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Germany

A Passion for Space

NASA has delayed the launch of its first space shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster because of a technical problem. DW-WORLD spoke to former German astronaut Ulrich Walter about the dangers of space travel.

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Waiting for blast-off

DW-WORLD: Just how dangerous is modern space travel?

Space travel is not without its dangers. The shuttle is the most complex ever piece of man-made machinery, and the problem is that we are at the limits of the materials used. There are no better material and we just have to live with that.

Which training strategies are used to help astronauts overcome possible fears?

Let's call them concerns rather than fears. I think every astronaut is concerned that something might go wrong during his mission, perhaps even something fatal. Fear stuns you so you don’t know what to do. But every astronaut is extremely well prepared to deal with dangerous situations, and that removes the fear, leaving only the concern behind.

Exactly what are you trained to do?

To understand the psychology of dealing with risks. NASA trains its people for such situations, which I think is quite right. More than 50 percent of the training focuses on unlikely situations, which NASA calls "off-nominals."

Can you give an example of an extreme training situation you experienced?

The simulation of the shuttle bursting into flames at the beginning. That would be a critically dangerous situation, requiring that you evacuate the shuttle as quickly as possible. High up, to the side of the launching pad, there are baskets which you have to climb inside and then you slide about a kilometer down a rope and drive away with a little tank. And we trained for that very situation on the launching pad.

Do you remember the feeling before your launch in Columbia?

Very well. I will remember that for the rest of my life. I felt tense yet happy and relaxed. You don't know exactly what is going to happen, so you just have to go with it. If something goes wrong, there's not much you can do about it. But on the other hand, it's pretty impressive.

Do you have dreams at that moment?

No, none at all. It has nothing to do with dreaming, but is in fact much more a case of breathing in the reality even deeper than normal. You look at everything very clearly. I told myself, "You've been working for this for the past five years, now you're going aboard." You are concentrated on what is about to happen, and that is captivating.

Does the long, hard work pay off?

The pay-off is in the flight itself, rather than just the take-off. And it is also being able to do science in space. We are scientific astronauts, which means we're not only interested in the view from the window, but the fact that we can really do something for which we were trained. That provides a great sense of satisfaction.

Would you go back into space?

At the drop of a hat!

Are you envious of the Discovery astronauts?

Yes. Every astronaut loves space travel. I don't know a single astronaut who would not join the Discovery team.

And how do you bid your family farewell?

On the eve of a launch, there is what's known as the nightview, where people gather in front of the shuttle on the streets that lead to the launch pad. On one side are the astronauts, who are kept in quarantine conditions, and on the other side, the family with the children. They wave at each other and shout across to each other a bit. It is a little sad, because the little children want to go to their fathers, but they're not allowed. It's a really strange situation because the shuttle is lit up in the darkness. It's a very, very impressive farewell.

Tina Gerhäuser interviewed Ulrich Walter, now a professor of aerospace technology at Munich's Technical University (tkw)

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