100% ready

Serena, Sergei and Alex in front of their Soyuz capsule. Credits: Roscosmos

Horizons liftoff. Credits: ESA–S. Corvaja

Horizons liftoff. Credits: ESA–S. Corvaja

It is starting to get real: Serena, Sergei and I will squeeze into the cockpit of our Soyuz capsule at the top of a 50-m rocket and blast off into space with a thrust equivalent to around 26 million horsepower. We will fly upwards to the sky, and beyond, for eight minutes and 48 seconds with the energy of five nuclear power plants behind us propelling us forward. Awesome!

We have been preparing for this for a long time: over 6000 hours of training are now behind each of us, many of which we completed together. I learned how to manually fly a space ship. In International Space Station and Soyuz simulators we practised hundreds of emergency scenarios. For example, we learned how to react if a fire breaks out, if the Space Station springs a leak or if toxic gases escape. We also learned how to stitch wounds, organise food supplies and handle the many complex Space Station equipment and procedures.

Emergency fire training at NASA's Johnson Space Center, USA. Credist: ESA–S. Corvaja

Emergency fire training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, USA. Credist: ESA–S. Corvaja

Thanks to my experience from the Blue Dot mission, many exercises were repeat procedures. On the other hand I now have to fly as a co-pilot of the Soyuz, and I have to take on even more responsibility in the second part of the Horizons mission as the Space Station Commander: I had to keep an overview of the whole team’s training, plan the logistics on the Station, assign crew tasks and ensure good communication with ground control. This is important to keep good spirits and avoid an “us up here” versus a “those down there” attitude. One thing that helps is to organise a barbecue before launch: getting to know each other socially allows you to talk more openly during the mission and offers a better understanding of your colleagues.

On board I will have to make sure that everything goes well. That does not mean that I will boss everybody about and constantly give commands. On the contrary, my colleagues know very well what to do on the Space Station on a daily basis. We have studied in detail together with the trainers, how to best distribute tasks according to the strengths and weaknesses of the team. I try to lead by example, motivation and consensus, ensuring a good mood, supporting the crew, and help them alleviate their schedule if I can – and of course I will be doing the same amount of daily tasks as my crew members.

Alexander Gerst and Steve Swanson training with the Space Station's robotic arm during their mission in 2014. Credits: ESA/NASA

Alexander Gerst and Steve Swanson training with the Space Station’s robotic arm during their mission in 2014. Credits: ESA/NASA

The commander of my Blue Dot mission, Steve Swanson, had such a relaxed way of dealing with us that at first I thought: he is not leading us at all. But after a while I noticed how much he was coordinating with mission control in the background so that we were all doing fine, he was constantly looking out for us. He never bragged about it, an impressive quality that I aim to adopt during the Horizons mission.

This includes using humour in everyday life in order to stay calm in a difficult situation. But if there are serious situations like emergencies, then we must switch to a different mode and communicate clearly. There is no room for jokes and long discussions in these situations.

At the beginning of our training it was not easy to cope with this new responsibility. But I have grown into it and I have learned time and again that decisions are often not one hundred percent perfect: when things happen fast, or when you are in a tricky situation, many complex problems need to be solved at the same time. Getting it 70 or 80 percent right is often enough to defuse the situation at hand.

Expedition 56. Credits: NASA–V. Zelentsov

Expedition 56. Credits: NASA–V. Zelentsov

At an event in Berlin I once met US President Barack Obama and asked him how he came to terms with the fact that his decisions typically cannot please everybody. He answered that it was easier to do if he told himself that the decisions he had to take would not have ended up on his desk if they were easy ones. By definition, therefore, he mainly took decisions to problems that no one else knew how to solve, and for which there was no clear solution.

That is how it sometimes is for us astronauts, too, and I find that quite reassuring: in such a situation, you do not have to do everything 100 percent correctly – because there is no such solution. It is a balancing act, and knowing that makes every decision easier. The most important thing in a spaceship and on the International Space Station is to take the decision. Because if you do nothing, in space during a serious emergency, you die. That much is certain.

