Dreaming in these turbulent times indeed requires courage, but immense dauntlessness and valor are needed once those dreams are fulfilled. We have the great fortune to be alive at a time when technological advances in combination with ambitious vision have just made a daring project possible; it's called the Blue Dot mission. On May 28th at 19:56 GMT three "opportunity manufacturers", ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, NASA astronaut Gregory Reid Wiseman and cosmonaut* Maxim Surayev escaped gravity and launched to the International Space Station with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Although space exploration is thought of as investing in all the welter of science-fiction developments that would tax the imagination of a modern Jules Verne, the Blue Dot mission brings into reality experimental research in the fields of human pathology, biomedicine, material physics, meteorology and many more with impactful outcomes in our terrestrial everyday lives.
[Top]The moment Alexander Gerst and Reid Wiseman leave the Soyuz Capsule to enter the International Space Station (Photo credit: Oley Artemyev). [Bottom]Alex, Maxim and Reid posing under the mosaic "Рыбачок" or "Fisherman" in Baikonur that is depicted on their mission patch (inspired by Cepheus, who was a King in Greek mythology and banished to the skies to become a constellation).
To date, over 530 people have been to space with the overall space budget escalating to approximately £480 Billion, while back on earth the unconditional war against poverty cannot confront the devastating statistics of 21,000 children deaths every day worldwide. Humanity is lost in between deep space and deep poverty making it imperative to unceasingly strengthen our space research efforts while we strengthen the safety net programs to prevent even more families from falling through the cracks. Since the dawn of space exploration in 1958, a fraction of the public has been frankly skeptical of it, another thoughtfully devout and the vast majority uncritically thoughtless and apathetic. The minority of space enthusiasts would acknowledge the financial benefits and ethical rewards of space research that have been translated into tangible technologies in our everyday lives. It is easier to attach a monetary value to technological achievements than to the fundamental quest for an understanding of life, but without sense of curiosity and wonder many of our triumphs would be lost. We are only subliminally aware of the technologies derived from the scientific exploration of the universe that are bridging the gap between the modern societies and the third world countries. From the artificial limbs and prosthetics, the ventricular assist devices for heart transplantations, the light-emitting diodes for cancer therapy to enriched baby food formulas, sustainable agricultural systems and inexpensive water purification filters, space exploration has taken a big leap to unite the economic elite with the poverty-stricken population of the world through disruptive technologies. The expansion of the human horizon from a small fraction of the surface of the Earth to the forty-six billion light year radius of the visible universe can open our eyes into adopting innovation and put space exploration into the forefront of research in order to manufacture opportunities and solutions that address the grand challenges of our civilization.
[Left] ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, participates in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article (SSATA) of the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. (Credit: James Blair/NASA) [Right] Alex leaving for his Boy Scout trip at age 15 (Photo credit: http://blogs.esa.int/alexander-gerst)
Our astronauts through their work extend a helping hand to the other living creatures on this Spaceship Earth. ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, a geophysicist and volcanologist by profession, always had the confidence to take the road less traveled, by conducting research in Antarctica, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Guatemala and now at the International Space Station. But apart from Alex's intellectual abilities and passion for science, he has also an increased sense of responsibility for his role as an astronaut by performing scientific research 400 km above earth with the hope to translate it into meaningful technologies and potentially therapies for everyone on earth. Being in the privileged position to work closely with a charismatic scientist like Alex, I am not only in awe of his ingenuity and his innate sense of curiosity but also of his extraordinary personality. Although Alex is currently floating in space, he is truly so down to earth, always extremely polite, sharing his smile to everyone -no matter how late his training lasts at the mockups of the ISS modules- and always very humble about his work and yet very approachable by his ever growing fan base. I knew that Alex was in a class of his own before I met him to prepare the biomedical experiments for his mission, but his determination to succeed is also profound by the long hours of preparation that he has put in his training the past 5 years (he would always be the first to show up at every astronaut class and the last to leave the office!).
ESA Astronaut Alexander Gerst and Eleni Antoniadou at the Astronaut Center.
"We must be scientists,janitors, drivers, cleaners, doctors, fire fighters, engineers and guinea pigs. The path to the stars is a bumpy road." Alexander Gerst
Equally intellectually brilliant and impossible to dislike is Alex's crew-mate, Gregory Reid Wiseman. During his goodbye dinner with the astronaut division, Reid quickly disowned the appellation "intellectually brilliant", he smiled at me and said "I'm just a test pilot who loves space and try to do my job the best way I can". NASA astronaut Reid has a very authentic personality; on top of his razor-sharp mind, he's enlightening knowledgeable and devastatingly funny. He is a very inspirational speaker but also loves to plant ambushes in his discussions. I recall him being greatly amused, every time he would be questioned about everyday activities in space (e.g. how do you shower in space? Do you float when you sleep?) and he would invent the most entertaining ways to explain in a simplified manner the scientific facts behind them.
[Left] NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman (Photo credit: NASA), [Right] Reid Wiseman gestures with his daughter from a bus Wednesday before his launch to space (Photo credit: Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)
Alex Gerst and Reid Wiseman deserve warm gratitude because through their courage they showed us that we can manufacture opportunities for everyone, but prior to achieving that, we need to invest on innovation and reinvent ambition. Good luck Blue Dot mission and come back safe and sound!
* A person trained by a human spaceflight program to command, pilot, or serve as a crew member of a spacecraft can be referred to as astronaut (Europe& US), cosmonaut (Russia) or taikonaut (China) derived from the Greek words 'astro' (star), '-naut' suffix (sailor), 'cosmos' (universe) and the Chinese word 'taikong' for space respectively.