Photo: WAHLUNIVERSUM / Jessica Wahl
Interview with Alexander Gerst
"THE EARTH SEEMS FINITE IN THE FACE OF INFINITY"
Astronaut Alexander Gerst spent 363 days in space – longer than any other European astronaut. If he could join a mission to the moon, he would head back off into space. In an interview with online editor Ludmilla Ostermann, Gerst reveals what we can learn about the Earth from the “eighth continent”, as he calls it, and how space travel can contribute to a better future.
Photo: WAHLUNIVERSUM / Jessica Wahl
Why do we need to concern ourselves with the future today??
It’s important to prepare ourselves for all possible problems that may arise in the future. History has shown us that these problems are sometimes unpredictable. Or predictable in hindsight, but we didn’t react until rather late in the day, as is the case with climate change. It’s important that we develop technologies, ways of thinking, and strategies – as astronauts have to do in their professional lives too – to prepare ourselves for the unpredictable. We live in the knowledge that unforeseen things happen and that different problems arise, and that these may come at us from different directions. Therefore, we really have to grapple with the future and think strategically about the millions of directions that it could send us in. For this purpose, it’s important to have a place where people can develop these thoughts. That’s why I think venues like Futurium are great, because they encourage you not only to think about the past, but also to look ahead. Of course, it’s important to be familiar with both and to learn lessons from the past. I, personally, find the future much more exciting.
How can space travel contribute to creating a better future?
Space travel is about making the future possible in our cosmic environment. The universe beyond Earth is infinitely larger than our Earth itself. Opportunities and risks await us there, and we need to be prepared for them. The dinosaurs were probably wiped out by a large asteroid, and this is a danger that also threatens us humans. And if it becomes real, we should be ready for it. At the moment, we’re not yet there. Space travel helps us by providing us with a perspective of ourselves from above. And because space travel presents a difficult technical challenge, we have to think far ahead anyway. That’s why space projects are designed for the long term. They’re not just about the next ten or 20 years, but about identifying strategies and goals that will still be guiding us 50 years from now and which show us where investments make sense. Ultimately, space travel serves the purpose of improving life on Earth and making a future possible for us. We look beyond the horizon to see what awaits us out there and to identify opportunities and risks.
You spent a total of 363 days in space. Would you still like to make it a complete calendar year?
Two days, more or less, aren’t important to me. I’m not looking to break any records. In general, however, I am an explorer and will continue to put my heart and soul into space exploration. If I got the chance to head off back into space, to fly even further, maybe to the moon, I’d jump at it, obviously. I think it’s right and important for us humans to explore the moon. I regard the moon as our eighth continent, and we still know almost nothing about it. The moon is highly relevant for us because it tells us how the Earth came into being and how we can better protect it. It’s an important outpost for giving us a view of ourselves.
What do you miss most during your space missions?
Actually, I don’t miss much. I get a kick out of researching in inhospitable environments, creating data, knowledge and perspectives. Being in space was never especially hard on me in a physical sense. I thought it was great. But being an Earth person, there are a few little things that you do miss. Like the simple beauty of our planet and the everyday situations we experience down here: clouds, trees, air, wind, water, rain – I actually did miss all of that. But because I knew I’d see it all again it wasn’t a problem. For us at the ESA it is in fact a matter of conviction that exploration goes hand in hand with bringing new perspectives and impressions back to Earth and sharing them with other people. Of course, at some point there’ll also be people who’ll decide to travel to new star systems and not to come back. This has always been the case, otherwise new continents wouldn’t have been discovered.
Let's leave the future as it is for now. What would Alexander Gerst be doing today if he hadn't become an astronaut?
Although being an astronaut is the best profession in the world for me, I never assumed I’d be so lucky as to be chosen for a space mission. I applied to the ESA nonetheless, in order to give it a real chance. But I was also happy with being a scientist. As a volcanologist, I researched volcanoes in Antarctica and wanted to work at the Alaska Volcano Observatory. So I guess I’d be on top of some type of volcano right now. And, actually, only recently, I did just that. I was on the Stromboli volcano together with researchers from my old university, servicing the equipment and, in this way, helping students carry out their studies. I enjoyed returning to my old environment and doing research. In winter, we’ll be going on an expedition to Antarctica to collect meteorites. It’s especially easy to identify them there, because there’s nothing else around but ice. We want to find meteorites that teach us how the solar system and our Earth came into being. There, you can find meteorites lying around that were ejected with a bang from Mars. In this way, we can also learn something about our neighbouring planet. At the same time, the expedition is good training for moon exploration. In Antarctica, at minus 50 degrees, the living conditions are similarly hostile. And it’s correspondingly difficult to conduct science there. So it’s a win-win situation.
When you look to the future, which topic is most important to you personally?
I find interesting everything that forces us to view things from a different perspective. Maybe that’s why space travel is so exciting for me. Through the change of perspective, we see connections that we wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. Seen from space, it’s crystal clear how fragile the Earth’s ecosystem is. And it’s also obvious how limited the Earth’s resources are. Through space travel, we try to make our contribution. On the one hand, by providing data that lets us get to know the status of our Earth. We wouldn’t have discovered climate change so easily if we hadn’t had satellite systems that enabled us to view the Earth from all possible angles and spectra. On the other hand, we want to open people’s eyes. Even something as vast as planet Earth seems finite in the face of infinity. To me, it’s important to pass on this perspective to other people, so that everyone can reflect on where it is that we’re actually living, namely on an absolute exception in the universe; that we’re living on a small blue spaceship travelling through a big, black, hostile cosmos.