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Thomas Pesquet to be first European to fly aboard Elon Musk's SpaceX capsule

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French astronaut Thomas Pesquet prior the launch of Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 17, 2016.
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet prior the launch of Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 17, 2016.   -   Copyright  Shamil Zhumatov/AP
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French astronaut Thomas Pesquet is to be the first European to ride on a new spacecraft from Elon Musk's SpaceX venture.

Pesquet announced on Twitter on Tuesday that he will return to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021 and that he is currently training at "SpaceX's futuristic facilities".

"I am thrilled to be the first European to fly on the new generation of US crewer spacecraft," Pesquet said in a statement released by the European Space Agency (ESA).

"It will be extra interesting for me to compare with my first flight as a Soyuz pilot, and to bring this experience to the team," he added.

The Alpha mission, expected to launch in spring 2021 from Cape Canaveral in the US, will be the second operational flight on a Crew Dragon spacecraft from Elon Musk's SpaceX.

The first was in May of this year and made history as it was the first time a private company had successfully sent humans into orbit. It was also the first NASA flight in nine years to depart from American soil.

NASA, which retired its space shuttle programme in 2011, had until then relied on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan to send astronauts to the ISS.

Pesquet, 42, will be joined on the mission by two NASA astronauts, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, and Akihiko Hoshide from Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency.

They will stay aboard the ISS for approximately six months along with three crewmates who will launch via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

ESA Director General Jan Worner said that "with Thomas being the first European astronaut to fly to the International Space Station on a Crew Dragon vehicle, this shows that even when using a commercial spacecraft built in the US, the international character of human spaceflight is still a given."

"I am very much looking forward to see European astronauts in an environment again where no borders exist — the International Space Station," he added.

It will be Pesquet's second time in space following a six-months stay on the ISS from November 2016.

During the Proxima mission, the French engineer and pilot took part in some 200 experiments — including 60 European ones — and set a record for the number of hours spent on science in a week. He also conducted two spacewalks.

Another European, Germany's Matthias Maurer, is expected to fly to the ISS in 2021. He is currently training alongside Pesquet.