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Science

Astronaut Alexander Gerst to be first German commander of International Space Station

Alexander Gerst is headed back to space - and will become the first German to take command of the International Space Station. The news was made public during Chancellor Merkel's visit to the German Aerospace Center.

With the list of politicians scheduled to drop in at the German Aerospace Center in Cologne racking up over the past few weeks, the news that Chancellor Angela Merkel was also paying a visit signaled something big.

And for Germany, the news announced on Wednesday was pretty big indeed: astronaut and geophysicist Alexander Gerst is set to take command of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018, the first German astronaut to take on the job.

Johann-Dietrich Wörner, director of the European Space Agency, said Gerst will fly to the ISS in 2018 for a six-month stay and take command for some of his time there.

As commander, Gerst's chief responsibilities will be to build a team, maintain morale among crew, conduct on-orbit operations and otherwise implement the mission as dictated by the flight director.

Angela Merkel and Alexander Gerst at the German Aerospace Center Photo: DW/F. Schmidt

Gerst gave Merkel a personal tour during Wednesday's visit to the German Aerospace Center

ISS expeditions 40 / 41

Merkel congratulated Gerst after the announcement, saying that everybody "had come to know Gerst as an ambassador from space." He had made people realize "on what a beautiful planet we live on and how vulnerable Earth is."

Gerst, 38 years old on his first trip to the ISS two years ago, said he appreciated the trust that everybody had set in him. "It is a big compliment for me. And I am happy for spaceflight in Europe," he said.

During his previous six months in space Gerst was highly active on social media, reporting on his experiences and posting images of Earth. He also presented question-and-answer sessions via live videocasts with children in German schools.

In an exclusive interview with DW's "Tomorrow Today," Gerst said observing Earth from above - viewing war zones and the effects of climate change - had changed his perspective on our planet and life.

Young man in space

Gerst was selected as an astronaut for the European Space Agency in 2009. Though he will become the first German commander of the ISS, he wasn't the first German to visit the station. Thomas Reiter made the trip in 2006, and Hans Schlegel followed in 2008.

Gerst's appointment is seen as significant for Germany, as it becomes a hub for space exploration and training.

"Space flight is one the biggest achievements and chances of our time," said Pascale Ehrenfreund, the director of the German Aerospace Center. "Those who can do space flight can do anything."

It's been 42 years since the first German traveled to outer space, when East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn spent seven days onboard a Soyuz capsule in 1978. Five years later, the then West Germany sent its first astronaut to space - Ulf Merbold spent 10 days as part of NASA's Spacelab mission.

Gerst is Germany's 11th space traveler.

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