The 14th German astronaut: Alexander Gerst
Alexander Gerst is the 14th German to be selected for the European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Corps. He and five other candidates were selected from a pool of 8413 applicants. He has been based at the European Astronaut Center (EAC) in Cologne since September 2009, where he has been receiving basic astronaut training.
Alexander Gerst at EAC
Alexander Gerst was selected for astronaut training by ESA in May 2009 from a pool of 8413 candidates.
DLR (CC-BY 3.0).
Alexander Gerst and his colleagues
Alexander Gerst and his five colleagues from France, Italy, United Kingdom and Denmark complete their basic astronaut training (from left to right: Andreas Mogensen, Alexander Gerst, Samantha Cristoforetti, Thomas Pesquet, Luca Parmitano, Timothy Peake). This photograph was taken at the 2009 Paris Air Show at Le Bourget.
Press conference with ESA astronaut candidate Alexander Gerst on 9 July 2009
From left to right: Chairman of the Executive Board of DLR, Prof. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, ESA Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain, Parliamentary State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Technologie; BMWi), Peter Hintze, and ESA Director of Human Spaceflight, Simonetta Di Pippo, welcome Alexander Gerst (right) to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne on 9 July 2009.
Sigmund Jähn was selected as the first German astronaut in 1976; Alexander Gerst was also born that same year. Today Gerst is just a small step away from outer space: he was appointed to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Astronaut Corps in May 2009. In this interview, the volcanologist speaks about the expectations for his first mission, the fascination with the Moon and his day-to-day life at ESA.
You trained as a geophysicist. How did you come to choose this field of study?
I have always been very curious, as I am sure all natural scientists are. I had always been interested in my environment as a child and wanted to know how lightning came about and what the stars were. This curiosity simply never dwindled. My final decision to study geophysics came in New Zealand, where I had been backpacking after fulfilling my national service. I was standing alone at the apex of the Mount Ngauruhoe volcano with the clouds beneath me, and I was fascinated by the power behind this volcano, which had erupted only a few years before. It was there that I decided to study something that would help me understand this. I wanted to discover how such a volcano functioned. Choosing geophysics seemed logical since it is a fairly broad subject, where among other things, the origin of volcanoes is investigated and their eruption may be predicted in good time.
How did this lead to your candidature as an astronaut?
I cannot quite remember exactly when I got the itch the first time. It must have been around the same time that I realised that the stars were distant worlds where nobody has been. Some scientists think that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth. When I grasp a handful of sand at the beach, that is already a million grains of sand right there in my hand; and we know about one of these – our Earth and our Solar System. We know nothing of the others. I would like to contribute in a small way to bringing light to this darkness. The unknown has always fascinated me; that is what led to my being an adventurer. Naturally, I was aware that the statistical probability of my becoming an astronaut was fairly low, so did not I start off expecting my application to be accepted. What was always important, however, was to give my dreams a chance. So I applied.
One incident in particular accelerated my application. On one of my expeditions to Antarctica, I happened to meet the astronaut Catherine Coleman. In our discussions, she advised me to simply apply to the European Astronaut Centre, EAC. On this basis, I emailed my application to EAC and received a reply stating that there were no special selections current at the time. However, I was informed that once the European space laboratory Columbus had docked with the International Space Station (ISS), there would be work again for astronauts. So I tweaked my web browser to notify me if the EAC’s astronaut page was updated. This happened last year and an invitation to apply appeared online. It was then that I sent my application.
How did you prepare yourself for the arduous selection procedure? After all, you had 8412 rivals.
I did not specially prepare myself for two reasons. First, one cannot really prepare oneself for a selection procedure. There were a few test tasks on the ESA site, allowing you to practice online, but they were mainly short examples. Secondly, I was in the middle of preparing for an important expedition to a volcano on Vanuatu, and had been in the laboratory till two or three o’clock in the morning every night, so there was only about half an hour at most left after work. That does not amount to much, but at the same time I did not want to regret not having tried hard enough.
