Six months above the Earth

Between 4 July and 22 December 2006, the German astronaut Thomas Reiter, 49, took part in the ESA’s Astrolab mission on board the International Space Station. He carried out 19 scientific experiments while in space, many of them for European institutions and research centres. Research*eu spoke with Thomas.

Thomas Reiter working on board the International Space Station. ©NASA Thomas Reiter working on board the International Space Station.
August 2006 – First space walk, lasting about six hours, to repair an automatic solar panel that had jammed. ©NASA August 2006 – First space walk, lasting about six hours, to repair an automatic solar panel that had jammed.

Why did you become an astronaut?

It was a childhood dream. When I was six, I followed the American Gemini space programme on television, and I was 11 when man first walked on the Moon. I was fascinated by it. It motivated me to study maths. When the time came to choose a career, the chances of ever becoming an astronaut were so slim that I opted for aviation. I studied aerospace technology at the University of the Armed Forces in Neubiberg (DE) and flew Alpha Jet and Tornado bombers. After a spell as a test pilot, when ESA was selecting recruits for its team of astronauts, based in Cologne, I jumped at the chance.

You first participated in the Euromirmissions in 1995. So space became a reality for you?

I arrived at Star City, just outside Moscow, in 1993. Our first task was to learn Russian because we were going to be sent to the Mir space station. It was quite a challenge to be trained in Russia!

Being launched into space for the first time is obviously a very thrilling experience. Finding yourself actually on the launch pad in the tiny capsule way up at the top of the rocket. You enter the space capsule two hours before lift-off. There are a lot of things you have to check and then, just a few minutes before the big moment, it all goes quiet. You really have time to gather your thoughts and savour the moment. My thoughts turned to the past, to that child of 11… and then the rocket was launched. The sense of acceleration is incredible. In under nine minutes you are already in orbit and you have your first view of the Earth. The dream has suddenly come true.

And microgravity?

It was very pleasant. Myself and the other crew members had already taken parabolic flights during which the weightlessness ends after about 20 seconds. In space we were waiting for it to end too in a way… but of course it continued. At first you move very carefully, but you soon get used to it. When we docked at the space station the pleasant sensation of lightness continued. But it was inside the International Space Station (ISS), which is bigger than Mir – and will soon be even bigger – that you could really float around freely.

What are the principal differences between the ISS and Mir?

The technology and scientific equipment are much more advanced on the ISS, which is linked to NASA, to the Russian space agency and to ESA. For those who live on board the ISS, the communication facilities are incomparable. Thanks to the geostationary satellites we can contact the Houston and Moscow control centres or telephone anywhere in the world at any time. On Mir, all communication links were cut for 90 of the 105 minutes it took to complete an orbit.

Could you describe a typical day onboard the space station?

We set our clocks to Greenwich Mean Time. We get up at 07.00 GMT. After washing – with damp flannels soaked in a soapy disinfecting solution and rinsing in just a few millilitres of water – you have to check the principal systems before breakfast. Then there is half an hour of preparation for work, followed by the daily planning conference with all the control centres. You then get down to the day’s work, which consists mainly of systems maintenance and scientific experiments. There is then an hour of fitness training to check the effects of microgravity on the body: jogging, cycling, power training… all the equipment is there. After that, it’s time for lunch. And then back to work until 18.00 when there is another exercise session, followed by dinner, preparations for the next day’s work and the evening conference. We then have just about an hour of free time before we turn in for the night at 23.00. Apart from the traditional Russian and American dishes, we tried some dishes prepared by a great French chef. Absolutely delicious, some of them. Wine is not allowed though.

What is systems maintenance exactly?

Looking at everything that must be checked and serviced continuously. There is the living environment (oxygen generators, CO2 filters, water recycling), checking the electricity generators and batteries, checking on-board temperature, ventilation, smoke detectors, etc. Filters, any faulty parts, batteries, pumps and ventilators that wear out all have to be replaced. Then there is the unexpected. I am thinking here of the automatic solar panel that got stuck. This all goes to show how necessary it is to have manned space stations.

The mission you went on carried out about 20 scientific experiments. What kind of experiments were they?

The subjects were very varied and related to the life sciences, biology, physics, astrophysics and also educational projects including experiments proposed by students.

Take medicine. We know that space is an excellent environment in which to improve our understanding of certain diseases that affect the vestibular system that controls our balance. On Earth, some effects are always going to be masked by gravity, whereas under conditions of weightlessness our balance system has to adapt quickly. This process is studied by physiologists of the inner ear, as it can teach us a great deal.

Another example: when you catch a ball, you must have a clear perception of yourself in space, and coordination between your vision and your hands must be perfect. How is the system of coordinates generated in the brain and how does all this inter-relate? On board we had an eye-tracking device using infrared rays reflected from the eyes. We made regular measurements before we left, in space, and then after we returned. During my stay in space my way of looking at moving objects changed. We also took part in two experiments concerning the immune system because, to their great surprise, the researchers observed that the human body’s first line of defence (involving lymphocytes) depends on gravity. This weakens under zero gravity. It is very interesting to study this effect to understand how microgravity affects these body cells.

And an example of a physics experiment?

We took part in the study of plasma and dust mixtures. We observed that dust forms a kind of crystalline network within plasma. In the absence of gravity, we are able to simulate different states of matter. This opens up a whole new field of research, with important applications for nuclear fusion reactors cur currently being developed. The plasmas at the heart of these reactors are charged with the dust attracted from the reactor walls. It is important for us to be able to control these newly discovered interactions.

Apart from these experiments, there isalso of course the very different human“experiment” of three people livingin a confined space for six months.

During the first few weeks you are simply overwhelmed by the vivid images as you look out of the capsule windows. Such magnificent views of the Earth and the starlit nights. Sometimes, at “night”, there are magnificent auroras. Over the Sahara, which is completely black, you see shooting stars enter the atmosphere below you. It is impossible to capture it in a photograph. But of course there is a lack of room and moments when life is difficult. But the astronauts know each other well and, as soon as one of us felt a bit down, the others would notice it and help him and remotivate him. Relations between us were always very good. On Friday evenings we would prepare a nice dinner and then watch a film or listen to some music we all liked. That helped us a lot.

And life back on Earth?

It was very difficult at first. Balance, blood pressure, the muscles that have to readapt. You find walking difficult. But after just one night it already gets a lot better and you are back in shape remarkably quickly. It is surprising to see how the body can adapt to environments to which it is clearly not suited!

Alexandre Wajnberg


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