“Hello? Is this Alex the Astronaut?” It is my first time interviewing anyone and the notes shake in my hands as I adjust my computer. I try to compose myself. “Yes! Is that Alex the real astronaut?”
Alexander Gerst, a geophysicist and the first German commander of a spacecraft, has just embarked on his second mission to the International Space Station (ISS). He is the real astronaut.
We both giggle as I apologise. After all, he had to go through years of training for the title, while I just had to type it into Spotify to record my artist name.
Gerst wears a white European Space Agency shirt with the mission insignia for the “Horizons” expedition – the outline of a face looking out from Earth towards the stars.
I stumble into my first question: “Would you go on a one-way mission to Mars?”
Exploration isn’t just going to a place, he says, it’s about bringing something back.
“In time, there will be people who move to other planets, but my job, as an astronaut, is to go away, do science and make discoveries and bring them back to make life easier for the people living here on Earth,” he says.
Gerst explains how radar data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has recently pointed to an abundance of liquid water lying under the ice and dust of the Red Planet’s south polar region.
“The important thing about Mars is that, like our planet, at some point in the past it may have been able to support life – and it may still be able to,” says Gerst.
The Mars Express launch was 15 years ago and there have been many unmanned missions since then, including those of NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. They have taught us much about Mars but, says Gerst, in the end we will need to explore the planet for ourselves.
“As much as we can predict and learn about places with rovers, it has to be a synergy between manned missions and machines,” he says.
“Machines can’t do everything that humans are able to and they definitely can’t tell us the feeling of being there, of standing on Mars and looking back and seeing a little blue dot.”
Our conversation turns towards one of Gerst’s other areas of expertise – volcanoes. His favourite is Mount Erebus in Antarctica, where he spent some time doing his dissertation.
Around the mountain temperatures fluctuate between minus-21 degrees Celsius and minus-52 degrees Celsius, making it one of the most difficult-to-reach places on Earth. From the summit, the sun can be seen circling the horizon over the ice sheets where Shackleton overtook Scott on his race for the South Pole.
Gerst says he and his team felt as remote as being on the moon – and even more removed than they are ISS.
“On the ISS help can be sent from Earth and the astronauts can be returned home within a few hours, but on Mount Erebus it could be two weeks before a rescue team could get to there.”
Gerst’s thesis on the volcano’s movements earned him his doctorate from the University of Hamburg in 2011, just before he was admitted into the European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Training Division. Then, in 2014, he spent six months as a flight engineer on the ISS for the ESA’s Blue Dot mission. He and his crew travelled on a Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan just as he will do this June.
He carried out research on radiation aimed at improving cancer treatment, and to find ways to create more efficient fuel for cars, better treatment of osteoporosis and hundreds of other experiments.
So, what is so different about the lab in the ISS? Gerst is kind enough not to point out what a silly question it is.
“We have one single laboratory that allows us to have zero gravity for extended periods of time. In that laboratory we do science that fills the gaps and answers questions that we cannot know from anything we’ve found on Earth.
“We can suspend a droplet of liquid hot metal floating without touching anything with a vessel surrounding it for several minutes to help understand alloys. We need that understanding so we can simulate that on Earth in computer. From that we can build car engines that are more efficient or plane engines that use less fuel.”
Of all the experiments Gerst describes, my favourite is the one that takes place in Diffusion Tensor Imaging, or DTI. This is a type of MRI that can be used to look at brains of stroke patients.
When the astronauts are in space their vestibular systems – those that deal with balance – only send “garbage” information to their brains (zero gravity doesn’t really compute with what we generally understand as balance).
Because of this, a region of the astronauts’ brains essentially “dies” and the rest of brain must rewire in a similar way to what happens to stroke victims.
When someone has a stroke, sometimes a part of their brain is deactivated and the rest has to compensate for what’s missing. Scientists are now looking at how the astronauts’ vestibular systems rebuild when they return to normal gravity to try to see if there are clues on how to help stroke victims regain the parts of the brain that they’ve lost.
“There is already a medicine against osteoporosis down on Earth that you can buy in the pharmacy that came from work on the space station,” Gerst says. “The chain is there, from experiments to really delivering improvements on Earth; it takes a while but we can see we can help in many different fields.”
I told him about the failed physics thesis I did in university, which didn’t go to plan at all, and he encouraged me and other developing scientists.
“That is also a result, that’s the beauty of research; you never know where it takes you. Often the things that you find on the way are the really interesting results.”
But science isn’t the only thing we get from space. Gerst believes the biggest benefit people could get from travelling to space is perspective.
“At least for now we only have our planet Earth to live on and our resources are limited,” he says. “We need to find sustainable ways to manage for the future and we can help with that from the space station but each of us has a responsibility to do that.”
And on that note of cautious optimism we end our conversation.
Going into the interview I had been concerned that my admiration for the profession of astronaut might be shaken by exposure to the reality. I shouldn’t have worried. Those feelings were quickly replaced by awe of a person who is using the breadth of intelligence and compassion that humans are capable of to help others.
Despite having an insane amount of knowledge in his brain, there was no sense of arrogance about Gerst, who explains everything with patience and understanding.
Instead I was left with the feeling that I’d had a once in a lifetime opportunity to speak to someone who could give me a first-hand insight into what our universe is about – although I was also left feeling about a quarter as clever as I thought I was before speaking to him.
As a musician, my job is to show others what I’m seeing without judgement and as truthfully as I can. Today I’m writing an article which doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that a song does, so I’ve done my best with words.
What my conversation with Alexander Gerst taught me, though, was that we need people to explore and tell about our universe not only so we can improve the lives of those on Earth through science, but so we can see a little further with compassionate eyes, because that’s what we’ve been built with the ability to do.
Alexander Gerst is currently on the International Space Station on his Horizons mission. More information can be found here.
Alex the Astronaut
Alex the Astronaut, aka Alex Lynn, is an Australian singer-songwriter. She studied maths and physics at Long Island University, New York, including a thesis on sonoluminescence.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.