April 2021

Matthias Maurer - From Leeds to the International Space Station

Matthias Maurer, astronaut at the European Space Agency

At the University of Leeds we have a shared commitment to work together to make a positive global impact. But for one former Leeds student, his influence is truly out of this world.

In this special edition of our My Leeds Story podcast, Mark is in conversation with materials science and technology alum Matthias Maurer, an astronaut with the European Space Agency (ESA).

They discuss Matthias’s upcoming mission to the International Space Station, explore the impact Leeds had on his journey to becoming an astronaut, and reflect on the value of international collaboration.

Once you have listened to the podcast, why not leave a message for Matthias ahead of his mission.

Matthias will fly as part of the SpaceX Crew-3

“It's been 13 years between my application to become an astronaut and my space flight,” Matthias says. “It is a long time, with lots of ups and downs.”

Such is the dedication required to journey to space.

When Matthias first applied to become an astronaut in 2008, he was amongst 8,500 applications. He was one of ten people to pass the tests, but with only six slots available, Matthias did not make the final selection.

It was a setback that only made him more determined in the years that followed.

Matthias in training with lunar tools

The journey to space

Matthias recalls the moment he first decided to apply: “It was 2008 and I’d just come home from work. I switched on TV and I saw that ESA were looking for new astronauts, and I thought like, hang on: What does an astronaut actually do in space?

“The answer is that they are scientists. They love technology and they work in international teams.”

As a doctor of engineering, and the holder of several patents in materials science and materials engineering, Matthias was a good fit. He had also gained vast experience in international collaboration, starting during his time at Leeds. “I came to Leeds in 1993 and experienced full exposure to a different culture and a different language. It was so eye-opening, so enriching. Afterwards I went to France and Spain, too.”

And so, his decision was made. “After a few minutes, it was clear. I would apply and I hoped to become an astronaut.” 

Despite the initial setback in not making the final six, Matthias was exposed to ESA for over a year during the selection process. He took on a different role in the organisation, and eventually his perseverance was rewarded. In 2014, more astronauts were needed, and Matthias successfully applied this time around.

“If you really have a dream and you want to achieve something, don't let the first obstacle stop you.”

Cosmic Kiss

In December 2020, Matthias was officially assigned to his first International Space Station mission known as "Cosmic Kiss". He will be the second ESA astronaut to fly under NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme and is expected to launch from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA, as part of SpaceX Crew-3, alongside NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn.

“During my six months in space, I will have to perform around 100 to 150 different experiments,” Matthias explains. “Many of them started years ago – for example, I will be continuing the work of Tim Peake, my British colleague.

“We have Russians, Americans, Canadians Japanese, and other Europeans. A real mix of cultures on the mission.”

ESA astronauts Matthias Maurer and Thomas Pesquet stand in front of a SpaceX rocket

Such a long period in space presents a number of challenges, but as Matthias points out, social competencies and teamwork skills have been tested during the rigorous selection and training process,

“When the very first astronauts flew, the challenge was the actual flying. They were pilots. Now, the SpaceX is fully automated. The challenge is using micro-gravity and performing research you cannot do on the ground.”

Such research will include spacewalks, perhaps one of the toughest and rewarding parts of the mission. “Being outside in space is the big dream of every astronaut because you have the best view ever. But you only have two to three millimeters of polycarbonate between you and vacuum of space. It's tough work being out there for six hours, working and concentrating the whole time.

“My dream is to float into the Cupola [observatory module of the International Space Station] and to watch down on our planet earth and just to see the entire planet gliding by.”

Hear more from Matthias ahead of his space mission by listening to the full episode now. Remember to send your message to Matthias below ahead of his mission.

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