Alexander gerst’s farewell is a trail of fire as a pit in the firmament. He quickly condenses into a dim dot in the sky above the kazakh steppe. After two and a half years of strenuous training, germany’s most popular astronaut has launched to the international space station (ISS). Astro-alex" lifted off on a soyuz rocket departing on wednesday from the russian spaceport baikonur.
Commander gerst before his mission into space: relaxed and in top shape
before that, he was enjoying his daily routine: "just got up and took a shower for the last time in 6 months", he tweets first, then later "we put on our spacesuits and test them for leaks. Wearing shoes for the last time for 6 months… ;)". Four years ago, "astro-alex" was already once on the ISS, as a board engineer. "It’s easier when you’re flying for the second time, because you don’t have the rough unknowns", he says. You don’t wonder anymore what life is actually like up there.
"Mood is super
The sun is blazing on this june day, it’s already bright in the morning, but later dense clouds are gathering. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a camel can on the side of the road on the way to the launch complex – and so did gerst: "watching disinterested camels on the side of the road", he tweets in the morning a few hours before the launch. And: "the atmosphere in the crew is great". When leaving the cosmonaut hotel, "astro-alex" beams and waves in his blue overall into the crowd. Very happy he seems, now that it’s finally really going to start.
His second journey to the stars begins at the historic launch pad 1, from which juri gagarin became the first human to explore the cosmos in 1961. A lot of noise, fire and smoke, then the soyuz rocket carries the crew into space with 26 million horsepower. After just nine minutes, the spaceship is in space – traveling almost 28,000 kilometers per hour.
From a good two kilometers away, the families of the space travelers, industry celebrities and the world press look down on the ramp. Emotions break out for esa chief jan worner before the launch. "Alex, you know, you could be my son", he told gerst on tuesday. "There was the situation that I said: "boy, take care of yourself", worner tells the german press agency.
Family and friends support alex
Gerst’s closest friends and relatives have also made the long journey to see their "explorer and discoverer" to accompany. "On his way, which is far from complete, we have always supported him", the family communicates via the european space agency esa. "We are very happy to see him going into space for the second time, and we wish him all the best."
A special guest at the launch is germany’s space pioneer sigmund jahn. Gerst has the 81-year-old "good friend" in his pocket invited by himself. "He is, in my opinion, one of the most capable people we have had", jahn says about "astro-alex. In august 1978 the germany-burger flew with a soyuz to the space station saljut-6 – and became the first german in space. Gerst is the eleventh german to go to the stars, a woman is not one of them.
In the 40 years since jahn’s mission, a lot has changed in the industry. Technology is more automated, more digital, more sophisticated. The veteran jahn also says: "people are getting smarter and smarter. Alexander gerst is an apt example. An extremely capable young man, a seasoned scientist, and a great man."
Two days to the ISS
Until friday, gerst will be in the cramped "soyuz MS-09" spacecraft with russian sergei prokopyev and u.S. Citizen serena aunon-chancellor on the way to the ISS. The crew will circle the earth 34 times until it docks at the space laboratory. For a good six months, the 42-year-old from baden-wurttemberg will live and experiment on the outpost of humanity some 400 kilometers above the earth and – as the first german ever – also take command in the fall.
As a scientist, gerst, who holds a doctorate in geophysics, can expect a tight program on the ISS. Half a year in space should be enough for about 300 experiments. 41 research projects contributed by the german aerospace center (DLR). In weightlessness, gerst will conduct research into artificial intelligence and the properties of planetary magnetic fields, among other things.
Gerst takes the helm in autumn
The schedule is tight. "When alex is commander, he has less time because he has other things to do", says volker schmid from DLR. As commander, gerst is primarily responsible for the safety of the crew in case of emergency. But he has to keep an eye on the condition of the station. Schmid therefore wants to be the head of gerst’s "horizons" mission as many tasks as possible before the astronaut takes the helm on the ISS in the fall.
Gerst does not seem at all excited by all this. In fact, he is as level-headed as ever as he bids farewell to the school in baikonur. "Space travel is never routine, he says. It is important to act with the utmost respect for technology, again and again.
Even ex-astronaut thomas reiter has no doubts about gerst’s qualifications. When the senior esa functionary talks about gerst’s mission, he himself looks forward to it like a schoolboy to a moon landing. "Alex is someone who is incredibly good at sharing the impressions he has up there.", says the 60-year-old. Gerst had already demonstrated this on his first mission in 2014. "He has really taken everyone on board, including colleagues like me who have experienced it for themselves."