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How does Earth look from space? 'Like one big spaceship' - astronaut Matthias Maurer on Radio Davos 

space - Matthias Maurer on board the International Space Station

Matthias Maurer spoke at the Davos Agenda from the International Space Station. Image: NASA

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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Astronaut Matthias Maurer joined a Davos Agenda session live from space.
  • He is researching areas such as virus transmission, bone and muscle health and AI.
  • The view from space has made him care even more about protecting Earth.
Have you read?

What's it like to be in space? And what do astronauts do as they whizz around the world every 90 minutes in the International Space Station?

Astronaut Matthias Maurer joined - live from the ISS, 250 miles above Earth - a session at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda event and gave us a fascinating insight.

You can watch the whole session here.

Live from Space

This is a transcript of the Matthias's interview with New York Times Deputy Managing Editor Rebecca Blumenstein, introduced by European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Josef Aschbacher.

Josef Aschbacher: The space station right now is somewhere over the Pacific. It's somewhere halfway towards Latin America, which will be the next landmass it will hit. I just heard some sound, I think we are connected to Houston.

Matthias Maurer: Josef, European Space Agency Director-General in Davos, I can hear you loud and clear. This is Matthias Maurer, astronaut on the space station. How do you read me?

Josef Aschbacher: Very good. Hello, Matthias. How are you doing? And where are you? And what have you been doing?

Matthias Maurer: Yes, I'm doing fine, I'm doing well. And this morning I was actually involved in a lot of cargo operations: we filled our vehicle that we send back. Actually, I think 'cargo' is the wrong term. I should say it's our 'harvest' vehicle because it's full of scientific experiments' results. We worked hard in the last weeks and months and now we bring this harvest back to our planet Earth for the scientists to analyse all these samples that we have produced up here in space and to produce science and knowledge for humanity out of it. And right after my cargo activities, I also did some sports and that's probably why you see me clean and in good shape now because I just had my wet towel shower.

Josef Aschbacher: Fantastic Matthias. So, as you know, we are connected through the World Economic Forum's virtual space session and I would like to hand over to Rebecca Blumenstein, the New York Times Deputy Managing Editor. Rebecca, over to you.

Rebecca Blumenstein: Thank you Joseph and hello Mathias, it's so good to see you.

Matthias Maurer: Hello, Rebecca. It's wonderful having the opportunity to talk to you from space and hopefully to have a very nice exchange about a very important topic.

Rebecca Blumenstein: I must say we were debating whether we should say "good day," "good evening," "good night," because you orbit the earth every 90 minutes, it's a bit of a real time call.

But I'd love to start out by asking how have your views of the planet changed since you have been aboard the International Space Station?


Matthias Maurer: You're right, we circle our planet every 90 minutes, 16 times a day. And we work according to UK time – Greenwich Mean Time.

I travelled the planet once before, it was a round-the-world trip, and that was always my big dream. Seeing the world changed my life and it gave me a lot of different attitudes like how we should work with our planet and the people on our planet.

But now being in space, and especially this morning when I did my sports activity, and while doing sports I could look out of the window and I see down there our planet gliding by. I saw Latin America, South America, gliding by, a few minutes later, less than 10 minutes, we were over Africa and it crossed my mind that Christopher Columbus took this journey, just in the opposite direction, 500 years ago.

For him, it was a really tough adventure and he had his three ships and his crew and everyone needed to work hard to make this one challenge possible. And nowadays, I look at this from space down there, and for me, from space, our planet Earth is like one big spaceship. And I think the tribulation, the crew of our spaceship Earth is like the crew of the ship of Christopher Columbus at that time. We all need to work together in order to meet the challenges of our day, like climate change, for example. So, I've been here in space and I've fallen in love with our planet even more than before.

Rebecca Blumenstein: How does the work that you do help the environment and what would you say to some people who say we're focussing a bit too much on space and not enough on the Earth?

Matthias Maurer: Yes, I think space cannot be the only solution for climate change, but space is definitely a very, very important aspect. And I see three different layers to it.

For example, we have the personal layer: every individual needs to contribute, and space is a big motivator. When I talk to kids, I can motivate them and I can describe what I see.

And we also have the technological layer, for example we need to improve our technology to create less CO2, to have more efficient machinery, more efficient transport. And here on the space station, we do a lot of research to produce these new and innovative materials.

And there's also the political level. And I think you are there today, on a political level discussing such problems. I think, you, the political decision-makers, need to have the data. And the data comes from satellites and it also comes from the science that we do in space.

For example, we look at the Earth with the satellite data that we provide to you, but we also prepare exploration. And exploring space means also looking at different planets like planet Mars, for example, which used to have an atmosphere and a lot of water but now the water is gone. So, obviously there was an extreme climate change over there. And so space can bring in a lot of knowledge and feed all this information into the decision-makers so that you can take the right decisions.