The training at ESA, which you commenced in September 2009, is arranged in three phases: basic training, advanced training and specific training tailored to a mission. You are still at the start, what is your day-to-day life at ESA like, and what will you be doing over the next few years?
One cannot really speak of an average day here, since days vary greatly. The first month was spent at EAC in Cologne, where we were trained in basic and technical aspects. How a Soyuz capsule functions, what ESA launch systems there are and which other launch systems exist, and how the Space Shuttle functions. These were all points that were on the programme; a little like schooling, in principle, but at a higher level, since ESA attracts experts from around the world. For example, former astronaut Prof. Messerschmid instructed us on spaceflight systems. We attended a language school throughout October and December and received tuition in Russian. Our course work took up six hours of the day after which homework and conversations with Russian students were on the agenda. The training was particularly intense since we had to learn Russian swiftly; in 2010 a portion of our basic training will take place in Swjosdny Gorodok (Star City), outside Moscow. We will receive instruction about the Soyuz system in Russian there, and we obviously require a strong grasp of the language. I advanced relatively easily, and while the written word was easy to master, speaking was somewhat more difficult.
At the press conference on 9 July 2009, you said: "Man goes into space in order to find out about matters that affect us here on earth." – What do you hope to discover in space that is important for Earth?
Weightlessness in the ISS allows us to perform experiments that are impossible on Earth owing to gravity. This is a disruptive factor in materials science and fluid dynamics, since gravity inhibits the growth of crystals and intermixing of fluids. Experiments performed in space provide us with the opportunity to observe what actually transpires when fluids mix, something that would normally be impossible; this is how new characteristics are discovered, often leading to new materials. Fundamental experiments are also performed where, for example, the fluid dynamic processes of Earth’s core may be simulated, revealing how Earth’s magnetic field functions and how stable it is. This may help us draw conclusions as to whether it will eventually reverse or weaken. One may say, in principle, that we go to a space station in order to find out more about our backyard. This can, of course, be taken much further when we study other planets such as Mars, leading us to ask where we come from and whether or not we are alone in the Universe.
Is there a field that you would particularly like to research?
I am pretty open, since we do not exert much influence in this regard. My experience in the Antarctic has generated one interest above all others: how can one attain a self-sufficient existence? How can one cultivate all the necessary resources in a greenhouse under adverse conditions? I witnessed this in microcosm at the McMurdo Station in the Antarctic. Several types of vegetables were being cultivated in a 25 square metre greenhouse. Admittedly this is not enough to supply a station, but research is continuing to look into how plants grow under extreme conditions. Results from this type of research are important for the Mars mission and missions to other planets.
As a geophysicist, would you consider a Moon mission especially interesting?
The Moon definitely interests me very much. However, it remains to be seen whether we as humanity can pluck up the courage to attempt such complex projects as travelling to the Moon or Mars. Unfortunately, the next manned mission to the Moon has not yet been defined precisely in terms of either its date or implementation. From a scientific standpoint, I find it exciting that the Moon remains relatively unexplored. Its surface area is four times that of Europe, and astronauts have so far only visited six different areas and taken soil samples from within a radius of a few kilometres. This is very little when one considers the total surface area.
An popular scientific theory holds that the Moon originated from the Earth. However, in contrast to Earth, the Moon displays no plate tectonics or weathering processes at the surface. This means that it has been preserved from the time that it was 'expelled' from the Earth following the impact of another body. We can learn much about the past and thus also about the future of the Earth.
For you, what would be the attraction of a mission to the International Space Station?
There are many things. Firstly, as a scientist, there are new opportunities for research. Next, there is the social aspect of being one of the few people who are able to leave the planet, and thus have the opportunity to see a different view of Earth. In this way, astronauts are ambassadors for the rest of humanity, in that they capture the changes in perspective and bring them back. This point of view has often eluded me when I was consumed by everyday stress, and allowed the precious beauty of Earth to slip by. Pictures from astronauts serve to bring this altered perspective closer, thereby underlining the futility of conflict and the destruction of resources. In my opinion it is very important to pass this point of view on to our children.
