Lena De Winne: "I am fascinated with the opportunity to play a role in setting a society that transcends cultures and borders"
- Your entire career, starting from the early nineties, is closely related to space. You have spent 15 years working for the European Space Agency in The Netherlands, wrote popular books for children and adults about space, gave public lectures, and now you are one of the key people in Asgardia. Why space?
- For as long as I remember my life has been a series of improbable events that had nothing to do with what I was planning, and absolutely impossible to foresee. I truly consider that sway of the wings of Ray Bradbury's butterfly is just about the most logical and rational way to explain how I ended up in space domain. In 1992 I was invited to work in the USA at an event management company but I ended up in Holland. At the time I just graduated as an MSc engineer. The European Space Agency was launching the ‘Euromir’ programme - flights of the European astronauts to the Russian Mir station. They needed an engineer who could do translation. I was at the right place in the right time I guess. I was offered the job.
- You did not ever have to apply for it?
- Like I said, logically my professional path does not make much sense. The only job I have ever applied for and got it was a cleaning job in a hotel (in those few months in The Netherlands before I met the ‘Euromir’ people). But I got kicked out after 3 weeks - I did not clean fast enough. I guess I still don’t (laughs). I have been headhunted into all the jobs I have had after that epic failure.
- Your book “My Countdown” is about the second flight of your husband, Frank De Winne, an ESA astronaut from Belgium, to the International Space Station. Was it the first time you have written something?
- In the past I have written as a hobby for some magazines but it had nothing to do with space. I have also written a series of articles about Frank’s flight for a science section of a popular Russian portal “Snob”. I was not thinking about books. But one day I was talking to Frank and his crewmate Bob Thirsk from Canada, and they told me from the ISS that I should write about their life, our life. ‘My Countdown’ originally was written in English. It got translated into French and Flemish, and later I have re-written it in Russian.
- You have also written books for children, and you are involved in extracurricular space education.
- Indeed, my second book ‘My father is a cosmonaut’ was in conjunction with the second flight of Roman Romanenko. It is a fairy tale where a small toy clown that belongs to Roman’s daughter Anastasia goes with him to space but then becomes a real person on the ISS. Roman needs to teach him urgently how to live on-board the space station.
I have also written ‘Space Alphabet’ - a book of rhymes with ‘space words’ in an alphabetical order. I am proud to say that my colleagues in Russia who work in space education use this book in their curriculum.
- I am sure you get asked this often enough, and we will ask this too, as people find this interesting: how did you end up being married to an astronaut?
- Believe it or not, astronauts are just regular humans like all of us (laughs). We met at work. In a corridor. As simple as that. I had been working at ESA for a few years by the time Frank was recruited as an astronaut.
- You are a member of the board of Beautiful After Breast Cancer Foundation. All your books are sold in support of UNICEF Belgium or Dolls Parade for Kids charitable project by Svetlana Pchelnikova. Tell us a little more about it, please.
- Beautiful After Breast Cancer Foundation is an initiative by the world leading expert in reconstructive surgery Doctor Phillip Blondeel from Ghent University. Under his leadership a team of world-class surgeons in various countries perform breast reconstruction after mastectomy. This is an initiative that provides information and support to women who have to deal with breast cancer, and to their families. It is very important not only to handle the disease but from the onset to define the course of physical and psychological recovery and foresee if the breast reconstruction is desired by a patient, and how to include it into the treatment approach from the start.
My husband Frank is a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF Belgium. Together we have been supporting their WaSH campaign (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene). Indeed, all the profits from my books in English, Dutch and French went directly there.
I have been helping Svetlana to run her Doll Parade before I started writing books. Connecting her charitable work in support of sick kids in Russia with Frank’s support to UNICEF was a perfect match. Frank took her doll to space. Together with Svetlana I did some fundraising by selling her dolls and my books.
- You are one of the founding members of Asgardia. Please tell us what the early days were like and what it felt like to be a pioneering member?