Rebecca Blumenstein: Vice President [Al] Gore is on our panel and he played an instrumental role in creating the International Space Station. Could you please talk about what cutting edge research you're doing? You mentioned your cargo work before but what is your goal for this week or month up there?

Matthias Maurer: I've been working here six months in space, and I would say [there will be] between 100 and 150 experiments I will be participating in. And it's a large spectrum. For example, it involves a lot of life sciences. You all know about humans in space and zero gravity – that it [causes] a lot of changes in the muscles and the bones dissolve and get weaker. And much faster than on planet Earth. So actually, the loss of bone mass happens up to 30 times faster than on the ground. And so, astronauts are kind of guinea pigs we can study in a very controlled environment in a very fast way – very fast progress - how to fight such diseases.

It can be done by nutrition, by medication but also by doing sports. I have a very interesting experiment, which is called myotomes. In this experiment, I can measure the strength of several muscles in my body. And then we feed this information back to the scientists who will then prescribe us countermeasures - for example, I have a suit that provides me small electroshocks, and it also comes from rehabilitation. This all will feed back and help elderly people who have problems with their body, like muscle problems, bone problems, to remain [for a] longer time fit and healthy. Or once they are in hospital, maybe, to get out quicker from the hospital.

Here in space, with space radiation, the mutation rate of bacteria or microbes is faster. So the scientists will learn a lot about how these new surfaces behave here in space, in this controlled environment.

But I also have very interesting experiments that are correlated to the pandemic, for example, the corona pandemic. We all know transmission of diseases is a very important topic, and I have here new metals, new alloys that I brought to space that I modified on the surface and that kill bacteria Here in space with the space radiation, the mutation rate of bacteria or microbes is faster. So the scientists will learn a lot about how these new surfaces behave here in space, in this controlled environment. They can analyse it and hopefully, we can transfer this knowledge into everyday life, for example, in hospitals with surfaces that everyone touches. Like a surface that is prone to transmit these microbes from one infected person to the next healthy person and infect him; we can stop this chain and cut this chain. So it's very important.

Then we have CIMON, which is artificial intelligence. Once we fly further away from the Earth, I will not have my Houston ground control team, or in Munich, the European ground control team, who look over my shoulders and step in if I make a small error or if I have a question. So artificial intelligence is really important for exploration in space but also on the ground, it's very important also to increase efficiency in all ways of transport, also space transport management.


Then we have experiments that are also related to reduction of CO2. We have concrete hardening. A very interesting experiment that looks into a seemingly very old material, concrete, which we have everywhere around us, but not in space, usually. But during the production of concrete, we produce a lot of CO2. And so if we can improve this process by a better understanding of the process, we can actually cut down the CO2 emissions, and that will be very significant.

I'm running, chained down to this machine that puts me with a certain force on there. The force is almost like the gravity force on Mars. So, I'm always having my Mars jog here on the space station.

Rebecca Blumenstein: You sound very busy. I would love to hear your views about space tourism, do you think it's a good idea for more people to have the experience you're having now? And I would also love to know what do you do for sport up there?

Matthias Maurer: We're not playing football here for sports. But we have three different devices. One is like running, it's like a treadmill. So, I'm running, but actually, I'm chained down to this machine that puts me with a certain force on there. And so the force that I have here is almost like the gravity force on Mars. So, I'm always having my Mars jog here on the space station.

And then we also have a bicycle – a bicycle without a saddle because we don't sit, we just float. And we do a lot of the work just with the legs, like pulling and pushing. That's for cardio activity.

But then we also need to do sports that tells a lie to our body - telling 'you need your bones and you need your muscles'. So we need to do weightlifting. And obviously, in zero gravity, you don't lift any weight but we push against a pressure that has the same effect [as] weightlifting on the ground. And that is very, very important. Since we have this new machine, the health status of astronauts in space has become much, much better. And the other question, remind me again?

Rebecca Blumenstein: Space tourism, do you think it's a good idea for more people to have the experience of looking at the Earth the way that you get to every day?

Matthias Maurer: Yes, obviously, space tourism is like a two-sided knife. It has one positive side: the more people fly to space, the more ambassadors we have that hopefully come back to our beautiful planet Earth and say, "we need to take care of our planet, we need to reduce the emissions."

We also need to stop everything that I see here from space and that makes my heart bleed, like the burning rainforest. Or the melting of the glaciers. All these phenomena, we can see here from space, also the flooding last week in Brazil that we could observe here from space, that are clearly evident. And I think everyone who has spent only a few days in space will become a really avid ambassador for our planet Earth and to protect it in the future.

On the other hand, the more people we fly up here, the more rocket launches we will also have. So, we create waste and space debris. And here, that's a very important topic because on our planet Earth we ignored for way too long - the open seas, the oceans that don't belong to any country are still important, so we shouldn't put our oil there or our garbage there, because in the end it will end up in the food chain and we had to learn this.


