LEGO robots and the Moon as a dream destination
ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer visits OHB’s partner school and tells students about space exploration and the training he has to undergo before his first flight
OHB has been cooperating with the Ökumenisches Gymnasium (ÖG) in Bremen-Oberneuland since 2018. The school offers a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) profile as part of which students of the school are able to attend an aerospace/aeronautics course. OHB sees this as an opportunity for nurturing young talent and is supporting this profile by providing teachers from its own ranks. Starting in the current school year, space engineers will be providing physics lessons on a regular basis. On May 7, 2019, OHB brought ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer to the school so that he could tell the students first-hand about the fascination of space.
Things are whirring and clicking on the teacher’s desk, the students are craning their necks to see. The LEGO robot is heading straight for the wall. Shortly before it collides with it, the front distance sensors sound an alarm. The robot stops and retreats in a semicircle motion, before progressing forward again. This time it’s heading for the edge of the table. Yet, before a crash occurs, a hand is held in front of one of the lateral sensors. The robot immediately retreats in the opposite direction.
This is no ordinary lesson at the ÖG. Instead of the physics teacher Dr. Rolf Gerding, Ullrich Uffelmann and Hartmut Claus, two space engineers from OHB, are standing at the teacher’s desk, explaining that it will not be possible for the robots that will be used on distant planets to be remote-controlled from the Earth as it will take too long for the signal to reach them. Mars already counts as a distant planet in this respect, given that a signal from the Earth takes between 3 and 22 minutes to reach the planet. This is a delay in which a robot can get stuck in loose rock or fall into a hole. Consequently, robots must be able to operate autonomously on other planets. The dual-course university students being supervised by Uffelmann and Claus show what sensors are needed and how the robots are programmed. They study computer science at Bremen University of Applied Sciences and are completing the practical part of their degree at OHB as IT specialists specializing in application development. The LEGO robots were built and programmed as part of a student research project.
The almost 40 students from the STEM profile attending the classes can readily appreciate the problems that technical systems face on other planets. Many of the tenth-year school students among them have chosen to specialize in aerospace/aeronautics, which the ÖG is offering together with OHB. These students have an additional hour of physics per week in which OHB engineers, among others, teach them the basics of aviation and space flight.
Star guest in blue overalls
Another guest is sitting among the students. He also knows a thing or two about space exploration. However, unlike the OHB engineers, he is not planning to send any technical systems into space. Rather, he intends to fly there himself.
For Matthias Maurer is an astronaut. This easy to see from his dark-blue ESA overalls. With a concentrated expression on his face, he sits in the second row, listening to the engineers’ presentation and observing the students’ LEGO robots. Even when one of the students flounders out of nervousness and some of the students start rolling their eyes, he remains attentive. Maurer is a down-to-earth type of person despite the fact that he has every reason to look down on others. After all, he holds a doctorate in materials science and has received several research awards for his doctoral thesis. His research has resulted in more than ten patented applications. He studied in four European countries, gained practical experience in South America and made a trip around the world after graduating. He speaks five languages fluently and is currently learning Russian and Chinese.
Yet, he hasn’t let any of this go to his head. And he literally won’t be looking down on others until he flies to space and this is planned for 2020 at the earliest.
Reaching goals in roundabout ways
Maurer became an astronaut in a roundabout way despite his brilliant scientific career. In 2008, ESA was looking for six new astronauts. Maurer, who was working as a project engineer in medical technology at the time, applied alongside almost 8,500 other candidates from Europe. Maurer prevailed, ranking among the top 800 and then even among the top10 candidates. He was getting his hopes up only to be disappointed when he learned that he had not been selected. As a consolation prize, however, he was offered a position in crew support on the ground. The other three applicants who were eliminated in the final round were also offered this opportunity. They respectfully declined but Maurer accepted. Up until 2015, Maurer worked for ESA in this and other positions. Among other things, he supported his former rival Alexander Gerst from the ground during the latter’s first ISS mission.
