Germany – Racing around the world for the last time at around 28,000 kilometers per hour, a farewell look at glittering cities – then Matthias Maurer is over. After nearly six months in space, the German ESA astronaut will return to earth in the next few days, the exact date was initially unclear. A few hours after release from the space station, the “Crew Dragon” capsule will land in the water off the US coast. With the mission, he made a dream come true, says the 52-year-old. And now? “I still have many dreams,” says Maurer. But these dreams are different. “I don’t necessarily have to outdo it in terms of size.”
Behind the Saarlander lies an intense business trip in weightlessness. In the midst of the strongest tensions between the West and Moscow over the war in Ukraine, Maurer conducted research in the “Space WG” with Russians and Americans. From a distance of 400 kilometers he noticed large plumes of smoke as he flew over Ukraine. Tensions also affect the space station itself: Russia recently left the future open for its portion of the flying laboratory for the period after 2024. The US is aiming for a mandate until at least 2030. It is unclear if and when the next German will work there.
Flights to the ISS are not without controversy. Too expensive, too damaging to the environment, too ineffective, critics say. Maurer, the twelfth German in space, doesn’t see it that way. “Above all, I want to inspire children, young people and students to remain curious, to ask questions and say: I can too,” says the astronaut of the European space agency ESA. “If I can do it, my mission for Germany and for humanity has been a great success.”
Other supporters also point out that for the equivalent of two euros per year per German citizen, important experiments have been carried out on the space station on future technologies that would not be possible on earth. And there’s more: international cooperation has been going on at the station for more than 20 years, despite land conflicts. The station is often celebrated in space circles as “the feat of the 21st century” – based on the eponymous spaceship from the cult TV series, on which many nations and cultures work together.
Maurer went to the International Space Station on November 11 with three colleagues from the US space agency NASA. On the outpost of humanity he has been involved in more than 100 experiments, 34 of them from Germany, under the substantial organization of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). And Maurer went out into space for nearly seven hours of work. Mission planning was also a major challenge due to the pandemic.
Maurer was the fourth German on the ISS. His predecessor Alexander Gerst was felt more in the public eye. “Astro-Alex” did just as serious research as Maurer, but at the same time shaved the bald head of an American colleague after losing a bet and humorously dedicated “my next eleven orbits around the world” to German footballers after winning. the 2014 World Cup. Mason is different. At 52, the man with a doctorate in materials science is also the oldest German astronaut on a maiden flight. Furthermore, the war on Earth wasn’t exactly a farce motive in the cosmos.
Maurer looks forward to many things on earth, such as fresh salad. The days before the return are a “moment of sadness”, says German astronaut Reinhold Ewald. “You do everything for the last time aboard the ISS. When you look at the earth you let everything pass in front of you. With this feeling you absorb everything again.” Ewald flew to the Mir space station in a Russian capsule in 1997 and researched there for three weeks.
At the end of his mission, things will go fast for Maurer. After release, the “Crew Dragon” capsule of the US company SpaceX enters the Earth’s atmosphere and is continuously slowed down by the friction of the air. This massive force holds Maurer and three other returnees in their posts until the parachutes further slow the fall and allow for a slight thud, usually off the coast of Florida, but there are other possible landing zones depending on the weather.
On Earth, a strong rescue team helps returnees. “It starts from sunglasses, which have to protect the eyes after months of artificial light, to drinking water because the returnees are exhausted,” says Ewald. Maurer is expected in Cologne the following day. Then, among other things, there are medical visits – and a happy reunion with family, friends and relatives.