer. STARMUS hit Zurich and in its trajectory brought countless stars to the city.

Particularly bright were shining Elon Musk, Brian Eno, and Apollo 11, a documentary by Todd Douglas Miller. Each received one of the world’s most prestigious awards for scientific communication: a Stephen Hawking Medal.

Sadly, Stephen Hawking, one of the coolest persons to have ever graced our planet Earth with their presence, left for another galaxy last year, but with this Medal in his honor, his legacy lives on.

The award ceremony was held on June 24 at STARMUS V Festival in Zurich. The event was hosted by no other than Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”, a renowned scientist and TV presenter.

The guest list was impressive: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins and six other Apollo mission astronauts. Sir Michael Hintze, Founder, Group Executive Chairman and Senior Investment Officer at CQS who is supporting the event. Garik Israelian, director and co-founder of STARMUS, and many, many more!

It is safe to say: this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet and greet some of the world’s most brilliant minds!


STARMUS Festival Zurich Stephen Hawking Medal


At the press conference, Starmus announced the winners of the 2019 Stephen Hawking Medal:

Elon Musk for his extraordinary achievements in space travel and humanity. Richard Dawkins described him as a “hero of our time”.

Brian Eno for the brave new edition of his album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks from 1983

Apollo 11, a documentary by Todd Douglas Miller, for his pioneering take at history’s most famous space mission

The Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication 2019 was awarded one year after the death of the great scientist. He was meant to participate, but sadly, faith decided differently…

This year’s awards were the first since Stephen Hawking passed away. They are dedicated to his legacy and remind of his affinity for applied technology. Before his death, Stephen Hawking personally invited Elon Musk to STARMUS. Previous winners of the Stephen Hawking Medal include Hans Zimmer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jean-Michel Jarre, and The Big Bang Theory.

Another of the many highlights this year was, of course, the presence of Prof. Dr. h.c. Claude Nicollier.



Claude Nicollier’s bio is impressive! Here a little excerpt: “He studied Physics at the University of Lausanne and received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1970. He then worked as a graduate scientist from 1970 to 1973 at the Institute of Astronomy at the University and at the Geneva Observatory before obtaining a Master of Science degree in Astrophysics from the University of Geneva in 1975. Nicollier has spent over 1000 hours in space, including one spacewalk lasting 8 hours and 10 minutes.

He served as a mission specialist on four missions with four different space shuttles: Atlantis, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour. He has received many honors and medals, including the IAF Yuri Gagarin Gold Medal. Claude Nicollier installed the famous Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) on the Hubble Space Telescope. This camera was used to image the Hubble Deep Field in 1995, the Hourglass Nebula and the Egg Nebula in 1996, the Hubble Deep Field South in 1998 and many other important objects.

Today, Claude Nicollier, Professor in Aerospace Engineering (EPFL), is a public speaker and lecturer at the University of Lausanne.

Rey met this truly outstanding personality at the STARMUS press conference in Zurich, and this is the transcript of their conversation:

Q: Claude, you are the first and so far only Swiss person in space. In fact, you are a hero!

A: I am not a hero. I am just very fortunate to have been doing what I did. Which was extraordinary.

Q: Switzerland is a small country. Often, it is the Swiss German part that is “leading” in a way. You are from the French-speaking and much smaller part. So you are an example, a role model, someone who shows that no matter where you are from, you can achieve big things. How did it start for you and how did you manage to accomplish all this?

A: Well, I think the word is passion! I was passionate about space, I was passionate about airplanes and at some point, it became possible for Europeans, including Swiss, to become astronauts. So, I tried to become one and it worked. I worked hard, of course, but I was also very lucky.

Q: You were born in Vevey, a small city at the shores of Lac Leman. What was little Claude doing when he was 7 years or so? Because many young children say they want to become an astronaut, right? Was it the same with you when you were a little boy, did you want to become an astronaut already then?