So you also have a social duty?
Most definitely! This is especially important in the political sense, where the cooperation between different states in Europe in successfully participating in a project such as the ISS and the construction of the ATV or ARV underlines the idea that ambitious collaborations are possible. The ISS has been built by individuals from many different countries – so such a project bonds and creates an atmosphere of unity.
Reinhold Ewald, the ESA astronaut, once said that an astronaut must be particularly patient. Firstly, you wait for the call, then you go through the long selection procedure and training, and finally, you wait for your mission. Your first mission will be in 2013/2014 at the earliest – what are your plans if it is later than that? Will you still be able to continue your scientific work?
To begin with, the journey is the objective for me, because the training is simply splendid. Long periods of waiting are common for astronauts because a mission does not have to be available when training commences. There are a myriad of possibilities open to a trained astronaut. Many work together with engineers to further develop spaceflight systems, or they may be employed in communicating with the ISS. Communication is greatly enhanced because prospective astronauts are well acquainted with the systems. Naturally, one may also decide on the type of activity to be pursued. Today, astronauts receive far more universal training than was the case in the past. We are now, for the first time, a united Astronaut Corps, based here in Cologne at the EAC, and are full ESA members of staff. This means that we are also employed by ESA when we are not actively preparing for a mission, and of course we also work for national space agencies such as DLR.
What would your career plans have been, had your application to become an astronaut not succeeded?
I had planned to go to Alaska and continue to research volcanoes. I have been in contact with a number of scientists in the field with a view to doing postdoctoral research. It is usual to carry out grant-funded research for two years after completion of your dissertation. There are some volcanoes in Alaska that threaten air-traffic corridors or are in the immediate vicinity of large cities. This would have proved a very exciting field of study. Subsequently I would have probably tried to return to Germany to take up a long-term research position at a university.
Who are your role models?
I admire, above all, certain characteristics of different individuals. For example, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton displayed many admirable qualities. He set out at the start of the 20th century with his crew, with the intention of crossing West Antarctica. Though the expedition was doomed from the start when his ship was sunk by pack ice, Shackleton managed through a combination of team spirit, intuition and leadership to rescue all of the crew out of this extreme emergency. He wrote a book about his experiences that I found particularly impressive.
Many children dream of becoming an astronaut. Have you anything to offer them in the way of advice?
Firstly, never give up! Second, always ask questions and never allow yourself to be turned away. And thirdly, stay true to your dreams. Naturally, one cannot fulfil every dream, but one should give every dream a chance. Sometimes they come true, even when it seems unlikely. You can see that in my case – I never counted on becoming an astronaut, and yet here I am.
Which personal possessions are you going to take with you on your first mission?
I am not quite sure yet, but I will definitely take my mp3 player. Music is very important to me, though admittedly I don’t have any musical preferences; I am open to everything, from classical to electronica. I would also like to take a diary and my camera, since some astronauts have recounted from experience that their memories have changed over time. I would like to retain my experiences – if not for me then for others.
What do you do after work, what are your hobbies?
Time is rather limited, but I have taken the opportunity to do a few parachute jumps during the weekends. Unfortunately, my favourite sports like fencing and swimming have had to take a back seat. However we have an excellent sports program integrated into our training regime at ESA, so fortunately there has been no negative impact on my fitness.
You have been in the public eye ever since May 2009, when you were appointed to the ESA Astronaut Corps. How have you coped with the media attention?
Media attention is certainly unfamiliar, though giving interviews is not new territory for me as I used to be interviewed on occasion in my position as a volcanologist, but this massive interest is indeed novel. In general, I consider public relations to be very important, since it is here that we can impart our vision and fascination to the population at large. However, I shy away from receiving too much acclamation in advance. I have not yet been on a mission and would like to concentrate on doing my job correctly, so I try to maintain a certain distance from all the interest. ESA has placed its trust in me by appointing me to the Astronaut Corps – so that alone drives me to give my best and direct my attention to the task ahead.
Last modified:27/06/2011 12:17:56