This September, space flight engineer Andreas Mogensen is set to become the first Dane in space. His mission involves testing equipment for DTU Space, where he holds an honorary associate professorship.
Even though space flight engineer Andreas Mogensen had always dreamed of becoming an astronaut, it was never his ‘Plan A’. In his own words, it was blind luck. When the European Space Agency (ESA) started seeking aspiring European astronaut cadets again in 2008, following a 17-year break, Andreas was in the perfect place in his career and, indeed, his life. Out of a total of 8,000 applicants, Andreas Mogensen was one of only six Europeans chosen—and the first Dane ever to make the cut.
“It started out as an adventure and a voyage of discovery linked to an age-old dream of becoming a fighter pilot, a test pilot, and an astronaut. Even as a child, I was fascinated by the Apollo astronauts whom we learned about in school. The idea of walking on the moon was just so cool! At the same time, I was captivated by the American film ‘Top Gun’,” relates Andreas Mogensen.
And the boyhood dream came true. For the past six years, he has been based at the ESA astronaut training centre in Cologne, preparing to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) on 1 September. He will be co-pilot on the Soyuz TMA-18M space probe, accompanying the Russian pilot Sergei Volkov and a replacement for the British singer Sarah Brightman who has decided to withdraw from the programme.
Training in water tanks
His preparation involves Russian lessons and special training designed to ready him for the weightless conditions in space. Some of the training takes place at NASA’s Neutral Bouyancy Laboratory (NBL), at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where, in a bulky space suit, Andreas Mogensen spends up to seven hours at a time practising space walks in giant water tanks.
In addition, he has spent six days completing experiments underground in a cave on Sardinia—with only the light from his helmet lamp to guide him. The objective of the training is to teach him how to work effectively with the other astronauts on the space station, even under difficult, unfamiliar, high-stress conditions.
The future space traveller is generally fascinated by all kinds of aircraft and has previously built motorized model aeroplanes. He also received his pilot’s licence during his training with ESA, and currently flies aircraft including a Diamond Star DA-40, using the flying hours to train his multitasking skills and to practise making fast decisions under stress.
“I rarely take a step back for a philosophical analysis of what it will be like to spend time in a weightless universe. At the moment, I’m focusing on the assignments I have to carry out up there, and going over the take-off and landing procedures, which are most critical of all. But I hope I’ll have time to sit by the window and look down on Earth for a while,” says Andreas Mogensen.
Space travel to play a more prominent role
He is facing a tightly packed programme during his ten-day mission in space. His assignments include carrying out experiments and testing equipment—for DTU Space, for example, whose researchers are currently preparing special instruments designed to observe the gigantic lighting discharges and high-energy X-ray radiation above the clouds from the International Space Station on what is known as the ASIM mission.
Andreas Mogensen’s task will be to take pictures of thunder from multiple perspectives. These pictures are then to help DTU Space document and understand the phenomena and their influence on the chemical composition of the atmosphere—and thus to determine whether the giant lightning discharges affect the Earth’s climate.
“Space travel will come to play a bigger and more important role for our society in the future—encompassing everything from understanding climate change to monitoring air and sea traffic, and using satellites for navigation. However, it is also important in finding out more about the origins of the Earth and the universe itself. In this context, Denmark is a global leader in the development of the star cameras that DTU Space supplies for some of ESA’s and NASA’s key missions,” says Andreas Mogensen.
Can grow seven centimetres
In addition to assisting DTU Space, Anders is to test a new communication unit that involves sophisticated 3D visualization and augmented reality functions, which will give the general public the chance to follow the activities on the space station ‘live’. He will also be testing a new generation of monitoring units and sensors designed to monitor the body’s vital functions.
Finally, he is to test a new tight-fitting ‘skin suit’ made of an elastic material that simulates the effects of the Earth’s gravity, helping reduce problems such as muscle loss and decalcification of the bones, which often arise in zero-gravity conditions.
“Some astronauts grow up to seven centimetres when they’re in space because the spinal column relaxes in zero-gravity conditions. This can cause back pain and increase the risk of slipping a disc. It can also cause problems when returning to Earth sitting in the same cockpit seat as we used for the outward flight, because the seats are moulded around plaster casts of our bodies. That’s why I’m going to be testing whether the skin suit can replicate the effects of gravity and stop my spine stretching,” relates Andreas Mogensen.
Lecturer at DTU
In addition to being an astronaut, Andreas Mogensen is also an honorary associate professor at DTU Space, where he gives lectures to the students about his mission.
He recognizes the same delight he experienced as a student, when listening with fascination to talks by the former NASA astronaut Franklin Ramón Chang Díaz, and the engineers who developed robots for Mars missions.
“I’m sure that I can serve as a role model for young people today. This is what inspired me as a child and as a student. It’s always amazing to listen to people talking about the work they do. Especially when it’s something as exciting as space travel and exploration.”