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„We’re All Humans up There!“

© Marcel Schwickerath

The journey to the Moon was the first big milestone in space travel beyond Earth. The Apollo 11 mission impressed the world, and it got many men and women interested in becoming astronauts. German astronaut Reinhold Ewald and American space shuttle pilot Kent Rominger talked to us about a career that’s actually more of a calling. 

When Reinhold Ewald walks through the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, you can tell he’s proud to be doing so. Walking past models of rockets, space shuttles and spacesuits, Ewald delights in his own little “cosmos.” He talks to us about the replica ISS modules and the labs, and stops every so often to greet up-and-coming astronauts and old colleagues. “No matter who we sent up there, no matter what country they were from, the experience is one they’ll always share,” says Reinhold Ewald, now 62. He’s one of just 11 Germans to have journeyed into space. In 1997 he spent 18 days at the MIR space station, where he conducted experiments and even survived a fire. Ewald is wearing a sweater emblazoned with the insignia of his mission. His space flight shaped his life in a big way. 

Astronaut Kent Rominger from Colorado, USA, (now also 62) piloted the American space agencys shuttle from 1995 to 2001 and took part in five space flights. His experiences also had a big impact on his life. “Outer space is addictive. There’s a great sense of calm up there and it really humbles you. It was a real honor for me to be part of these crews.” Even though being an astronaut comes with many occupational hazards, Rominger is proud to be part of the history of space exploration and to have taken part in the first manned mission to the Moon. “The Moon landing changed the world as we knew it. I always believed that if you’re offered an opportunity like this, to fly up there, then you take it.” 

Rominger on the flight deck getting ready to prepare for rendezvous with a satellite that was deployed and getting ready to retrieve for return to earth. Source: NASA

Two men and outer space 

Ewald and Rominger both went down in space history, each with their own unique skills. Talking to them makes one thing clear: astronauts aren’t daredevils but actually very level-headed people. Their job demands a high level of skill and knowledge, not just a thirst for adventure. They also have to accept that all their years of training might amount to nothing, i.e. they may never get the chance to go up into space. “That’s something you have to accept,” says Ewald plainly, who himself served as a back-up after his first training. Just like with the Moon landing, ZEISS camera lenses were taken along for the missions that Ewald and Rominger took part in.  

The basics 

People’s perceptions of what it means to be an astronaut have changed quite a lot. On board the Apollo rockets were computers much less powerful than a modern cell phone. Space technology has improved a great deal, and the same can be said of the spacesuits. The first Apollo spacesuit was like a small spaceship. It protected the astronaut against the heat and cold, and against UV radiation. The life support system that the astronauts carried on their backs conditioned the air for breathing. Without the suits, the astronauts would have fallen unconscious within seconds. Spacesuits also feature a mechanism in the helmet that allows the astronauts to drink during their spacewalk. The helmet’s visor is gold-plated to protect the eyes against glare, and the gloves are heated. Nozzles have been built into their rucksacks that will allow the astronauts to float through space in the event that both safety tethers are ripped off after they exit the space station and they need to find another way to return. 

Reinhold Ewald spent a long time preparing for his trip to the MIR space station: “I moved to Russia with my family for two years, where I learned the language and acquired skills like diving. After all, moving underwater is similar to the way we move in zero gravity.” Kent Rominger also spent a tremendous amount of time training before he was allowed to command the space shuttle. He still recalls the hours upon hours he had to spend in jets and in the flight simulator.  

