Some eight months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon, Matthias Maurer was born in the town of St. Wendel in northeastern Saarland. Now, almost half a century later, the graduate with a PhD in materials science has completed his basic training and is currently preparing for upcoming missions. Maurer will discuss the future of space travel on the occasion of the Federal Mathematics Competition awards ceremony to be held at HDI in Cologne. In the interview he tells us beforehand what mathematics has to do with space travel.
The first ISS expedition ended on 21 March 2001, almost 18 years ago. Could you ever have imagined back then that you would yourself become an ESA astronaut?
No. In 2001 the "dream job" of astronaut was still a long way off, and I would probably have laughed out loud if anyone back then had predicted I would one day fly into space myself.
What are the basic requirements for anyone who'd like to become an astronaut?
A degree in medicine, engineering or the natural sciences as well as good health, team skills and the desire to learn foreign languages. And most of all: you have to be really crazy about space travel!
As part of the selection process you had to solve math problems. How important is mathematics if you want to become an astronaut?
Space travel has a great deal to do with technology, and all technical professions require good or very good math skills. That's why mathematics and physics were important components of the test and selection process. As an astronaut, I need math skills on a daily basis – whether it's for calculating the orbit around the Earth or my remaining reserve of breathable air when I am working in open space. Needless to say, though, there are also computers to help me.
What was the biggest challenge for you in your astronaut training?
Learning Russian and Chinese. Neither of them are easy languages.
Now you are a fully qualified ESA astronaut. When do you expect to make your first trip into space?
I am hoping to go on a flight from 2021 onwards.
What are you most looking forward to on your first flight?
The wonderful view looking back at the Earth, seeing the panorama of our planet as a blue globe against the jet-black emptiness of the universe while orbiting the Earth in zero gravity every ninety minutes.
Life as an astronaut can't always be easy. What are the downsides?
A lot of international travel: the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Europe. Plus numerous public appearances and talks. Your personal life often ends up getting the short straw.
Space is very limited on the ISS. What personal items will you take with you when you go?
That's something I still have to think about. The most I'm allowed to pack is 1.5 kg.
If you had the choice between flying to the space station, to the moon or at some point to Mars, what would you prefer?
I hope that in addition to visiting a near-Earth space station (such as the ISS) I will also subsequently have the chance to go to the moon. The trip to Mars is for the next generation of astronauts. There is a lot of technology that we don't yet have and still needs to be developed for a journey as long as that.