‘Sleeping on the ISS – you need to get used to. No pillows or lying down. The transition from tension to relaxation is not given. On the first mission after arriving, I have slept well, because the efforts of the arrival. Dreamed on the second night: I would be on a space station. Oops, that’s right. Since I had to first hover things in front of me to realize that. Last time, I was an expert in somersaulting while brushing my teeth.’
Alexander Gerst, a former scientist flying into space for the second time in June 2018, presented some details of his mission at the European Astronaut Center (EAC) in Cologne last week.
Gerst’s passion for understanding the world around him laid the foundation for his scientific career. He studied geophysics and geosciences at the University of Karlsruhe and Wellington. He was particularly fascinated by volcanology, and he traveled to the most remote areas to explore what happens in the first few seconds after a volcanic eruption. Like an astronaut in space, Gerst had to enter inhospitable and undiscovered terrain. For his doctoral thesis in geophysics, Gerst explored the lava eruptions of the active volcano Mount Erebus in the Antarctic. An experience that would later benefit him in his training as an astronaut. During his first space mission in 2014, he conducted more than 50 scientific experiments. One of the highlights of the ‘Blue Dot Mission’ was a spacewalk. For Gerst it’s not about fame, it’s more about reaching young people, to inspire the next generation.
‘The International Space Station is the most complex machine ever built by humans. This incredible site was built by more than 100,000 people in 500 manufacturing facilities around the world and mounted in orbit with millimeter precision. Alone during our expedition, we have more than 200 experiments and hardware constantly coming up and down.’
Upon his return to Earth in 2014, he immediately began preparing for his next mission by taking refresher courses to hone the skills necessary for mission success. His courses ranged from topics such as scientific, technical and medical skills, to orbital mechanics, Russian language lessons, and survival training. To simulate the stay in Zero Gravity, Gerst trained in 12 meter deep pools in the US and Russia. The zero gravity conditions these pools simulate help astronauts train for both outboard operations, as well as operations within the ISS.
‘When you say goodbye to other people in the run-up and their reactions, you realize that something significant is happening, you start thinking. One dreams more of the everyday life, logistically what I have to take. Exams – that’s in your head. You dream that. But actually, I’m relatively relaxed because it’s easier on the second flight. I know what is important and what is not.
The training is easier. You already know, that’s more important or less. That’s where I can free mental capacity. This time I’m sitting on the copilot seat, we fly the Soyuz capsule in pairs. The commandmentship also requires a lot of work.The greater concern over a start with the astronaut is that something comes in between; that breaks your leg, for example. At the moment it looks good. Statistically, the closer the time comes, less and less happens, so you are more relaxed at the start. Whether working on volcanoes or flying the Soyuz is equally exciting. But less of a moment, but the project itself.’
The next stations until departure are:
– one week at the European Astronaut Center (ESA) – training / briefing / status of the space station.
– 3 weeks in Star City, Russia – mainly exams, manual docking, manual entry into the Earth’s atmosphere
– one week (also in Star City, Russia) – some rest, medical activities, briefings
– last week in Baikonur, Kazakhstan – last week preparations and tests in quarantine
‘With the Horizons mission, I want to make it clear to others that there’s always a chance to grow beyond their personal horizons and do something that you’ve never dared to do before. Being commander of the ISS for the first time was something I had to learn a lot and work hard for. It can scare you at first, but then you grow into that position. And in the end it was easier than you thought.’
In June 2018, Gerst returns to the ISS, together with the Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokofiev and the US astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor. His second mission to the ISS is called Horizons and will includes many scientific tasks such as: In September Gerst will assume the title of ISS commander, becoming only the second European astronaut to take on this leadership role. *
‘I’ve created the name Horizons and the logo with the help of the Astronaut Center. Continuity in the missions should be illustrated. Blue Dot was about looking back on the planet from the outside. Now looking behind the horizon and beyond. What is around us? This is very important. We humans are an island people. We live on a small blue planet in the big black universe from which also dangers affect us. We owe it to future generations and that’s why we need to research what’s around us.’
On the ISS there is Zero Gravity meaning there is no sedimentation, buoyancy or convection. The inhabitants of the ISS orbit the earth in a state free fall. Therefore, experiments that no terrestrial laboratory could perform can be performed there. The experiments being performed pertain to the fields of biology and radiation, the testing of prototypes, and human experiments. The European Space Laboratory Columbus ** covers a wide range of scientific disciplines, from astrobiology to solar research, metallurgy and psychology. Gerst, himself, will take part in robotic experiments involving artificial intelligence with Supvis Justin.***
‘This is necessary for the optimal synergy between man and machine in order to take the next step in space exploration.’
