German astronaut Alexander Gerst set for second space mission | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 03.06.2018
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German astronaut Alexander Gerst set for second space mission

On Wednesday, German astronaut Alexander Gerst, Sergei Prokopyev and Serena Aunon-Chancellor will fly to the International Space Station (ISS). The "Horizons" mission will be Gerst's second mission.

This Wednesday, German astronaut Alexander Gerst, along with a Russian and American counterpart, will take off abroad a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan's Baikonur spaceport after two years of intense preparations.

Alexander Gerst, or "Astro-Alex" as some affectionately call him, has played through 50 different experiments he will conduct once abroad the International Space Station (ISS), and has familiarized himself with all the necessary high-tech equipment. He's kept himself physically fit, and endured endless medicals and other tests. 

Intense preparations

Gerst learned how to steer a Soyuz spaceship and how to safely dock the capsule to the ISS. He's practiced space walks, and studied the ISS' elaborate technological controls, prepared for emergencies and other situations. And he worked closely with his advisers, who will keep supporting him while in space. 

He even met design students from Darmstadt who created the "Horizons" logo for his mission. He also picked which space food he'll be tucking into while in zero g: Swabian dumplings and other specialties from Germany's southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, where Gerst comes from. And he's brushed up on his Russian language skills.

Twitter celebrity and space teacher

Despite his busy schedule, Gerst has found time to keep his ever-growing Twitter fanbase up-to-date, getting youngsters interested in all things astronomical. He currently has more than one million Twitter followers. That's almost five times more than before his last space mission.

He'll take a metal sphere, a kind of time capsule, with him containing essays by German students about their hopes and dreams. And an Astro Pi mini computer that German pupils currently use to learn programming — several teams of students wrote software for computer experiments to be conducted in space.

Gerst will also by accompanied by two figurines from Germany's famous children's TV show "Sendung mit der Maus" (the Mouse Show). Once on the ISS, the three will conduct an experiment on how toy rockets fare in zero gravity.

Astro-Alex is also a passionate radio amateur, a skill which he will make use of to contact young space enthusiasts. His call sign is KF5ONO. While abroad ISS, Gerst will radio a group of pupils from Leverkusen, among others. A local radio amateur club will help students at Werner Heisenberg high school install the necessary equipment. 

All of this is part of their curriculum — and requires Gerst giving up some free time in space, which he's happy to do. It will be Gerst's second space lesson; he has already given one during his first mission.

Read more: 2018's highlights in space

First German astronaut to command a space station

Of course, Gerst also talked to the media, patiently answering all their questions — even when he had to repeat himself over and over. His enviable patience will serve him well, because Gerst will command the space station – becoming the first German astronaut to do so.

After a two-day journey, theSoyuz capsule will arrive at the ISS. And then Gerst will get to work on his numerous space experiments.

It's his second space mission; between May and November 2015, he spent 165 days abroad the ISS, serving as an engineer for the "Blue Dot" mission. He even completed a project outside the space station. 

His latest mission, starting on Wednesday, will last half a year. Fortunately, Astro-Alex will be back in time to celebrate Christmas on Earth.

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