That is why we prepare ourselves so intensively for these situations, going through all kinds of emergency scenarios over and over again – until we master them in even our sleep.

Now we are ready: 100 percent.

Let’s go!

Credits: NASA–V. Zelentsov

Credits: NASA–V. Zelentsov



  • Stephanie Plum says:

    Vielen Dank, dass du uns so echt und nah an allem teilhaben lässt. Großartig! Gute Reise! :-)

  • Birgit says:

    Einen Guten Start wünsche ich Dir und Deinen Kollegen sowie ein gutes Miteinander oben und unten und immer eine “Handbreit Wasser Wasser unter Kiel”.
    Viele Grüsse aus Heidelberg!

  • Uli says:

    Viel Glück und Erfolg!!

  • Monika Kalle says:

    toi toi toi!!! Auch ich bin bei Euch. ALLES GUTE!!! glg mk

  • Rainer Kobienia says:

    Lieber Alexander Gerst,
    ich wünsche Ihnen, Ihrem Team und Ihrer Mission von Herzen alles Gute. Ich habe Sie einmal in einem Inteview über eine halbe Stunde lang hören dürfen und war tief beeindruckt von Ihrer “Komplettheit”. Ich kann es nicht anders beschreiben. Selten habe ich jemanden gehört der so gesettled war. Sie sind zu meinem Vorbild aufgestiegen.
    Ich stehe jetzt 1 Jahr von meinem Ruhestand also ist ein relativ grosser Altersunterschied zwischen uns, umsomehr haben Sie mich beeindruckt.
    Alles alles Gute und ich hoffe die 80% korrekten Entscheidungen die Sie treffen, werden immer ausreichen.
    Rainer Kobienia

  • Werner Labuhn says:

    Zu den Entscheidungen als Kommandant.
    Bei uns in der Turnhalle des HvK-Gymnasiums in Bochum stand gross der Spruch an der Stirnwand: “Nicht auf das Beste, sondern auf dein Bestes kommt es an” (Ernst Moritz Arndt 1769-1860) Ich bin kein Anhaenger Arndts, aber der Spruch hat fuer mich nach wie vor Gueltigkeit. Erst die Schwaechen machen den Menschen zum Menschen.
    Und auf der 1.Etage zu den Klassenraeumen stand auch gross an der Wand: “per apera ad astra”. (Seneca / Heinrich von Kleist erwähnt in seinem Drama Prinz Friedrich von Homburg oder die Schlacht bei Fehrbellin diesen Spruch. Auch dieser Spruch unseres Heinrich von Kleist Gymnasiums hat mich waehrend meines gesamten Lebens begleitet. Das fiel mir auch spontan beim Lesen des Artikels ein. Dazu gehoert auch mein selbstgewaehltes Leitmotiv:
    “Gegen das Fehlschlagen eines Plans gibt es keinen besseren Trost, als auf der Stelle einen neuen zu machen”
    Jean Paul (dt. Dichter, Publizist und Pädagoge 1763 – 1825)
    So schliesst sich der Kreis, und meine Gedanken wandern weit weg, fast ins Mystische. Ich besuche auch das Bochumer Planetarium, spez. zu Musikveranstaltungen, klassische Musik, Pink Floyd usw. unter dem Sternenhimmel. Vielleicht hoere ich dort auch irgendwann etwas aus der Zusammenstellung von A. Gerst?!
    Mit den besten Gruessen und Wuenschen aus Gummersbach fuer das Gelingen der Mission von A bis Z. Das schliesst natuerlich die gesunde Rueckkehr der Beteiligten mit ein.
    Werner Labuhn

  • Nicole says:

    Hallo Alex, sehr inspirierender Beitrag hinsichtlich Perfektionismus und Teambuilding. Danke! Viel Spass und alles Gute. Nicole

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.