Thursday, 6 November 2014

Köln - The Human Side of Space at DLR & ESA

 I recently visited the beautiful German city of Köln (or Cologne). Sitting on both sides of the River Rhine, Köln has always been on my list of favourite cities in the world. Its unique skyline is a blend of quaint, historical architecture and modern, high-rise buildings  making it a European city definitely worth visiting. 

As well as being a cool city, Köln is also home to the headquarters of the German Space Agency or Deutsches zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) and the European Space Agency's (ESA) European Astronaut Centre (EAC) -  making it that much cooler if you ask me :)

During my time in Cologne, I visited both DLR HQ and the EAC ESA centre. The last time I came here was during the ESA Space Medicine Workshop in 2011 when I was still a Biology student at the University of Birmingham. It was great to return over 3 years later now that I work in the space industry and to see it with new, more knowledgeable eyes. 

I paid a visit to the StABLE Study at DLR in particular. The study aims to investigate the impact of a changing rotational axis upon brain perfusion and fluid shift to the lower extremities. In essence, it is trying to figure out the extent to which the Short-Arm Human Centrifuge (SAHC) can be used as a potential countermeasure to the negative impacts of space on the human body. 

Ranging from muscle and bone loss to fluid shift, the SAHC is proposed as an ideal countermeasure to these space side-effects thanks to its short radius. Yet, the extent to which it may be so is still unknown. I watched subjects being spun for science at DLR  work that will better enable scientists to understand the effects of this centrifuge on the human body, especially when the central point of rotation is altered.

Next up on my space agency tour of Köln was the EAC. Home to all things astronaut — the ESA centre is in fact led by ESA astronaut Frank de Winne. As a powerhouse of human spaceflight, the EAC is where astronauts are selected, trained and provided with medical care & support for themselves as well as their families both before and during their time in space.

The Neutral Buoyancy Facility at the EAC is used to simulate weightlessness during astronaut training. It is a great way for astronauts to practice spacewalking and although you can still feel the pull of gravity whilst underwater, it is the closest you can get to microgravity on Earth.

 I also pretended to be Commander of the Soyuz spacecraft - the vehicle that carries astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Developed for the Soviet Space Program in the 1960s, it is still in use today!

My friend Antonio Fortunato works in the position of EUROCOM - or European Spacecraft Communicator. Here, he relays information to the International Space Station from the Columbus Flight Control Team in Munich. When I was there, the station was threatened by a piece of debris - a problem that is unfortunately ever increasing. Teams on Earth worked hard to ensure that the space station successfully dodged the debris - using the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) to conduct a debris avoidance maneuver - boosting the station to a higher orbit. Science: 1, Real-life Gravity movie: 0 

Another example of the work conducted by people on Earth for life in space is demonstrated by my friend Romain Charles (pictured above). He spent 520 days in crew isolation from 2010-2011 as part of the first simulation of a manned mission to Mars and back. Named Mars 500 - the psychological experiment kept the crew of 6 locked in their spacecraft as they simulated a return trip to the Red Planet. An incredible achievement!

As a key player in European space activities, Germany definitely is the place to be to learn more about human spaceflight. My trip to DLR and the EAC was a unique insight into the process, people and research involved with putting a human in orbit around Earth. The human side of space is very much present in Germany and I believe that such work is not only important, but vital to advancing as a species together - here on Earth and beyond.



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