A: In a way, yes. I mean, as a child I built model aircraft already. That was really my first passion. Flying, you know. I was an air force pilot. But at the same time, I was pursuing a career as a scientist. But looking at the stars as a kid, and building model airplanes, that really were my two passions growing up. Of course, for a long time, only the Soviets and the Americans got to access space, no Europeans and certainly no Swiss. So, becoming an astronaut was not really on the table. But in the mid-seventies, the US invited Europe to participate in the shuttle program, and suddenly it was possible for Europeans to become astronauts, too. Immediately I said, “This is what I want to do!” And I was selected as one of the first Europeans, and incidentally as the first Swiss person, to become an astronaut and to fly out to the space shuttle.

Q: I really do admire you! I always try to encourage people to follow their dreams as well. You know, we always say, “Sky is the limit”, but with you, Sky is not the limit, right?

A: *Shuckles* No you are right! Sky is not the limit. But then again, what is the sky? Is it 200 kilometers away, or is it million light years away… there is no limit. The universe is vast, and it is open to us now. What we have done so far, even the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon, is very “local” in a way. When you think about the solar system and the galaxy, and the universe… we have only just started, but I am sure we will go very far.

Q: Oh yes, I am sure we will! With the political situation at the time though, there were a lot of obstacles and limits, but you did it anyway. You had to have a strong passion, but also confidence, right? Did you ever have doubts?

A: Well, you know, when there was the first opportunity for Europeans to apply to become astronauts, there were many people who registered and all of them extremely bright. Over 6000 people applied! So yes, there was a lot of competition. You had to work very hard in order to convince the selection board to choose you. You had to prove that you are good enough for them to select you and be successful in space flight. The competition was harsh, but it was a friendly competition.

Q: Who inspired you, to take that challenge on?

A: People like John Young inspired me. He was an astronaut whom I admired a lot. He was the commander of Appollo 16, and he also was the commander of the first space shuttle flight. Neil Armstrong, of course, has been a real giant among astronauts; I had a lot of admiration for him, too. Yuri Gagarin, the very first one to go. He was the first human to ever journey into outer space. Despite all the obstacles, he went and he is the one who opened the possibilities for all of us. So in order, I would probably have to say: Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, and John Young were my 3 heroes.

Q: Well, you are definitely my hero! Claude, you are part of Starmus. This event is coming to Zurich for the first time… and you said something in the press conference, about Apollo, its spirit, which rejoins your philosophy, can you repeat that for us here, please?

A: I think one of the biggest lessons of the Apollo program is “If you really want to do it, you can do it!” And President Kennedy said, it was in May 1961, we are going to go to the moon in this decade. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure best our energies and skills. If we take this spirit of Apollo now, with all the problems we have on our planet Earth today, the loss of biodiversity, and the plastic in the oceans… we can do it! If we really want to do it, we can. If we bring the spirit of Apollo to solve the big problems of planet Earth now, we are going to be able to make it.

Q: Hearing you speak, I have hope, indeed. Claude, are we going to see you in Zurich during the festival?

A: Yes, I will be there. Not every day, because I have to give exams to my students in Lausanne, but most of the time I will be here at the festival. And I will enjoy the lectures, and of course the music in the evening.

Q: Ah, yes, of course, this is what I wanted to ask! This is a festival, right. It’s not only lectures, but it’s also about enjoying life and music and celebrating astronomy, right?

A: Absolutely! It’s a combination of the spirit of adventure, science at the highest level, and really great music. The combination of all of these elements makes it a really worthwhile festival.

Q: As we are talking about enjoying life and lifestyle… in space, what about fashion, food and these things?

A: *Laughs* Well, it’s not really relevant. Fashion, food… You go up to space to do meaningful things, like repair the telescope, which I had the privilege of doing twice. You see amazing things whether it’s looking at the Earth or looking at the stars. The outfit is really not that important. I don’t think I even remember exactly what I was wearing. So fashion is not a big thing in space, and cooking neither, to be honest. You just eat in order to survive. You eat scrambled eggs, oatmeal, and spaghetti with meatballs, that kind of thing. Ah, and there was a Broccoli Gratin which wasn’t actually all that bad. That was one of the meals I enjoyed. So space travel, if it comes to fashion or food, is not really a highlight. But it is a highlight in many other areas.



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STARMUS Festival is a great opportunity to connect with some of the brightest minds alive. All the info on:



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