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Tomorrow Today

In Conversation with Astronaut Alexander Gerst

German astronaut and geophysicist, Dr. Alexander Gerst flew in May 2014 to the International Space Station in a Soyuz spacecraft where he stayed for six months to conduct experiments for his "Blue Dot Mission."

DW: You went up with to the ISS last year for six months and became something of a media star, not least because you used social media to explain to people down here on Earth both the spectacular aspects of space life but also some of the unspectacular things like what it means to just live on the ISS. Did it change your perspective in life going up there and coming back?

It did. Seeing Earth from the outside really changed my view on what our planet is. I think everyone knows that when you grow up here down on Earth you don’t spend much thought on what this planet is. You take it for granted. It’s huge, it appears infinite. The atmosphere is infinite and all the resources appear to be never-ending. When you see that from the outside it drastically changes. You see that this place is small, …and this place is finite… Just like everything in life.

Is it fragil, too? It seems so fragile from space. That’s what astronauts often say.

Yes, and you realize it is fragile and you can actually destroy it. It even gave me a sense of urgency, and also an urge of sharing this, that we are able to destroy this accidentally without wanting it. Just by not taking care of it. We can go beyond the point of no return on our ecosphere, on our biosphere without realizing it, before it’s too late.

With all the dramas and political problems that are happening here on Earth - do they get transferred up to space, too?

You can actually see war from space! One day, we looked out from the window and we saw dots moving and exploding in little flashes. Only then did we realize that we were over Israel and Gaza. People were actually killing each other and we saw that. If you see that from above, it is grotesque: You look at it and realize: If there would ever be life visiting us from another part of the universe - this is the first thing they would see: Us killing each other, us destroying the Amazon forest, which is also very, very visible from above. How would we explain to them, what we are doing? How would we explain to them, that we call ourselves "intelligent life" while we are destroying our only home we have.

You are all living up there in very, very, very close quarters. You are seeing each other all the time…Tell me a little bit about how you manage to get through that daily process. Living so close with other people - do you have certain regulations? Do you have down-time?

You describe it as if it was a very hard thing, but actually, if you think: The Space station is as big as a Boeing 747 on the inside. And there are six people there. So you have a lot of space. Actually, it happens that for half a day you are working in a module without seeing the other. You actually miss talking to a person. You are actually looking forward to seeing them at lunch and talking about how the day is going. We all had the same kind of humor … so we had a good time up there, just making jokes and going through the day like that. So it did not feel hard to be up there… No, I really enjoyed being there.

Would you go, if you were selected for a Mission to Mars?

Alexander Gerst: Of course, you don't have to ask any astronaut that question. They will always say: "Yes, certainly!" A mission to Mars will be the great next adventure of our time. If you think about it: Humans have been explorers for hundreds of thousands of years. We have explored every corner of our Earth. As soon as we learned to build ships, we took them not only to sail to the next island, but sailed over the horizon... There is nothing that is going to stop humans from doing that.

Alexander Gerst, what do you see as the most exiting upcoming ESA mission?

That's a tricky question, because there are lots of missions coming up. Of course, I am not only interested in human space flight, but also as a scientist in the upcoming exploration missions. Also in the last year, we had one of the most exiting missions, which was Rosetta - a space craft from Earth that travelled for ten years, billions of kilometers, landing on a tiny little rock out there in space and finding out for the first time, what a comet is made of. We did not know that before. We just found out about that. So it's an exciting time…

Thomas Reiter once said: "Once you are an astronaut, you are an astronaut forever. Going into space is an experience that changes you fundamentally. What do you think?

I would say: Everyone of us - in a way - is an astronaut. Our spaceship is just a little bit bigger - it's Earth. But when you see it from the outside, you realize that its just another spaceship with a live support system that's bigger, but one that can break. It's our only spaceship and we travel around the sun with it - in that spaceship once a year. So it's something that we need to keep in mind, that we humans can be a passenger on that spaceship or part of the crew - that's how I see it.

A passenger or part of the crew on spaceship Earth. Well, you are certainly a member of the crew. Thank you very, very much for being with us here on the show.

You can find the full-length interview with Alexander Gerst in our current edition of Tomorrow Today.

The interview was conducted by Derrick Williams.