Astro-Alex: on to new horizons

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By Erik Raidt April 17, 2018 – 5:58 pm

Alexander Gerst faces the challenge: He becomes the first German commander of the ISS. Photo: dpa

In public, he has his name gone: everyone knows Alexander Gerst as “Astro-Alex”. The astronaut from Künzelsau is about to start his new mission into space. What should you know about it?

Cologne – With its spectacular space pictures is Alexander Gerst became a pop star of science four years ago. Since then, Germany has known him as Astro-Alex – the astronaut who captures the fascination of space and space space travel packed in short Twitter messages. In 2014, Gerst worked on the International Space Station as part of the Blue Dot mission ( ISS ). Now Alexander Gerst breaks up again: In one and a half months his new mission “Horizons” starts. In Cologne, Gerst asked one last time before the start of the press. He talked about his hopes, his fears and his farewell to his friends.

When does the mission begin?

If everything goes according to plan, then you will Alexander Gerst , Serena Auñón-Chancellor (USA) and Sergei Prokopyev (Russia) received the final instructions from the ground staff on 6 June. Then they lift in a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan. If nothing happens, The Soyuz docked at the International Space Station six hours later at. Now, for Gerst, a half-year adventure begins – in the course of the next few months he will carry out about 300 experiments with his colleagues. Is he nervous? “When you say goodbye to your friends and your family for half a year, you first realize that something special is imminent,” says Gerst in Cologne.

What role will Alexander Gerst play in this? The image of the egg-laying Wollmilchsau must have been invented once for the job description of an astronaut: Gerst and his team members are all-rounders thanks to years of training and preparation. On board, Gerst works as an engineer, plumber and scientist. He is also required as an educational entertainer, especially the younger ones with his video messages and pictures for the space travel excited. Gerst speaks many languages ​​fluently, besides English also Russian. At the same time, he must be a team player and a leading figure: in August, Gerst will take over command of the ISS. “There is an official handover,” says Gerst. “In emergencies, it’s important to have clarity about who makes the decisions in the case.” Which experiments are particularly important? On board the ISS Weightlessness prevails – the conditions for experiments are fundamentally different from those on Earth. An important experiment runs under the title “Flumias”: the astronauts use a microscope the size of a shoebox to examine specific cells and tissues. You get so in addition to high-resolution images and videos. “Cancer cells behave very differently in weightlessness than on Earth, the cells form other structures,” says Gerst. In addition to biomedicine, the program includes experiments in the fields of mobility, energy and digitization. “It’s really fun” to be part of this basic research, says the astronaut. What significance do Stuttgart and Baden-Württemberg have? The Institute of Space Systems (IRS) at the University of Stuttgart sends algae into space. Gerst and his two colleagues are to investigate how this biomass develops over a longer period of time. Can such a bioreactor possibly help future astronauts on long-term missions to Mars as a life support system? Also from the University of Hohenheim an experiment will be on board: It is exploring how human nerve cells grow in weightlessness. The origin of Alexander Gerst also fits into the picture: He grew up in Hohenlohe and now an honorary citizen of the city. The 41-year-old studied in Karlsruhe. Who is Cimon? Cimon is already traded in the run-up to the ISS mission as their secret new star. Cimon is a five-pound machine the size of a medicine ball. Cimon was developed among others by Airbus, it contains an artificial intelligence. “Cimon should fly Gerst like in a science fiction film and help with the work,” says Alexander Schön from the European Space Agency Esa. On Cimon’s display a “face” lights up, which can also show emotional states. In the future, on the one hand, Cimon would be able to provide astronauts with comprehensive spaceflight support on long flights and, on the other hand, help doctors in medical science to make the right diagnoses. With what feelings does Gerst go on board? “The ISS is the most complex machine humanity has ever built,” says Alexander Gerst. Something can break. “If we have to go out for repairs on outboard missions, it is a little more dangerous than on board,” says Gerst, who has also learned to remain relaxed in stressful situations in the elaborate preparation. Homesick in space? “You miss this planet when you look down on it from above.” His biggest concern: “That something happens in between before you start, you break your leg. That’s why you’re more relaxed at the start. ” What happens until the start? The ISS comes from the cooperation of the European Space Agency Esa, the American Nasa and the Russian Rokosmos. Accordingly, Gerst and his crew trained in Houston, Cologne and in the star city near Moscow for this mission. In Russia, the last tests are waiting for Alexander Gerst, in the week before the start, the team is completely shielded. Every move in the Soyuz rocket is practiced again. Nothing should go wrong, before the dawn of new horizons.

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