Thomas Pesquet may replay an alternate season in the stars, the craze he arouses on Earth does not fall: for a month that he has been floating in orbit, the French astronaut has been surfing on popularity at the top, due so much to his personality than a well-oiled communication mechanism.
The methods are not new. “Astronauts have always functioned as ambassadors for space agencies, which need incarnation”, underlines the sociologist of science, Arnaud Saint-Martin.
Manned flights give flesh to the space sector, “often perceived as abstract”, explains this CNRS researcher to AFP. At the time of Apollo 11, in the 1960s, “NASA spoke of ‘propaganda’, in the sense of reaching the public, which is useful when it is necessary to justify budgets”.
In Europe, these flights are more exceptional than among the Americans and Russians, where astronauts have almost become commonplace.
Thomas Pesquet enjoyed an additional aura because he was the first European to fly with Space X. His takeoff, at the end of April, “melted into the infatuation” for Elon Musk’s company and its futuristic staging , Arnaud Saint-Martin analysis.
– Generation 2.0 –
When the team of six European astronauts, including Thomas Pesquet, was recruited in 2009, ESA “made the candidates’ ability to communicate as a priority”, says Jules Grandsire, in charge of communication at the European space agency. . It is therefore a group well-established in com ‘which landed in orbit, at the same time as social networks became widespread: an ideal cocktail to give a new interactive dimension to missions and boost their visibility.
The recipe took. “In 2013, Luca Parmitano’s mission gathered enormous enthusiasm in Italy, at levels that I had not known before. While walking with Luca in Rome, people stopped us, thanked us”, recalls Jules Grandsire. .
This impact is all the stronger on young people as the teachers have built educational programs around the scientific experiments carried out in the ISS. In the United Kingdom, no less than one in three schools followed the stay in the ISS of Timothy Peake (from the end of 2015 to June 2016).
– “Not titanium” –
Astronauts all enjoy a great notoriety in their respective countries, but Thomas Pesquet seems particularly good at sharing his experience. “His messages are nice, never in conflict but not completely consensual. He knows how to activate the right messages at the right time: on the planet, diversity …”, observes the sociologist Arnaud Saint-Martin.
“He does his job like a pro, including with the journalists he welcomes with kindness, while there is feverish expectation around him,” he greets.
“Thomas perhaps stands out from the crowd by his relaxed attitude”, notes Jules Grandsire, responsible for his communication for his first mission, Proxima.
Marion Montaigne, author of the comic strip “In Thomas Pesquet’s suit” (2017), finds the astronaut “even more relaxed” for his Alpha mission.
“He is more + fun + in his messages, and no longer hesitates to talk about times when it is hard,” confides the designer whose book has sold more than 450,000 copies to AFP.
A quest for authenticity, undoubtedly driven according to her by a desire to show that he is not this “titanium superhero” too perfect for some.
– Fans and less fans –
On social networks, about 4% of French people follow his Twitter account, “a score in the average for prominent personalities”, according to Paul Merveilleux du Vignaux, digital analyst at the Majorelle agency. What is notable is that “the majority (64%) of his French subscribers are fans”, who relay his tweets.
Thanks to new software, he followed the evolution over a month: before the astronaut left, it was essentially a “geek” community of space that followed him. The audience then widened. A sign of “democratization”, the sports daily L’Equipe is the media account most followed by its fans, “a good popular scorer which shows that membership goes well beyond the usual space community”, notes l digital analyst.
The nature of the comments revolves a lot around physical performance. Critics exist, but on Twitter, they are “crushed by the volume of everything that Thomas Pesquet produces and which is massively relayed,” he adds.
Apart from social networks, the sociologist Arnaud Saint-Martin nonetheless notes “more and more forums claiming + there is enough of Pesquet +”. Discordant voices “that we did not hear before”. “It was almost indecent to question the relevance of manned flight.”
In the light of climate change, some question the need to spend such budgets “to go + take pictures up there +”, adds the sociologist. Criticisms likely to redouble with the arrival, in the future, of tourists – billionaires – within the ISS, which could also “desecrate” the image of the astronaut.
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