Photo via Flickr user
For many, launching into space is a childhood dream. Much the same as being a fireman, police officer or, let's say, a unicorn. Whereas becoming an astronaut may not be as difficult as becoming a unicorn, it's still pretty damn hard. Until now, no Dane has ever had the privilege of travelling out of Earth's atmosphere at 40.000 kilometers per hour. But that's about to change. In September 2015, Denmark will become a space-traveling nation, when astronaut Andreas Mogensen leaves for a ten day expedition to the International Space Station ISS.
We called him up on Skype to ask how one ends up an astronaut, life on other planets and the eventual tax benefits of space exploration.
VICE: Hey Andreas. What are you up to?
Andreas Mogensen: I'm in Star City in Russia, about 50 kilometers outside Moscow, where I'm training. It's a city founded in the 1950's for training the Soviet cosmonauts. Normally I live in Cologne, Germany, but most of our training takes place here in Russia or at NASA in Houston.
So how do you train?
We do a lot of different things. Right now, I'm training for my mission next year. Some of the training is just like school. We need to learn how to use the computer systems on the International Space Station and on the Soyus rocket, that's taking us to space and back. We need to be able to fix everything, because if it breaks down in space, we're the only ones who can do anything about it. I'm taught to fly the Soyus rocket in a simulator. We train space walks in a big underwater tank and we learn how to use the big robotic arm. I also need to learn Russian and extended first aid. We really need to learn a lot of things before being sent to space.
What background do you need to be an astronaut?
Most astronauts are either engineers, doctors, pilots or come from the military. I have a background in engineering with a focus on space travel.
Did you dream of going to space when you were a kid?
Definitely. It's what I always wanted. As a kid I just thought that being an astronaut was the most awesome job in the world. The thought of being shot into space on a rocket and exploring the moon or some other planet. That was such a cool thought. It's insanely difficult to become an astronaut though and I knew that. That's why I focused on space travel in my engineering study. So even if I couldn't be an astronaut, I could still work with space travel.
If it's so hard, how did you make it?
In 2008 the European Space Agency announced that they where looking for new astronauts. The last time that happened was in 1992. So I applied along with 8.500 other people. Then, slowly over several years, they decimated the number through a series of tests. I didn't think I had passed the first test. But I kept on passing them and in the end, I was one of the final six guys.
So they choose six guys out of 8.500 applicants?
Wow. What were those tests like?
The first test was about being able to focus, multi tasking and stuff like that. The test took eight or nine hours. Then they tested how strong you are psychologically. Later, we were given a full medical check, where they looked for any possible reasons we may be unable go to space.
So you're incredibly healthy?
Yeah, I guess. Finally, we had to do two interviews in front of all the bosses of ESA.
So what are you doing in space?
I'm going up in a Soyus rocket to the ISS for ten days. The primary goal with the mission is that an American and a Russian are going to live on the ISS for a year to see how the body reacts to being weightless for a prolonged period of time. We need this knowledge if we're going to send people to Mars. That trip would take two to three years. The problem is that the Soyus rocket can only handle being in space for six months. So I'm taking one Soyus up when they're half way through their mission and then I'm taking their Soyus back to earth.
How long is the career for an astronaut?
I'm 37 now. You age out in your mid-fifties. So obviously I'm hoping to get another mission, but right now I'm completely focused on this one.
How do you feel about being the first Dane in Space?
It's a big honor, of course. But for me personally, it's never been a goal. I really don't care if I'm the first or the fifteenth Dane in space.
Are there any big breakthroughs happening in space travel at the minute?
The big goal right now is the ISS. But recently two American companies started sending supplies into space, so that's pretty exciting. NASA also just handed a contract for manned space travel to Boeing. NASA are also working on a new type of space capsule for sending people to space. For instance, to Mars or an asteroid. That discussion is ongoing.
Do you reckon we can send people to Mars?
I think we can send people to a new place in 2030. Whether it's Mars, an asteroid or to the Moon again, I don't know. But if we chose to send people to Mars, then we could easily do it. We are so much further ahead than when the US sent people to the Moon. We can do it, but it's a political decision.
So what's your opinion on life in space?
There are two answers to that question. The first is, is there life on Mars? It looks like there has been liquid water on the surface, which is the key to life. It also looks like the climate used to be warmer. That's why we're so interested in exploring it. We want to look for bacteria or microorganisms. If we find that, it would be huge as it's the first time we would see evidence of life on other planets. During the last 15 years we've been able to locate planets around other stars. Until 15 years ago, we only knew about eight or nine planets in our own solar system. Today, we have found 1000 planets in orbit around other stars. What we want to do, is to have powerful telescopes in orbit to look at these planets, that are very far away from earth. Light years away. Then we can see if their atmosphere has oxygen and water, which a planet needs to sustain life. It could get very interesting in the next fifty years.
Does it pay well to be an astronaut?
Yeah, it does. We're paid pretty well I'd say. We're full time employed by ESA, so we have the same employment terms as everybody else here.
Don't suppose there's tax benefits to working in space?
No, not really. But since we're working for an International organization, like the EU, we actually don't pay taxes. But that's not because we're in space.
Good luck up there.