The first two weeks of the horizons mission
The 'horizons' mission has been underway for almost two weeks. Alexander Gerst arrived safely at the ISS on 8 June 2018. He gave his first press conference from an altitude of 400 kilometres on 12 June and assisted in an extravehicular activity on 14 June. The 42-year-old German ESA astronaut is now working on scientific experiments in the European Columbus laboratory. The DLR 'horizons' Mission Manager, Volker Schmid, looks back on two eventful weeks.##markend##
We, the DLR mission team, are back from Russia. One night in Moscow, followed by four days in Baikonur for the launch, and then another two days in Moscow for the docking with the ISS. Everything went according to plan. It was a textbook launch and a perfect docking. That is always a big milestone for our team, as our work now shifts from planning and implementation to conducting and supporting the experiments.
On Monday 4 June, we were present for the rollout of the Soyuz launcher and its transporter to the launch complex, where it was positioned upright within a quarter of an hour. On the day of the launch, 6 June, the propellants were loaded. In the last 30 seconds before the launch, the public gallery fell silent. Then, high-frequency sounds could be heard that signified the preparation for 26 million PS (Pferdestärken – horsepower) passing through the lines leading to the engines. The thrust built up, the clamps released the launcher, and it slowly ascended, gaining speed and altitude, finally penetrating the thin cloud layer. The first stage boosters separated, and for a split second, we could see what is referred to as the 'Korolev Cross'; the moment where the first-stage boosters fall away from the launcher simultaneously – all still with their engines burning. The Soyuz became just a speck of light in the sky as it disappeared into space. This was a very emotional moment, as days like these remind the team and myself of what we have spent the last thirty-six months working towards.
But it did not stop there – the first interviews and questions had to be addressed, and in the meantime we had to do some handshaking and congratulate some people. I met with William 'Bill' Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations and thanked him for the excellent cooperation.
A great and busy week, with lots of impressions, interviews, and discussions is behind us, and nobody wanted to miss a second of it. The dry, colourful steppe that is home to the cosmodrome offers breathtaking contrasts. When we arrived the temperature was around 18 degrees Celsius. By the day of the launch, it had risen to a scorching 35 degrees, which is typical for this time of year in Kazakhstan. Then, we returned to Moscow, where we were able to watch the spacecraft dock live at the Russian TSUP Control Centre on 8 June. Everything went smoothly. The Soyuz arrived at the Space Station six minutes ahead of schedule.
Now, we are back to our day-to-day routine without much room for pause. The first live call with the press was on 12 June at the European Astronaut Centre at the DLR site in Cologne; Alexander Gerst gave an excellent performance. Afterwards, I had a long talk with German astronaut Matthias Maurer, as his mission is forthcoming, even though he has no 'flight assignment' yet. It's never too early to start preparing.
The next day is a 'planning day'. As I sift through my daily flood of emails, the phone rings. It's Professor Christian Pfestorf from the Hochschule Darmstadt, who was also with us in Baikonur. He designed the logo for the horizons mission with Alexander Gerst, on behalf of DLR, and also gives us advice on design-related questions that come up in the CIMON project. This is where it gets really futuristic. We discuss appointments and the things we have discussed over the last few days a little more closely. A message from my colleague Christian Karrasch comes at exactly the right time. He had been at CEBIT the previous day, where the German Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy paid a visit to our 'little assistant', CIMON. This was great news that validated our hard work over the last two years. Hopefully, we will receive the necessary funding to continue development and create a fully operational system.
The emails have been dealt with. Now, it is time for an internal meeting about a new platform on the space station, which is intended to be installed at the start of 2020. Afterwards, a brief initial discussion with a children's radio editor in the afternoon. There were three questions from children, who wanted to know how Alexander Gerst sleeps way up there, and what is being done with the ICARUS experiment to track animal migration. It is fun; it is not a big deal, but it is important because future scientists, engineers, and astronauts will be listening to the radio broadcast.
With another few appointments scheduled, I then have a phone call with the ESA Mission Director, Berti Meisinger, with whom we have worked since the 'Blue Dot' mission. Berti tells us that the French GRIP/GRASP experiment, an exploration of sensory function, is going well. Meisinger, who works at the Columbus Control Centre at the facility DLR Oberpfaffenhofen, also tells me what experiments will be run in the coming weeks. MagVector, which I am responsible for, is part of the plan. A new sensor box is to be installed on the side of the experiment, which has been in space since 2014. Then, the system must be calibrated. Both activities are scheduled to be completed within three days. The data must be checked immediately by scientists here on Earth to see if they can be used. If they cannot, an additional test run must be planned, which can be more difficult the longer you have to wait for the data to be checked. Then, I quickly write two emails to my associates at Airbus in Bremen who need to check this. In the coming week, the sensors will be repositioned in front of the instrument rack and equipped with various meteorite and material test specimens. Each specimen will be examined for an entire day. There are 10 specimens already on board. More will be added with the next cargo launch to the ISS, SpaceX-15, which is scheduled for launch to the ISS from Florida on 29 June, and this mission will also carry many other DLR experiments. If everything goes according to plan, we will make significant scientific progress in fundamental and planetary research. These kinds of experiments are unique and cannot be conducted in any laboratory on Earth. This is part of what makes the International Space Station so valuable.