Rocket Man

Mars Attracts

Alexander Gerst dpa
Alexander Gerst is not fazed at the thought of three years of weightlessness on the way to Mars.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If life once existed on Mars, discovering why the planet became lifeless and barren might give us clues about how Earth could avoid a similar fate.

  • Facts


    • Alexander Gerst has a doctorate in natural sciences from the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Hamburg. He spent six months on the International Space Station in 2014.
    • This month, NASA released details of its Mars exploration plan.
    • William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said: “Nasa’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space.”
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Alexander Gerst, 39, has been a German astronaut with the European Space Agency since 2009. In 2014, he spent six months working on the International Space Station, and he is considered a top candidate for future missions in space. “The Martian,” the recently released movie starring Matt Damon as an astronaut mistakenly left behind on the Red Planet, has stirred curiosity about manned missions beyond the moon.

Mr. Gerst talked to Handelsblatt about what Mars exploration could mean for humanity’s survival.


Handelsblatt: Mr. Gerst, a trip to Mars means up to three years of cramped quarters, physical stress and mortal danger. Would you go anyway?

Alexander Gerst: If someone were to invite me on a mission that is well planned and makes sense, I’d certainly say yes. The half year of weightlessness in the ISS space station didn’t bother me, I have the feeling I could also manage three years. And an average 40- or 50-year-old has about the same risk of dying a natural death within a year as an astronaut being killed in a rocket launch. So a flight into space isn’t increasing the risk all that much.

What justifies a manned Mars mission, besides the glory of discovery?

Mars used to be habitable, had massive amounts of liquid water and a denser atmosphere than our Earth. Now it is lifeless and void. How do we avoid the same thing happening to our home planet?  The answer to that question is perhaps vital to our survival.

As a geophysicist, what would you look for on the Red Planet?

First and foremost, we would look for traces of life on Mars. Even if all we found was the remains of extinct microbes, it would be a philosophical bomb. That would either mean living organisms traveled between Earth and Mars or that life develops every so often in space and that we’ll run into some on our neighboring planets. That would mean there must be life out there. And we can find that out even in our lifetime.

You would be risking a lot. No one has yet attempted so many days of weightlessness.

We could stay fit with exercise equipment and treadmills on the way to Mars. I did sports two-and-a-half hours every day on ISS, specifically training each group of muscles. It’s hard work, but after my mission I even had more muscle mass than before.

All the same, eating astronaut food for three years sounds bleak.

The meals are more important than I first thought. If I were to serve you astronaut food for a week, you’d think it was very tasty. After half a year, you’d have had enough of it. That’s when the bonus food becomes all the more important. We shared gummy bears and cookies on ISS.

Aren’t you concerned about getting cabin fever?

No. I had complete trust in my colleagues on ISS. We experienced each other in extreme situations. We still get along extremely well together today. In a certain way, we know each other better than our own families. It’ll be similar to that for a team that spends years together on a Mars mission.

Video: Alexander Gerst’s Mission to the International Space Station.

This interview first appeared in the WirtschaftsWoche business weekly. To contact the author:

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