- First of all let’s be very clear. The one and only founder of Asgardia is the Founding Father - Dr. Igor Ashurbeyli. Asgardia is the result of his life-time work and vision. He, and only he is the brain behind the whole concept and the vision. I am, indeed, very privileged to have been invited into the core team who started preparation in summer 2016. How was it? Daring. Crazy. Fun. Sleepless. Intense. Fortunately it was so intense that there was no time left to get scared (laughs). Have you ever tried to answer about one thousand messages per day while keeping an eye on your regular job while being on holidays? Have you ever tried to set-up tens of FB pages with thousands of people connecting every day while being able to handle only a couple of languages yourself? Have you ever given an interview to BBC radio while sitting in a square in Nazareth next to the Basilica of Annunciation? Friends I came to visit for holidays we planned long before the Asgardia opening on 12 October 2016 thought I had gone crazy! Occasionally I still wonder if they were right (laughs).
- When you helped to set-up Asgardia, did you imagine that you would be doing live interviews on the top American news shows?
- I worked as a presenter for Belgian television in the past. It was a program about Russia. I have been on various TV and radio shows before, I have given a lot of interviews about my books and about this TV programme. It is an honour to be trusted to speak on behalf of Asgardia to the media worldwide on all levels.
- Given the option of living on Earth or living in space, which would be your preference?
- I know too much about the current reality of living in space. For me personally it is too tough both physically and psychologically. I love my fresh fruit, fresh air and a morning shower (laughs). If there is a chance to go on a sub-orbital flight I would love to do it. This is a short adventure ride, going up to over 100 km to see how the Earth curves. But those are still not available. Given the chance I would also go onto a zero-g (parabolic) flight. This is bound to be fun - to experience a series of short periods of weightlessness.
I am looking forward to the days when trips to space for a longer term stay become more comfortable. Then I am definitely interested to travel there.
- For Asgardia, you fly all over the world to represent the nation. How do you manage to balance the work you do and your personal life?
- Hmmm… This is an excellent question! It would be more accurate to ask “do you actually manage”. All I could say is that my life is not typical. But it works for me and my husband because we both live this way for the last 15 years. We both work with immediate colleagues who are stationed in various time zones, we are both available for work pretty much 24/7, we have both lived abroad in an international environment for over two decades. We are both at home but not quite at home where we are currently residing because this is just another workstation, and we will move again when the current assignment is over. We both have learned through our international lifestyle that ‘different is not wrong’.
- Out of all the goals that Asgardia is striving to achieve, what is the most important one to you?
- Any person who traveled to space will tell you that one of the things that strikes them the most is that there are no borders on Earth when you look down from space. I have been mentioning this in my lectures for many years. And now this is one of the core premises of Asgardia. Human values are the same no matter where the person is born. It feels like my whole path naturally brought me to the Asgardian “one humanity, one unity” point in life, as it matches perfectly with my years of conviction that humans are first of all humans, and that everyone is equal.
I am fascinated with the opportunity to play a role in setting a society that transcends cultures and borders.
I value above all human kindness and dignity. I am convinced that any people from anywhere in the world could live together in peace if they accept others with kindness in their hearts.
- Has Asgardia changed you as a person or made any impact on your life?
For me, the meaning of life is people. I have met a lot of extraordinary people in my Asgardian years. I keep learning every day how similar and at the same time different we are. And I am grateful to my illogical life path - everything that has happened to me to date, and I am sure will keep happening, is by far more challenging and colourful and invigorating than I could have possibly wished for myself.
I feel particularly blessed with the female colleagues I have. Our team working on Asgardia worldwide is about 50% female. This just happened naturally, as we were recruiting the best talents for the jobs. I am personally committed to making sure that as a work environment Asgardia is place of fairness and equality for all, and as a society Asgardia is open to anyone who shares its vision and adheres to its values.