Commander Romiger on STS-96 preparing for the rendezvous with ISS. Source: NASA

A strict training regimen 

At the EAC in Cologne, astronauts train just as hard piloting a space craft as performing complicated science experiments. It’s both a mental and a physical challenge. Once they’ve made it through the initial selection, competition among rookie astronauts is ever present. The training is split into three stages: first comes basic training, where the recruits learn all about the space agencies contributions to the ISS, as well as about aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, Russian language, and various sciences. Of course, they also find out about the ISS itself and about rockets and spaceships. In the second stage they learn how to operate and maintain the ISS; their days are filled with new information on everything from robotics to navigation. Mission-specific training focuses on the particular aims of each voyage, including the experimental program 

“In the centrifuge, a person weighing 80 kiloponds is pushed downwards with a force of 400 kiloponds,” says Reinhold Ewald explaining the space station’s replica modules. At the time, he flew up and down to the MIR on Soyuz spacecraft. He would have liked to be picked up again by the shuttle, but plans changed. Even survival training in Russia is a must to everyone who travels to the ISS on the Soyuz capsule. That’s because if they’re not immediately found after a winter landing, they have to know what they can eat and how to survive in the harsh climate. Since the space shuttles were decommissioned, the Soyuz is currently the sole means of transporting humans to the station. Mission training lasts up to 3.5 years. German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, who recently returned from his second mission even became commander of the ISS. 

Trip into outer space 

Kent Rominger tells us something about his trips into space that you hear many astronauts say: “There’s nothing more moving than looking at the Earth from so high up.” His job was to safely take the astronauts and the payload into space – and bring the spacecraft back down to Earth. As a pilot, Rominger, like Reinhold Ewald, never had the chance to step outside the space shuttle and so he never experienced a spacewalk. When it came to taking photos, the space shuttle crew used a medium format camera fitted with ZEISS lenses. “We took thousands of photos in space as part of the mission, and also took some for ourselves as souvenirs from our trip. These photos are a way of sharing your experience with others,” says Rominger. He even took a photography course in preparation for the mission. 

Rominger in the Colorado State University sweatshirt to honor his university. In the back you can see the earth’s horizon through the flight deck windows. © Courtesy of Kent Rominger’s private collection

Reinhold Ewald tells us about the time he spent on the MIR and how the team quickly became a close-knit family. “This means people from different political cultures got to know each other very well and even have become friends, an unlikely event down on Earth. We’re all humans up there!” On the MIR, Ewald conducted science experiments on metabolic changes in zero gravity and looked at aspects like how the body stores sodium in a hitherto unknown way and how sodium affects bone loss. His experiments were so important that they triggered intensive research into this topic. During his mission, a lot of ZEISS equipment was on board, primarily camera lenses used for documenting the research and the photos for his private collection. 

Ewald’s science mission was at stake when a fire broke out in a module on the MIR after an oxygen cartridge exploded. Within seconds and in a thick cloud of smoke, the astronauts had to put on face masks, extinguish the fire, and decide whether or not to evacuate the space station. In the end they decided to stay but spent a night to thoroughly clean the MIR and the ventilation system. “I was more frustrated not to be able to finish my experiments than afraid.” An astronaut, being forced to abort a mission ahead of time feels like a farmer having to destroy their crops. To this day, Ewald and his Russian fellow astronauts celebrate the anniversary of the fire by sending text messages to mark this “second birthday.”  

Coming home and looking to the future 

Those who return from a journey into space may experience a feeling that’s somewhere between euphoria and depression. Most astronauts would have liked to have spent more time up there, but are happy to be reunited with their friends and relatives. “My daughter asked me what the Earth looks like from space, and if I’d take her up with me the next time,” says a now-retired Rominger. Reinhold Ewald adds: “My wife always supported me. After all, it’s not like you can be a part-time astronaut. We all grew up in the tradition of the first Moon landing.” These days, Ewald is a professor of Astronautics and Space Stations at the Institute of Space Systems at the University of Stuttgart. 

The not-so-far future of space travel may even see the first human mission to Mars. The ISS and the Moon are still attractive destinations on this way. The space station will remain in operation until 2024; what happens to it after that and what the future holds is written in the stars.  

Politicians and scientists alike are considering a return to the Moon; the plan is for people to stay longer and set up a scientific base there. There is also talk of building a Moon hotel for wealthy outer space tourists. The first Moon landing over 50 years ago got the ball rolling on all of this – people just can’t get enough! 

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