Science & Astronomy
27. May 2014

Tomorrow evening, a new group of astronauts will be launching into space to the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kasachstan. The second part of Expedition 40 will be the American Reid Wiseman, the Russian Maxim Surayev and the German Alexander Gerst – a truly international crew of three countries who may be at odds in the political world, but in space this does not matter at all.

Tomorrow’s Soyuz launch will be at 21:56 CEST or 7:56pm UTC, with the docking scheduled for 04:14 CEST or 02:14am UTC. There is also going to be a special ESA post-launch hangout with Luca Parmitano from the Columbus control center at 22:30 CEST or 10:30pm UTC!

[Update 28.05.: The launch was a success! The three astronauts are in orbit and now have to catch up with the space station. Hopefully they can take the quick route and dock in six hours!]

[Update 29.05.: And they really did it in under six hours! Here are videos from the liftoff, the docking and the hatch opening and welcome ceremony. Now the real work and science begins!]

The mission of Alexander Gerst is, of course, of special interest to us since he is only the third German astronaut to visit the space station after Hans Schlegel and Thomas Reiter and only the second one on a long-term mission – but he is more an European to me in the same group as all other ESA astronauts. I especially love that Gerst has chosen to call his mission Blue Dot after the famous Voyager image and Carl Sagan’s subsequent description of it. I won’t even begin to write about the details of the mission, because today the ESA has uploaded a wonderful 40-page brochure about it, available in both English and German with a lot of information not only about Gerst, but the whole spaceflight experience to the ISS. It’s very well-written and has a lot of amazing photos and graphics, making it very much worth downloading and reading.

Alexander Gerst is also taking a mouse with him to space – an orange plush one, the mascot of the popular German children’s television show Die Sendung mit der Maus. It’s not the first spaceflight of the Maus – it had been on Mir in 1992 when German Astronaut Klaus-Dietrich Flade had taken it on a short visit and even filmed a segment for the program. Alexander Gerst has already appeared in Sunday’s broadcast, which you can still watch in a recording in the ARD Mediathek (in German of course). During his stay in space, he will be answering questions from children on the Maus Website which will probably get read out in the program – there is no word yet if he will be doing video recordings for them or even a live linkup, but maybe something will happen. I love this especially because Die Sendung mit der Maus was a part of my own childhood – the program originally began in 1971 and is older than me!

While he has an official blog on the ESA website, Alexander Gerst is also very active on Twitter as @Astro_Alex, where he has been constantly reporting about his preparations for his first spaceflight and has been posting a lot of photos recently. He is joined by Reid Wiseman at @Astro_Reid and, as I only found out yesterday, by Maksim Surayev at @MSuraev! The cosmonaut just started tweeting again a short while ago and is only posting in Russian – but this should not be a problem with online translation. [Update 31.05.: I keep finding more Russian astronauts on Twitter – Oleg Artemyev, who arrived on the station in March is also tweeting as @OlegMKS!]

The three astronauts of the prime crew have been actively supported by their backups, who will be going to space in November, Samantha Cristoforetti, Anton Shkaplerov and Terry Wirts with both Cristoforetti and Wirts posting many amazing photos from Baikonur on their Twitter streams @AstroSamantha and @AstroTerry. [Update: Shkaplerov is also on Twitter as @AntonAstrey, although he isn’t very active and mostly retweeting from his crewmates.] Cristoforetti is also still actively writing her Logbook on Google+ about her own preparations for her first spaceflght and two weeks ago she did a great ESA Hangout answering questions from all over the world!

If you want to follow all the astronauts on Twitter, I’m still maintaining and updating my Astronaut Twitter List – if you know of any astronauts or cosmonauts I don’t have in there, please don’t hesitate to tell me! With all the great social media involvement, the next year or so is certainly going to be amazing regarding all things spaceflight.

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