And the same happens now here in space. We fly to space, already have been flying to space for five or six decades, and now we see that every time we launch a vehicle to space, we leave space debris and that piles up. And in the end, either we actively clean space or we will have the same problem that we have on the ground with too much garbage and people get annoyed by it here. It actually [becomes] a safety issue.

So, we need to take measures to make sure that space is clean and accessible also in the future for everyone because you will not want to live in a world where space is no longer accessible. Our economy, our daily lives, depend way too much on everything that we have here in space.

Space flight is risky. But if we take the right measures, I wouldn't say it's dangerous.

Rebecca Blumenstein: With all the new satellites and the space debris you mentioned, is it becoming dangerous to orbit the Earth in the International Space Station? Joseph was saying earlier that there was an incident recently where you actually had to take shelter.

Matthias Maurer: Yes, so we have always had space debris issues. It comes from the earlier rocket launches but also we have natural space debris because there's also stuff coming from the universe and entering the atmosphere, and that's passing our orbits. So, space flight is risky. But if we take the right measures, I wouldn't say it's dangerous.

For the International Space Station, we have a lot of ground control teams that measure the area and the space that we're flying in and if there's any object coming close to us we will take measures. So one measure could be that we do a debris avoidance manoeuvre, which usually means we start up our engines and we lift the space station a little bit. Sometimes you also need to slow down and lower the orbit a bit just to dodge away from the object. And if the object comes [in at] very short notice, then we need to go into shelter, which means we hide in our spacecraft and close all the hatches between the different modules just in case something happens.

I think, so far, everything went well and the flight controllers have a very good situational awareness. But the more rockets we launch and the more stuff we bring up to space, I think we need to have rules, strict rules: who needs to do an avoidance manoeuvre, if, for example, we have a collision upcoming between two satellites that can be actively controlled. Because everyone who dodges to the side burns energy and reduces the lifetime, so, basically, it has also directly an economic impact to do so.

ESA [European Space Agency] is in a very good position and we have people, experts in ESA, who are working in the space situational awareness programme. But I think that is a question that also Josef Ashbacher, the director-general of ESA, would probably have mentioned already or will raise awareness again because it affects everyone. Not only ESA or NASA, but it's also everyone who's active in space.

Rebecca Blumenstein: You've talked a lot about cooperation. Just to wrap up, how do you think – if you're talking to people, we have a very global panel, there's people tuning in from around the world – how can we ensure cooperation on common rules for everyone on Earth, for the beneficial use of space?

Matthias Maurer: Well, I think we can look at space – the International Space Station is really inspiring. I mean, we launched this project 21 years ago and people have been living here ever since. And people from a lot of different nations, different languages, different cultures and it works. We all work together. We are one team and and I wish we could extend this cooperation, this success on to many more projects and also especially to the very important projects like fighting climate change. And so I think we can inspire people and say: look what we have achieved with the International Space Station and let's go an additional step in other topics.

Rebecca Blumenstein: And finally, climate change is obviously such an urgent issue here on Earth – you mentioned the fires and sometimes the flooding that you see – do you feel like you can actually, just with your eye, see the impact of climate change from space.

I can see scars on our planet Earth ... where generations of astronauts before, had seen a nice, intact rainforest.

Matthias Maurer: Yes, I mean, when we fly around the Earth, like 16 times a day, we cross over areas that are very arid, very dry and I can see scars on our planet Earth where people dig deep into our planet just to extract resources. So we're actively reshaping our planet. We are cutting down trees, they're burning down rainforests. I see the flames and I see huge areas of agriculture where, like generations of astronauts before, had seen a nice, intact rainforest. Also, the glaciers are getting smaller and smaller. But I mean, the satellite photos provide here much better imagery for this because you need to look long term – my six months in space is probably a little bit too short. Also see areas of flooding.

And so we astronauts here we can be communicators and communicate this to the people because data is one aspect. But having an ambassador who tells it is another aspect and we are actually also contributing here in producing technology that hopefully is helpful against climate change.

For example, we are preparing exploration of the Moon and Mars. And in order for this exploration, we need new technology. We need to have closed-loop chains, for example, to water loop. We recycle all the water that we have here on the space station, up to roughly 91-92%, I believe. But in order to be successful in exploration, we need to come up to 98%. And all this technology that we use and develop for space, we then spin off to the ground and hope to produce clean water on the ground and have more efficient closed-loop systems. I think that's a very important aspect and also looking at energy products. You saw the energy in the space station and the solar energy has been developed in the past quite a bit for space applications and now it's game-changing technology on the ground to fight climate change.

Rebecca Blumenstein: Well, I want to thank you so much for your time. We learnt so much talking to you and best of luck up there. You're doing a very impressive, important work. Take care.

Matthias Maurer: Well, thank you very much for giving me the chance also to communicate about this very important work. And please keep on going discussing the very important topic about climate change and we all need to contribute. All the best for your very important work.


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