Alexander Gerst returned to Earth safely in the early hours of 20 December 2018 after 197 days in space, 195 of them on board the International Space Station ISS. The Soyuz MS-09 touched down close to Karaganda in the Kazakh steppe right on schedule at 06:02 Central European Time. The spacecraft carrying the German ESA astronaut, the NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor and the Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev left the International Space Station at 02:40 CET, and the crew of the ISS Expedition 57 was back on terra firma just under three and a half hours later.
"We are thrilled that Alexander Gerst has returned to Earth in good health and that his horizons mission has been so successful. As DLR, we are also delighted to have contributed to an important part of the mission, which we have implemented on the front line over the last six months – 40 of the 65 European experiments came from Germany. The Columbus Control Centre at the DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen and the :envihab research facility for aerospace medicine at our site in Cologne made us part of the mission team on the ground, and we did everything in our power to support Alexander Gerst," says Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Executive Board.
Successful research in space
On 6 June 2018, Alexander Gerst embarked on his second cosmic mission from the Russian Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. His first mission was Blue Dot and took place in 2014. Gerst worked on around 200 experiments (Blue Dot: approx. 160) during the mission, including 65 ESA experiments, 40 of which originated in Germany and/or involved German contributions. "It was a very intense, but also extraordinarily successful mission," says Volker Schmid, horizons mission manager at DLR, as an initial summary: "Alexander was able to complete all of the experiments and work that were scheduled for his mission. Only the launch of the photobioreactor has been postponed to March 2019. There were several premieres as well, for instance CIMON's first deployment in a microgravity environment. CIMON is an astronaut assistance system equipped with artificial intelligence that was developed and built in Germany. Another premiere was the use of the fluorescence microscope FLUMIAS, which provided the first live imaging of biochemical processes unfolding in cell cultures in space."
First German commander on the ISS
On 3 October, Gerst became the first German and second European commander of the ISS. Following cancellation of the Soyuz launch on 11 October, he was responsible for managing all tasks with a smaller crew on board (three astronauts instead of six) for two months – until the current ISS team (Expedition 58) arrived on 3 December 2018. Like in 2014, Alexander Gerst sent a steady stream of sometimes exquisitely beautiful, other times alarming images back down to Earth from an altitude of 400 kilometres, demonstrating again how unique – yet vulnerable – our 'space ship' actually is and that climate change and the depletion of nature and the environment have left deep scars. Participating in 12 ARISS calls with schools and dozen live calls with media representatives, government authorities and an interested parties, Gerst was therefore deeply engaged in generating interest in science, technology and space issues among children and adolescents and increase awareness about the fact that our future on the Blue Planet rests firmly in all of our hands.
Arrival at :envihab in Cologne
After returning to Earth on 20 December 2018, Gerst will go home as quickly as possible. A special NASA aircraft will take him to Cologne Bonn Airport after a stopover in Norway. Arriving at around 20:45 pm, the 42-year-old will proceed directly to the :envihab research facility at the DLR site in Cologne, where he will be cared for by DLR and the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) over the next few days. ":envihab has the ideal facilities to recover from the physical strain of spending a long period in space. The astronauts receive support from an experienced, highly specialised team that has the necessary laboratories and state-of-the-art medical equipment," emphasises Jens Jordan, director of the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. Four European astronauts – including Gerst in 2014 – have already used the facility to readapt to the conditions on Earth under the supervision of aerospace physicians.
With a short break for Christmas, the team of doctors and scientists will give Alexander Gerst round-the-clock care for the next two weeks and will also conduct exams on behalf of ESA, NASA and other space agencies. Among other things, the scientists will take blood and saliva samples to determine changes to the immune system during a prolonged period in space. Muscle tone, elasticity and stiffness will also be measured in order to analyse the influence on muscle functions. Many of the medical tests such as the MRI measurements, EKG, fitness tests and eye examinations were also carried out before and during the mission. Now they will continue back on Earth using precisely the same measuring devices as those on the ISS. This will provide the researchers with data that enables them to identify changes brought on by a stay on the ISS.
Support from the German Space Operations Center
Alexander Gerst circled the Earth more than 3000 times during his horizons mission. Whenever he or his astronaut colleagues were working on experiments in the European science laboratory Columbus, they were in continuous contact with the Columbus Control Centre (Col-CC) at the German Space Operations Center at the DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen. As flight director, Marius Bach was responsible for planning the experiments, as well as for adherence to the correct procedure. "We are overjoyed that Alex managed to perform so many German and also international experiments. In total, he was able to complete almost all of the 100 hours of experiment time allotted to the European part of his mission."
With its team of 50 employees, the Col-CC operated 24/7 to make sure that the astronauts found the conditions they needed in the Columbus laboratory. Bach and his colleagues spoke directly to the astronauts every Tuesday to coordinate the work in the Columbus science laboratory. In addition to efficient planning, Bach – and after the scheduled handover to his successor in mid-September – Laura Zanardini needed to be certain that the astronaut conserved his strength: "Alex is known for his extremely meticulous style of work, which is why ESA and NASA often ask him to do more complex tasks. Our job was to monitor that he received – and also stuck to – enough rest in the following days."