Using a tablet, Gerst will remotely control the humanoid robot from space. The experiment Meteron Supvis Justin recreates 10 scenarios on other planets or moons, and controls robots on the surface with dangerous tasks. Thanks to Justin’s local intelligence, the robot can perform the very finest motion remotely from space, integrating time delays (to simulate communication from Mars).
In recent years, health professionals have seen a dramatic increase in multidrug-resistant bacteria, unaffected by even the strongest antibiotics. For more than a decade, ‘dusty plasma’ has been explored and valuable knowledge has been generated for the development of mini plasma wires. For example, disinfecting wounds at room temperature has revolutionized the healthcare system and allowed for many practical applications (Plasma magazine Issue 1 reported in 2015). These applications range from food hygiene and treatment of various skin diseases, to water treatment and odor management, which were a result of technical innovations inspired by Russian-European plasma crystal experiments.
The longest space experiment series in manned spaceflight history shows the indexing of microscopic dust in neon and argon plasmas. The goal is to understand how these particles interact and fuse together to form atomic structures similar to those of solids, liquids, or gases. In the weightless environment, scientists hope to gain new insights into the interaction of atoms.
Supermaterials are another focus of the Horizons mission. Certain alloys make materials even more powerful and resistant. Gravity affects the material differently than weightlessness. With the help of electromagnetic levitation ****, Gerst will improve the quality, reliability and reproducibility of products manufactured on earth.
Gerst also gave exciting insights into the future of space travel:
‘The ESA is also taking the next step, together with the international partners we have tackled the Deep Space Gateway. In fact, this is the big international project that will exist in the future, as big in cooperation and significant as we know it from the ISS. It is currently being found out who delivers which parts. This will set future standards for exploration.
It also serves to preserve the most important asset: the future generation of scientists, engineers, astronauts that we can inspire and show that humanity can continue to build on big projects, like the ISS , The most complex machine humanity has ever built, it works up there, made in 500 different production sites and put together in orbit. Parts that have never met on earth before. We managed that and that is fascinating. The next step is the Deep Space Gateway. A kind of mini-space station around the moon, which will be similarly modular as the ISS. This is really a fascinating thing. The younger generations will be doing that with having to build up to land on the moon or Mars.
The next two goals: quite obviously – you can call them eighth or ninth continent – the moon and Mars. We do not know much about this moon and planets yet. We were there a few decades ago and picked up a few stones. We have never landed on Mars – we want to change that – we have to change that in order to understand how the moon came to be in order to better understand its own history, the history of the earth. To check if we can use the moon for that we can not do the dinosaurs. That we can build a telescope from there on the back of the moon or on the moon Poland, to be able to discover asteroids faster from there. Unfortunately, it happens that we see 500m asteroids passing us in a lunar distance that we discover a month before. That’s a big risk. We have to work on that. One of the many reasons why we have to fly to the moon and for that we have to prepare, technologically with the appropriate launchers and spaceships. As well as on the space station, which serves to prepare us for such possible missions. By building on the ISS, how to make such life support systems work, how we can build them better, build more reliably.’
Gerst’s hometown of Künzelsau is located in Southern Germany, and, he would later come to find other cities that felt like home: Houston, Moscow and Cologne. However, once in space, his idea of home took on new meaning:
‘Sounds cheesy: the planet becomes home, no matter where you look down, everything feels home, down there is humanity. You realize very brutally that there is nothing out there where we could exist. There is a place (we know) where we could exist. Every astronaut wanted to come back. No one wants to drift outward, but the opposite, we belong on the little blue planet. Viewed from afar, our earth is nothing more than a blue dot, a fragile spaceship for humanity. Only by understanding the universe in which we live can we protect our homes. ‘
* As commander of the ISS, it is responsible for maintaining the crew’s motivation, monitoring safety and operations, and following the direction of the flight director on the ground.
** For 13 years, the Columbus Space Laboratory has orbited Earth at a speed of 28,800 km / h. During this time, more than 225 experiments were carried out and 500 GB of scientific data were transferred per month.
*** The SUPVIS Justin experiment addresses the scenario of planetary exploration. The experiment aims to demonstrate the possibilities of commanding a robot to carry out complex dexterous tasks with significant communication round-trip time.
**** In this process, metals are heated to a temperature of 2100 degrees Celsius and then suddenly cooled down. Metal samples can be melted in a magnetic field without contact and without the need for a container, and then cured again.