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The first Belgian in space : a 30-year leap into the past


On March 24, 1992, Dirk Frimout became the first Belgian in space on the Atlas-1 Space Shuttle mission. Even though science is an effort spanning over millennia of history and all continents of the world - not a single scientific idea was born in isolation – for the sake of celebrating the 30th anniversary of the event, we would like to talk specifically about the role that the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB) has played in this Belgian leap into space. Firstly, because Dirk Frimout spent the first 13 years of his career at this Institute; and secondly, because three of the instruments he was in charge of during this adventure in Earth’s orbit were largely developed at BIRA-IASB.

Let’s rewind three decades

Step into your time machine, set the timer for exactly 30 years, that is to say March 24, 1992. The rise of grunge, the time of Walkmans, the year that Kris Kross' Jump and Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven came out. At the same time, the Belgian press and public were excitedly looking forward to becoming part of space age history, while the scientists and engineers of the – not yet ‘royal’ at the time – Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy were busy preparing for the Atlas-1 mission, in cooperation with their former colleague Dirk Frimout at ESA, and with NASA.

Watch "Atlas-1 Launch: in the BIRA-IASB control room"

atlas 1 launch
Footage credit: Carlos Lippens
Part of the SOLSPEC team at the instrument control centre in Houston during the 1983
Spacelab-1 flight. Credit: Carlos Lippens

To give a short background: Frimout began his career at the Institute in 1965, made it to head of the instrumentation department, leading many measurement campaigns with stratospheric balloons and developing the concept of an instrument called the Grille Spectrometer.

In 1978, he became a senior engineer at the European Space Agency, but continued to work closely with BIRA-IASB on its space instruments, especially between 1984 and 1993, when he became the project manager for the Spacelab missions. This was an ESA programme flown on Space Shuttles that carried several BIRA-IASB instruments:

  • Grille Spectrometer (mentioned above): to study the chemical composition of the middle and upper atmosphere by measuring how the atmosphere absorbs infrared radiation from the Sun
  • SOLSPEC: to observe the variability of the energy emitted by the Sun
  • ALAE: to measure the amount of hydrogen and deuterium (hydrogen atoms with an extra neutron) in the atmosphere

The Atlas-1 mission

After their first flights into space with the Spacelab-1 mission in 1983, it was time to make that trip a second time with the Atlas-1 mission in 1992, onboard the Atlantis Space Shuttle. This time, however, they were accompanied by Dirk Frimout himself. As one of two payload specialists among the crew, Frimout was responsible for carrying out the measurements and experiments with the suite of 12 instruments in total.

The Atlas-1 mission was launched on March 24 from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Many of BIRA-IASB’s engineers and scientists involved in the project were at the Center to provide ground support for their equipment, as they had done previously for Spacelab-1. The launchers managed to lift 105 982 kg to about 290 km above Earth’s surface. The flight lasted almost 9 days and completed 143 orbits around the planet, during which the seven-member crew - divided into a blue and red crew - worked in shifts so that not a single precious second would be wasted.

Watch "Atlas-1: post spaceflight check"

post flight check
Footage credit: Carlos Lippens

The mission was a success. Belgium’s first human in space was a fact. The equipment performed well and large volumes of scientific data were gathered that would help scientists to advance their knowledge of the interaction between the Sun and the Earth’s atmosphere (think of the climate, the ozone layer etc…). But these short-duration Space Shuttle missions like Spacelab and were also a stepping stone towards the incredible international, scientific and engineering feat that is the International Space Station (ISS) and the science that is performed on board.

It’s to the ISS that Belgium’s second astronaut, Frank De Winne, went and followed in the footsteps of Frimout, just 10 years after Atlas-1. De Winne spent 8 days in space in 2002, but he returned to the ISS in 2009, this time for 6 months. During the last two months, he became the first commander of the ISS who wasn’t of Russian or American nationality.

Our time machine has now brought us back to the present, and we wonder “who will become the third Belgian in space?” We might know in just a few months! Of the 1007 Belgians who applied for the European Space Agency’s astronaut selection, 50 candidates were retained for phase two (of which 21 women). The results of the final selection will be announced in autumn of this year. Fingers crossed!

NASA launch footage

More pictures

The grille spectrometer in development at BIRA-IASB
The Grille Spectrometer under development at BIRA-IASB in 70's and 80's. Credit: BIRA-IASB
Grille spectrometer on spacelab
The Grille Spectrometer being mounted for Spacelab-1 in 1983. Credit: BIRA-IASB
Dirk Frimout during astronaut training
Dirk Frimout during his astronaut training. Credit: NASA
Shuttle cargo bay
Atlantis' cargo bay midflight during the Atlas-1 mission in 1992. Credit: NASA

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The launch of the Atlas-1 mission on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis, March 24, 1992. Credit: NASA
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The crew of Atlas-1, with Dirk Frimout at the far right side.
Credit: NASA
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The first Belgian in space, big national news!