Great Dane

What’s the future of space travel? And what do you do if you’re wearing a spacesuit and your nose itches? Astronaut Andreas Mogensen, PhD ’07, answers these and other pressing questions.


On September 1, Andreas Mogensen, PhD ’07, is set to strap into a Soyuz spacecraft and fly to the International Space Station (ISS). He’ll conduct a busy program of experiments, many of which will use his own body as a guinea pig. Mogensen, a Danish astronaut with the European Space Agency, will spend 10 days aboard the ISS supporting the yearlong mission of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko.

The ninth Longhorn and first Dane in space took a few minutes out of his training to speak with the Alcalde about his path into orbit and where he thinks the space program is headed next.

The Alcalde: You officially have the coolest job on or off Earth. How long have you wanted to be an astronaut?

Andreas Mogensen: It goes back to probably fourth or fifth grade when I first learned of the space shuttle program. Then I learned about Apollo, and every time I had an opportunity in school to choose what project I wanted to write about, I always picked space.

Kids (and probably most adults) reading this are probably wondering what it takes to be an astronaut. 

It’s not really something you can have as your plan; you’ve got to have it as a backup plan. But my interest in space and space exploration was so great that I wanted to work in that field even if I couldn’t become an astronaut, so I decided that the best way to do that was to become an aerospace engineer. I helped build some of the satellites and spacecraft that we send into space and to other planets, and then I just kept this dream of becoming an astronaut in the back of my head and crossed my fingers that I’d get the opportunity.

In Europe, not only do you have to be qualified but you have to be very, very lucky, because it’s not like NASA where you can apply every two or three or four years. It’s much more seldom that we select astronauts. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

You’ll be doing science of your own on this mission, right?

I have a very packed program of science and technology experiments. One of the areas we’re very interested in is human physiology. I’m going to be studying my bone density, my muscles. I’ve already had my brain scanned prior to the mission, and I’m going to have it scanned again after the mission, and that will give scientists an ability to see some of the changes that happen during spaceflight.

It turns out that the human brain “learns” what it means to be weightless, sort of like when you learn to ride a bike. The brain goes through some structural changes, some new connections are made. The same thing happens when you fly to space. The second time you go to space, it’s actually easier. Your brain already knows what it means to be in space, to be weightless. Studying this will give scientists a better understanding of how the brain learns, what kind of changes happen when the brain learns, and this information can be used in patients who have suffered brain.

Astronauts are celebrities again, and it seems to be heavily due to social media. How has the Internet changed the public’s relationship with space?

I think it’s made a big difference, precisely because it’s so much more personal. Previously it was kind of filtered through the space agencies, so it had a more corporate feel to it, but now you feel like you’re much more a part of the mission.

Many of our current missions are pointing in the direction of long-term space travel. What will it take to send astronauts to a place like Mars? Would you go if offered the chance?

Certainly I would go… if it was a return trip! I know there’s been a lot of media coverage this one-way trip that Mars One is talking about, but I’m probably a little bit hesitant for a mission like that. But if it was a there-and-back trip I would definitely say yes.

What will it take before we’re ready to do that?

Politics. That’s it. We’re much closer in terms of developing the technology [for] a manned Mars mission today than we were to a manned Moon mission at the beginning of the 1960s. So really it’s a political decision. Right now, you have the space station, that’s what we’re working on, and we’ll continue with that at least until 2024. Then the question is what’s going to happen after that, are we going to go straight to Mars? Or maybe the Moon first, or perhaps an asteroid?

How do you see the relationship between public and private spaceflight evolving in the future?

I think if we look at companies like SpaceX who are now sending cargo to the space station, they’ve shown they can do a very good job of it, so I think that we’ll see them playing a larger role, especially a few years from now when SpaceX starts sending astronauts to the space station.

Do you think that would allow NASA and ESA to have a little bit more freedom to look just beyond space station missions?

That would be ideal, for commercial companies to take over some of the more routine tasks, and the space agencies like NASA and ESA could focus on further exploration. This is where we’re headed now with NASA developing Orion and ESA developing the service module for Orion, and hopefully that will give us an opportunity to focus on exploration outside of low Earth orbit.

Bacteria, fungi, or tardigrades—which is your favorite of the organisms that can survive in the vacuum of space?

One of the most fascinating things that I’ve ever heard was about Surveyor 3, a probe that we landed on the Moon [in 1967]. When we landed next to it [Apollo 12, 1969] and retrieved samples, we found microorganisms on it that had survived several years on the surface of the Moon, I thought that was fantastic.

Now for a few lightning round questions. What was the hardest part of training for you?

There’s been a lot of challenging things, but I think the hardest part has been learning Russian. I admit when I was a kid dreaming of becoming an astronaut I never imagined that learning to speak Russian was an integral part of becoming an astronaut, but it is. I’m definitely more of a math and science person than a language person, so it’s been tough to learn Russian.

Favorite space movie?

I really enjoyed Interstellar, and before that I really enjoyed Contact. They remind me a lot of each other.

Best space song: “Rocket Man” or “Space Oddity”?

Between those two I would probably say “Space Oddity.”

Is there a secret protocol in case you see extraterrestrials?

Haha, no. But it doesn’t matter how many times I say it, because the true believers won’t believe that I’m telling the truth anyway. I’ve been, on several occasions, accused of being part of this massive conspiracy of not telling the truth. I mean, if I saw something, I don’t think I would be able to stop myself from screaming “Look! Look!” I certainly wouldn’t be the one able to keep the secret.

What do you do if you’re in your space suit and your nose itches?

Actually, it’s not that big a deal because you can scratch your nose on the inside of your helmet, behind one of the edges. And usually you also have something called a valsalva device to plug your nose and equalize your ears, so you could always use that.

Do you think when you get home, will anything ever impress you ever again?

Oh definitely. It’s quite interesting, because the ocean is still an area that’s largely unexplored, so there’s so many things still to explore and discover here on Earth. Especially when we’re talking about organisms, in the past 10 or 20 years we’ve discovered a lot of new organisms that don’t use photosynthesis as their primary energy source, but that get their energy from other sources, chemical reactions for example. So there’s still a lot of things left to explore and be inspired by here on Earth.

Photo courtesy Andreas Mogensen.


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