Nathalie Cabrol, feet on Earth, heart on Mars

There is, sometimes, between the journalist and the being he wants to portray, a kind of secret connection. It has been a quarter of a century that we have followed, from afar, the American career of planetologist Nathalie Cabrol, with the conviction that our paths will cross one day, just as a probe launched at full speed flies over a star for a brief spatial rendezvous.

It is opposite the Gare du Nord, in the lobby of a Parisian hotel, that we finally meet. Short hair where white prevails, light eyes enhanced with black kohl, Nathalie Cabrol stops in France for the publication of her autobiography, Journey to the frontiers of life (Threshold, 416 pages, 21.90 euros). We are talking about The Iliad and of The odyssey that we both discovered in the same collection of “Tales and legends” – white and gold cardboard -, of the influence that Commander Cousteau and the American astrophysicist Carl Sagan had on our taste for science, of this incredible coincidence of having followed, in two different hypokhâgnes, the teaching of the same professor of geography, Jean-Pierre Allix, an original who, between the course of Latin and that of philosophy, amazed his literary pupils by talking to them about geophysics or by drawing the world map chalked on the blackboard.

But let’s not anticipate. At the start, here is a little girl, Nathalie Cabrol, an only child who, one night in July 1969, when she was not yet 6 years old, watched Apollo-11 on television land on the Moon, in the company of her mother : “Sitting on his lap, I pointed to the ghostly figures of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descending the ladder of the lunar module and said to him: “This is what I want to do” », she recalls in her book. She designed spaceships and browsed in the woods of Saint-Cucufa, in the Hauts-de-Seine where she lived at the time. She, who later became a specialist in Martian lakes, had her personal pond in the form of an aquarium where she raised tadpoles. She describes herself as an explorer, a naturalist born. ” I can not explain it, she confides. It’s like a hunch, like having a third ear or a third hand. The only thing I have done is not to deny it. I was also lucky to have parents who did not try to curb this contact with nature. “

Discovery of geography

The road to astronomy is however tortuous for the young girl. Disconcerted by “modern math”, she obtained a literary baccalaureate. Having a year in advance and still in pursuit of her dream, she asks to redo a terminal, scientific this time, but fails the exam. Direction hypokhâgne, therefore, where Nathalie Cabrol meets Jean-Pierre Allix. “He made me discover that geography could be the study of planetary processes and I was so passionate about it that I continued in Nanterre in Earth Sciences, where the classes and teachers were amazing. ” In 1985, invited to the Meudon observatory by the great geologist André Cailleux, she discovered the maps of Mars made from images of the American Viking missions. This is the turning point in his life. She, who was preparing for a master’s degree in risks and the environment in the Pyrenees, changes universe, forks towards Martian hydrography: “I could finally combine my training as a naturalist and my taste for the stars”, she sums up today.

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