On December 21, 2011 Soyuz blasted off from the Russian launch facility in Kazakhstan. Russian commander Oleg Kononenko had two other astronauts on board, American Don Petit from NASA and Andre Kuipers from the European Space Agency. After a faultless launch the spacecraft reached earth’s orbit nine minutes later.
Within two days the astronauts docked with the International Space Station, their home for almost six months.
Fifty-three-year-old Kuipers is the flight engineer, he is also a qualified doctor and has been assigned to this mission since 2009 having qualified as an astronaut in 1999.
During the 148 days in the space station, Kuipers is taking part in a range of experiments for the European Space Agency, notably examining the effects of microgravity on the human body. He will conduct his work in the European Columbus Laboratory.
The lab did not exist when the Dutch astronaut spent 11 days in the ISS back in 2004. After that first flight he was keen to return to space. He took time off from his training before the mission to explain more about what his work would be.
“Now my role is more operational. I will have to do a lot more in the space station itself, like maintenance, and repairs, but also I’m trained for working with the robotic arm, for spacewalks, and we should not forget that the space station is now twice as big as during my first flight,” he said.
The first Dutchman to make two journeys into space, he is an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund and during this mission will be exploring how to improve the equilibrium between Earth and its inhabitants.
The International Space Station has been continually occupied for nearly 12 years now and Europe has had a big role in that adventure. As he orbited more than 330 kilometres above the Earth, Andre Kuipers spoke to euronews.
We first asked him how he feels about heading home as he is will be leaving the ISS soon – is it a real mix of emotions?
Andre Kuipers: “Yes that’s correct. Of course I like to go home to see the children and the family and smell the fresh air and hear some birds for example. But it’s also my home here – I’ve been living here for half a year. I have fantastic views, the floating is great, so it’s a double feeling, also because I know I won’t be coming back here, probably. So, it’s mixed feelings indeed.”
euronews: “Apart from the scientific work, how did you spend your time? Talk us through a typical day on board the ISS?”
Andre Kuipers: “Well we have the working day which starts with a daily planning conference, so we talk through the day. Then we start our experiments or maintenance or repairs. That means we spread out over the station – some people might be working in the Japanese model, others in the US lab, or the Russian segment. We do the tasks set for that day. And on top of that we have to stay in condition, in a good physical condition, that means that every day we do a lot of sport. Of course, like everybody else we have to eat, so we have our meals in between (tasks and other activities) and at the end of the day we finish the day, again, with a planning conference to talk through the day. And then we have some free time to do our things like calling home, for example, watching a movie, looking out of the window and taking pictures.”
euronews ”It seems a fascinating, unimaginable existence, very few people get to experience it, but there must be lows as well as highs, tell us about those, if you would.”
Andre Kuipers: “Yes, that’s true. It’s fantastic to float – that’s a very nice feeling. But it also means that everything else floats. So, if you’re working with certain experiments you might easily lose things, because normally things drop down but in space they can float everywhere. If you have an object like this (picks up torch) – this is a big object, a torch – if I don’t watch it for a while, even this one I might not find easily because it goes somewhere that I don’t see. It’s all three dimensional. So that is an issue that we have. Another aspect is that we are living in a glass house, everything we do is watched from the ground. So we are, of course always very concentrated, but that is a certain aspect, that there are always people looking over your shoulder.”
euronews: “This was your second mission – your first was in 2004. How have things changed on the ISS since then, and will this be your last mission? You’ve indicated it may be your last mission.”
euronews: “Yes, 2004 was my first flight, it was a short flight of 11 days The station was maybe half as big is it is now. It’s a huge station now, with six people on board. It will probably be my last flight. If ESA would ask me again I would absolutely do that because it’s very interesting, but there are new astronauts and I guess that when it’s my turn again I will already be retired.”
euronews: “Well, Andre, we wish you a safe journey home, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Goodbye.”
Andre Kuipers: “It was a pleasure.”