Then his own astronaut career took off. “Matthias, you once wanted to be an astronaut,” ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain asked him, prefacing his next decisive question. “Do you still want to?”
You bet he does! This casual question is followed by a formal interview. Then a decision is made: Maurer can embark on three-year basic astronaut training. When asked why Maurer was chosen, Dordain’s successor, ESA Director General Jan Wörner, answers succinctly: “Because he’s good”.
In 2018 Maurer officially completed his training and was qualified to fly into space. However, he has not yet been allocated to a mission. As soon as this happens, further preparation will be needed: up to two years of mission-specific training have to be completed before he can venture into space.
Matthias, you once wanted to be an astronaut. Do you still want to?
Ambassador for space flight
Until then and among other things, Maurer will be on the road throughout Europe as an ambassador for space flight. And that’s a job he likes. He’s a good speaker, pleasant, witty, enlightening.
The students at the ÖG are also spell-bound by Maurer even after only a few sentences The bell marking the end of the lesson echoes unheard as he tells how a clogged toilet on the ISS revealed that astronauts lose bone mass in weightless conditions and how training plans for the astronauts and medication to prevent osteoporosis have been developed on the basis of this knowledge. In gravity-free conditions, proteins can also be grown into crystals for medical research and stress-resistant plants can be bred for agriculture in extremely dry areas. It is not difficult to see that Mauer is eagerly awaiting his first flight. “I’m looking forward to spending time on board the ISS. I love science. Being able to do experiments there is something very special,” he says. Most astronauts carry out over 100 scientific experiments during their six-month stay on board the ISS.
I’m looking forward to spending time on board the ISS. I love science. Being able to do experiments there is something very special.
The Moon as a dream destination
But Maurer would prefer to fly to the Moon. “My dream destination is the Moon, that’s probably also what all my colleagues would say,” he admits. “But the Moon is also more demanding as it is farther away. That’s why astronauts who have already been on board the ISS will probably be the first to fly to the Moon.” But Maurer is sure that humans will set foot on the Moon again. “If all goes well, this will be in the next few years.”
Returning to the demonstration of the LEGO robots at the beginning of the lesson, Maurer also describes scenarios for possible exploration missions. “Wearing a space suit is like being stuck in an inflated bicycle tube. Moving around in it is extremely exhausting. Other suits must be developed for exploration missions for astronauts on Mars. And we need clever minds for that.” Again and again Maurer alludes to the fact that more and more scientists and engineers will be needed for space travel in the future.
What do you have to do to become an astronaut?
Maurer wants to arouse the young people’s interest and encourages them to ask questions. Immediately, several hands shoot into the air. Why do astronauts fly to space at all? What are the decisive criteria in the astronaut selection process? What aspects of the astronaut training did Maurer find most difficult?
Maurer answers patiently and at length. He talks about the use of the ISS as an experimental platform, its benefits for medicine, biology and materials science.
He explains that to become an astronaut you have to have the right education and several years of professional experience. Test pilots, scientists, engineers and physicians have the best cards. You have to be healthy, but emotional resilience is also important. You should also be able to speak several languages. Definitely English and ideally also Russian and Chinese. Maurer also benefits from the intercultural experiences he made during his trip around the world. After all, you’re crammed into a few square meters of space with your colleagues for several months.
The hardest part of his astronaut training was the winter survival training in Sweden. After 48 hours in the wilderness without a tent or sleeping bag in temperatures of -9 °C, Maurer was glad to be allowed to return to heated rooms. Astronauts must be able to handle extreme situation if, for example, the space capsule does not enter the Earth’s atmosphere as planned and lands at an unexpected location. If it lands in the water, this can also involve warding off sharks. How astronauts do that? By using shark repellent powder that is taken on board the space capsule specifically for such a case.
Since Maurer’s career hasn’t followed a straight line, he gives the students some advice at the end: “If you have a goal, don’t give at the first sign of failure.” He is confident that with the right support the young people who are craning their necks today to watch the LEGO robots will one day build satellites and perhaps even develop a space capsule to take the first astronauts to Mars.