German astronaut Alexander Gerst delights in 'smelling the grass' back on Earth

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German astronaut Alexander Gerst returns to Earth, again

Astro Alex, back on terra firma after nearly six months in space, stressed the importance of protecting our planet for future generations. And as for re-entry, wind and weather feel great after so long in zero gravity.

German astronaut Alexander Gerst brought one central message back from the International Space Station (ISS): the appreciation for our common planet and the need to work together across continents, nations and borders to protect our fragile environment.

Science | 20.12.2018

Gerst spoke at a press conference at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne on Saturday after having returned from the ISS two days earlier along with his colleagues, Sergey Prokopyev of Russia and Serena Aunon-Chancellor of the US.

"Astro Alex," as he is known on Twitter, said that his return made clear to him how many sensations humans can only enjoy on Earth: the feeling of the wind that greeted him in the snow-covered desert of Kazakhstan, the rain that hit his face when leaving the plane in Cologne, or the smell of the forest while doing his first exercises to recover after more than half a year in zero gravity. "Even smelling the grass shows us what a special and important place Earth is for us humans," he stressed. 

Space exploration: Not just done by astronauts 

Gerst pointed out that the work of the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS is often the most visible aspect of space exploration, but is in reality a tiny fraction of a huge collective international effort that makes such research possible. "Without all the planners, instructors, the people at ground control and the thousands of those who have built the modules of the ISS, all of this would not be possible," he said. "It is always the result of the cooperation of a large team. No single country would have been in the position to build such a space station." 

Read more: How the Soyuz rocket compares with the rest

The future of the ISS and beyond 

Johann-Dietrich Wörner, director general of the European Space Agency, recalled that the ISS came about as the "the fusion of two ideas: peace and freedom," because "Peace" was the name of the former Russian space station "Mir" while "freedom" was supposed to become the name of a once-planned but never realized US space station. The US space agency NASA eventually preferred to put its research and money into building the ISS, rather than going a separate way. 

Wörner also said he does not see the ISS outliving its usefulness anytime soon. "Everybody is talking about the year 2024, but I really don't see the end of the ISS yet." He was optimistic, however, that the ESA council of ministers and other international space agencies would soon agree to build a new "Gateway" space station to orbit the moon. 

ESA Director Johann-Dietrich Wörner, Gerst and Frank de Winne (r. to l.) at Gerst's first press conference in Cologne.

For 2019, he said that the next ESA astronaut, Luca Parmitano of Italy, would return to the ISS aboard the mission "Beyond." The idea was that that mission would look "beyond the horizon" — a play on the name of Gerst's second space mission, "Horizons." 

Frank de Winne, a former Dutch astronaut and head of the astronaut training program at the EAC, added that other exciting projects for the coming years include a robotic mission to Mars, in which a lander would extract ground samples and return those to Earth. 

Read more: Europe's newest astronaut: 'The trainers really push you to your limit'

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The Soyuz capsule with Alexander Gerst, Sergey Prokopyev and Serena Aunon-Chancellor on its way back to Earth

Failures and solutions 

Gerst, who served as ISS commander for the last six months on the "Horizons" mission, had to face some serious challenges during his stint. First, a sloppily covered tiny hole in a part of the Soyuz spaceship that was docked to the ISS resulted in a loss of cabin pressure. The astronauts were able to fix the hole quickly, but the investigation into how it occurred has not yet been finalized.

Probably more difficult for the commander: A flight of two replacement crew members to the ISS failed after takeoff and the Soyuz capsule had to make an emergency landing. 

That incident resulted in a profound change to the time schedule for maintenance work, research projects and scheduled extra-vehicular activities, including the modernization of technical components, such as batteries.

"We had to work a bit of overtime," Gerst recalled, "and we had to postpone some of the maintenance work. But we managed to make sure the ISS remained in a good working order and overall we almost managed to get all of our planned research projects done in time."

Asked about whether he intended to return to space anytime soon, Gerst pointed out that he is still an astronaut and would be happy to go on another mission, but that it is not on him to decide. Also, there are now other young trained astronauts, like Matthias Maurer, who also would like to have their chance. He would help to support them in preparing for their space flights. 

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

A 19,000 kilo building block

The first module of the International Space Station was sent into orbit 20 years ago. It was the Russian-made Zarya, a "Functional Cargo Block" — also known as FGB. Zarya came in at 19,000 kilograms (41,000 pounds) and was 12 meters (39 feet) long. It was commissioned and paid for by America and built by a Russian space company. It was the start of two decades of international cooperation.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

Larger than a six-bedroom house

The International Space Station is home to an international crew of six people, who also work there. It travels at a speed of five miles per second (8kps), orbiting Earth every 90 minutes. Eight solar arrays provide power to the station and make it the second brightest object in the night sky after the moon. You don't need a telescope to see it.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

Expedition 1

This was the ISS's first long-term crew: American astronaut William Shepherd (center) and his two Russian fellow workers, cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko (left) and Sergei Krikalev (right). They moved into the ISS on November 2, 2000, and stayed for 136 days.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

Up to one year

On average, space station crews, also known as expeditions, stay in space for about five and a half months. Some crew members, however, have broken that record — for example, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (photo) and Roscosmos cosmonaut, Mikhail Kornienko. They lived and worked in space for a whole year.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20


This is Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield strumming his guitar on the ISS at Christmas 2012. Since 2000, crew members and Space Flight Participants (self-financed space tourists) have come from 18 different countries. The most have come from the USA and Russia. Other teams have included people from Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany, Brazil and South Africa.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

Shuttle bus

Crew members and supplies arrive at the ISS via transfer vehicles and space freighters. This photo shows space shuttle Atlantis, which operated until 2011, docking onto the space station. These days, astronauts arrive at the ISS in a Soyuz capsule.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

Out for a walk

There have been more than 210 spacewalks — "EVA" in astronaut terms — at the ISS since 2000. This photo shows astronaut Mike Hopkins on a spacewalk on December 24, 2013.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

Extraordinary exterior

The ISS has several robotic arms. This one, Canadarm2, is 57.7 feet (17.58 meters) long when fully extended, and has seven motorized joints. It can lift 220,000 pounds (100 tons), which is the weight of a space shuttle orbiter. This photo shows astronaut Stephen K. Robinson anchored to Canadarm2's foot restraint.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

Blue Dot mission

Crew members spend about 35 hours per week conducting research. On his first mission, dubbed "Blue Dot," German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst observed and analyzed changes to the human body that occur in microgravity. Gerst's second mission at the ISS started in June 2018. In October 2018, he became the first German astronaut to command the ISS.

Happy birthday, ISS! The International Space Station at 20

Back home

When their time at the ISS is over, astronauts are taken away in a Soyuz capsules. They fall to Earth with a parachute to ease their landing. Welcome home!