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Ground Control to Major Tom

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Germany has been in the grip of space mania ever since Alexander “Astro Alex” Gerst blasted off in a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on June 6, heading for the International Space Station (ISS) and arriving safely two days later. Gerst is the second European and first ever German to take command of the ISS, a role that is set to continue until December this year.

Here at Rutronik24 we have also been sharing the excitement of Astro Alex, because as science fiction fans we have been fascinated by space since we were small children. However, Alexander Gerst's mission has nothing to do with the adventures of Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk - and the chances of a Star Destroyer racing past are rather slim.

In any case, Gerst is part of a long line of successful astronauts - or cosmonauts, as they were known in the Soviet Union and are still called to this day in Russia. The first man in space was a cosmonaut: Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin completed the first manned space flight on April 12, 1961, orbiting the earth in 108 minutes, according to official figures. This made the Americans sit up and take notice. They had entered the space race after the shock of Sputnik in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched into orbit Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. By May 1961, the first American, Alan Shepard, had followed Gagarin into space, although without orbiting the earth.

The Americans had thus lost the race into space, but they were determined to win the race to the moon: In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon The euphoria surrounding the infinite vastness of space also gripped both West and East Germany. The East Germans had the edge in the German space race: Sigmund Jähn left earth on August 26, 1978 to spend seven days on board the Soviet Salyut 6 space station. It would be another five years, on November 28, 1983, before Ulf Merbold became the first West German to follow him, conducting scientific experiments in the Spacelab module.

However, journeys into space were not used purely for propaganda purposes. The focus was on gaining scientific knowledge - not least to stay one step ahead in the systems race, of course. In order to find out as much as possible about space, the obvious step was to build space stations, allowing both astronauts and cosmonauts - mostly scientists who had been trained at the same time - to conduct experiments in a wide range of areas. And the USSR also had the edge here: Salyut 1 entered service on April 19, 1971 and remained in space until October 11 of the same year. A crew lived on board the station for 24 days, but ultimately met a tragic end: All three crew members died during re-entry on the return flight on board the Soyuz spaceship.

The next two missions failed before the Americans launched their Skylab into space and set a new record, having manned it for 171 days. This record was broken in 1977 by Salyut 6 (683 days), the first space station capable of being refueled. On February 19, 1986, a legend entered service: The Mir space station (Russian for "peace" or "world") provided a home for 28 long-term crews for a total of 6,436 days until its controlled deorbit in March 2001. The ISS has been in orbit since November 20, 1998. At 303,663 kilograms, its mass is more than twice that of Mir. It has so far been home to 56 long-term crews for more than 6,400 days - making it likely that it will break the previous record.

Talking of records, Astro Alex's place in the history books is assured as the first German commander, although other records probably remain unachievable for Gerst - like the record for the longest overall time spent in space, for example. At 878 days between 1998 and 2015, this record is held by Gennadi Padalka from Russia. No fewer than nine cosmonauts are in the top ten - all men. In eighth place with 665 days is Peggy Whitson - an American and the only woman on the list. Incidentally, the highest-placed astronaut outside the two great space nations is a German: Thomas Reiter, who spent 350 days in space.

At 437 days, the longest overall space flight was completed by Valeri Polyakov from Russia between January 8, 1994 and March 22, 1995. Eugene Cernan and Jack Schmitt hold the record for the longest time on the moon, spending almost 75 hours there between December 11 and 14, 1972 as part of the Apollo 17 mission. The Americans Jerry Ross and Franklin Chang-Diaz have racked up the most space flights - a total of seven. Journeys into space outside a shuttle or station are often necessary on research missions. Anatoly Solovyev from Russia holds the record here with 16 spacewalks, spending a total of 78 hours and 48 minutes in space during his eight years of duty. James Voss and Susan Helms spent the longest period of time outside a station in 2001 to carry out work on the ISS, which took them eight hours and 56 minutes. And John Glenn is proof that age is no barrier to space travel. He was 77 years old at the time of the STS-95 mission. A period of 36 years separated his ultimate and penultimate missions.

All of this proves just how incredibly fascinated we are by space - despite all the adverse circumstances such as the weightlessness, the cramped conditions, and ... eating out of a tube. Well, they do, don't they? No! When Gerst blasted off on his mission from Baikonur Cosmodrome, he was accompanied by several tins containing a total of six meals, including cheese Spätzle (a type of egg noodle), bread pudding with plums, Spätzle with lentils and wiener sausages, and Maultaschen (German-style ravioli) - a little piece of home to eat, so to speak. The Lufthansa caterer LSG developed the food. One particular challenge: The sense of taste is impaired by the change in air pressure and different humidity levels. It is noticeable even on normal flights, but in space it's a whole different ball game. Simply shaking a bit more salt over the food doesn't help, especially since the muscles and bone structures are weakened by the weightlessness and require special nutrients.

The experts have come up with a solution that tastes good despite the lack of salt. Herbs and spices enhance the taste. They have also overcome the challenges relating to consistency and shelf life. Everything has thus been perfectly prepared for Alexander Gerst's long mission. And it is good to know that he doesn't have to forego the taste of Maultaschen in space - because we wouldn't either!