An extraordinary guest

‘Astro-Alex’ visits the AWI

Astronaut Alexander Gerst pays a visit to his alma mater and exchanges notes with AWI researchers
[14. June 2019] 

Fascinating insights and a friendly exchange: Geophysicist and astronaut Alexander Gerst recently paid a visit to his alma mater, the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). Before an audience of ca. 200 members of staff, he gave an in-house talk on his work as ‘astro-Alex’ and exchanged ideas with the researchers in attendance.

In 2001, long before he became ‘astro-Alex’, Gerst took part in a Polarstern expedition as a Geophysics student. Accordingly, he used his visit to the AWI to take a guided tour of the laboratories, and to speak with a number of researchers, including geophysicist Karsten Gohl, who organised the event.

Gerst then gave an internal talk for the AWI staff, followed by a discussion of his experiences as an astronaut: “I’m delighted to be here, and I consider this to be a discussion among colleagues. For me personally, the AWI feels like my homeport, because it’s where my expedition career began. It’s an honour to know that even the Polarstern and the Neumayer Station III are watching this broadcast.” 

Living and working in space – a topic that also captured the interest of the AWI staff, more than 200 of whom attended the talk. Another 300 at the AWI facilities in Potsdam, Sylt and Helgoland joined in via live broadcast, as did researchers on board the icebreaker Polarstern and at the Neumayer Station III.

In his moving talk, Gerst also reported on his observations of our ecosystem from space: “It is impressive and at the same time shocking that you can see from orbit how our glaciers continue to melt away.”

Further, ‘astro-Alex’ brought with him a truly unique gift for the AWI: a whale bone from space. He had taken the bone with him to the ISS on behalf of the Alfred Wegener Institute and used his visit to return it. 

The whale vertebra hails from the Arctic Ocean, where, during a routine dive with an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), AWI researchers found it buried in the sediment at a depth of over 1,000 metres. Gerst took the bone with him on the ISS as a memento from the AWI. The vertebra, which travelled to space as an officially listed ‘flight item’ – and is therefore accompanied by a certificate confirming its special status – will now once again become the property of the institute.


Press Office

Folke Mehrtens

Marlena Witte