The day will finally arrive in the autumn of 2021. The space agencies of the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe have announced that Matthias Maurer will become the latest German astronaut from the European Space Agency (ESA) to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). He will also be the second ESA astronaut and the first ever German to fly to the ISS on board a SpaceX Crew Dragon, operated as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Alongside Maurer, the NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Thomas H. Marshburn will make up SpaceX Crew-3.
“We are delighted that three years after Alexander Gerst’s successful ‘horizons’ mission, Matthias Maurer will be the next German ESA astronaut to make the journey to the International Space Station,” says Walther Pelzer, Member of the DLR Executive Board and Head of the DLR Space Administration. “In his own words, the ‘Cosmic Kiss’ mission is a ‘declaration of love’ for space and will help inspire many people around the world to become interested in space. There are a number of reasons why his journey will be particularly special. For one thing, he has had to prepare for his mission amid the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. He will also be the first German national to fly to the ISS in a spacecraft developed by a private US provider. We wish him the very best.”
‘Cosmic Kiss’ – a mission founded upon international cooperation
Created as a political construct, today the ISS is an enormous laboratory orbiting approximately 400 kilometres above Earth. It is able to host experiments that could not be performed in any laboratory on Earth. “When I fly to the ISS, we will be looking back on 21 years of successful cooperation on the Space Station,” says Maurer. “Such cooperation is only possible if all of the world’s countries have a common vision and jointly stand up for and work towards that vision in a spirit of peace. Humanity can achieve a great deal if we take that approach. We can conduct research in space, fly deeper into space, land on the Moon, explore it and even prepare for missions to Mars. This requires vast resources and extensive knowledge. We can only accomplish such things if all humankind works together.”
Maurer, who is from the Saarland region of Germany and has a doctorate in materials science, will live and work on theISS for half a year. He chose the name ‘Cosmic Kiss’ for his first ISS mission, partly because it encapsulates the special significance of the Space Station as a link between space and the inhabitants of Earth, and partly because it also represents the partnership involved in exploring space with a view to eventually reaching more distant destinations such as the Moon and Mars. It also hints at a respectful and sustainable relationship with Earth. The design for the mission logo was inspired by the Nebra Sky Disc, the oldest known illustration of the night sky. The mission patch includes an array of cosmic elements, including Earth, the Moon, the Pleiades star cluster and Mars, but at the centre lies the ISS, connecting Earth and the Moon with a human heartbeat.
‘Cosmic Kiss’ – a mission like no other
Everything is different during a global pandemic. COVID-19 has had an impact on most areas of life, including spaceflight. Astronaut training is taking place under more challenging conditions, including the obligatory wearing of masks. It is crucial that those travelling to humankind’s outpost in space do not bring any dangerous microorganisms into this isolated habitat. Therefore, the crewmembers have had to drastically reduce their personal interactions in the run-up to their mission. Schedules and even flight plans have had to be adjusted. Maurer is currently training in the USA. “I am particularly looking forward to this trip, as I will be making the journey on board a new type of spacecraft. Compared to a launch aboard a Soyuz rocket, modern technology will definitely make our work a lot easier as astronauts,” he says of his new ‘ride’ to the ISS. Even so, the astronauts do have to undergo special training and will face new challenges as a result.
“Despite some differences, many things remain similar to ‘Blue Dot’ and ‘horizons’, the predecessor missions of Maurer’s German ESA colleague, Alexander Gerst,” says Volker Schmid, ISS Mission Manager at the DLR Space Administration in Bonn. “For instance, some of the earlier experiments will be continued. Many series of experiments run for years, as repetition and statistics are of considerable importance. This is particularly true of the processing of material samples using the electromagnetic levitator (EML), a high-tech melting furnace, and research into granulates." A dust experiment will investigate the process through which planets are formed. Other experiments delve into the mystery of cold atoms in space. Maurer’s mission plan also includes experiments related to biology and human physiology. A human’s inner rhythms will be studied by determining his core body temperature using a mini dual sensor. He will also be testing a bio-printer that is designed to close wounds with bio-ink. Successful technology experiments such as CIMON-2, which utilises artificial intelligence, will assist Maurer during his mission and demonstrate new opportunities for human-machine interaction.
‘Cosmic Kiss’ – a mission to foster young talent
The mission also places great emphasis on fostering young talent. “When selecting the experiments, we were very keen to get future generations of scientists and engineers excited about space. Issues such as sustainability and the vulnerability of our home planet play a major role in this,” says Schmid. Therefore, Maurer’s schedule includes experiments related to more sustainable nutrition and plant seeds in space. The DLR Space Administration’s ‘Earth Protectors’ (Beschützer der Erde) competition will also be continued. Here, classes of schoolchildren choose one of the four climate zones, carry out research about them using Earth observation data and use this to develop a concept for protecting the climate. As an ambassador for the competition, Maurer will send video messages to the pupils, with background information about climate zones and climate change. The best projects will be awarded prizes in June 2022.
The Columbus Control Centre (Col-CC) at the DLR-operated German Space Operations Center (GSOC) in Oberpfaffenhofen is responsible for all experiments carried out in the European Columbus Laboratory on the ISS. At GSOC, DLR and ESA work together closely and are in constant contact with other control centres and the astronauts on the ISS. The planning and integration of new experiments begins here, long before the mission itself.