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"A journey of discovery is only complete when you return to your place of origin..." - an interview with alumnus Alexander Gerst

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst is probably one of KIT's best-known alumni. Now the KIT faculties of Physics, Civil Engineering, Environmental and Geosciences have awarded him a honorary doctorate for his services to science.

On occasion of the ceremonial bestowal of the doctorate on July 12th 2019, Alexander Gerst quoted the poet T.S. Eliot in his acceptance speech with the words: "We humans are discoverers and will always be active as explorers. However, a journey of discovery is only completed when you return to your place of origin. Only then will you are done, and only then will you truly understand the place you have returned to."

Alexander Gerst returned to the KIT and enthralled with his lecture the crowded Audimax. He was at our disposal during the ceremony for some questions about his time in Karlsruhe.


Hello Mr. Gerst, it is a great pleasure for us to welcome you today as a former student of the University of Karlsruhe and that you share your experiences and impressions from your time as a student with other alumni. The KIT Alumni Network is a strong network: 25,000 members around the world, who meet regularly and stay connected with KIT and each other. With you, there has even been an alumnus in space! When you were studying here in Karlsruhe, what was a very special experience for you to remember?

In Karlsruhe, I learned that there is much more out there, how big this world is, in a geographical and scientific way, what there is to discover yet and that it is worth looking behind the horizon. Here I got the opportunity to build my scientific base and educate my curiosity. This is what I am very grateful for to my mentor and my environment here, because they supported me without any hesitation.

I remember when I came to Prof. Wenzel's office and said, "I would like to study in New Zealand and do my master's degree" - nobody has done that before. But we then went through the examination regulations together and checked whether we could manage it.

He immediately reacted positively and said, "Yes, that's a good idea! I support that, I have no doubts or concerns." I thought it was great, it gave me a boost, and I began to establish contact with Wellington University myself.

Or when the volcano Etna erupted in 2001, I instantly thought "Wow, I really want to have a close look at that," those were my first points of contact with volcanoes. So I asked Prof. Wenzel again, if he would support me. He sent a fax directly to the disaster control authorities and said: "Hello, here is a geophysics student of mine, he wants to go deeper into volcanology, give him a hand". The answer was prompt: "Come with us, we'll show you all these things!".

I had these opportunities, because I studied here in Karlsruhe. They really brought me forward and inspired me to think: "Yes, it works, I can actually look beyond my horizon". That's why I connect Karlsruhe with the start of many adventures and possibilities and that's something very beautiful.


For many, KIT is also a universe or a cosmos in itself. If you remember the time in space and the time here in Karlsruhe, which parallels can you recognize?

That's exactly what I just said - they both look beyond horizons. At ESA, we do it from space - geographically, scientifically, but also from a personal point of view. I jumped over my very own personal horizon, when I was suddenly responsible for the entire crew. This was something new that I didn't know before. This process of crossing borders, which is what characterizes exploration, is done in thousands of ways every day at KIT. Every day people go beyond their horizons and find out new things. This is a very obvious parallel and something very great.


If you would study again today, what advice would you give yourself as a new student?

Honestly, it worked out so well, I wouldn't change much. But of course, in retrospect, the points can be connected beautifully and then everything results in a pattern that you didn't see, and everything suddenly makes sense. Ultimately, the most important thing is to take opportunities and give yourself the chance to try things, to be brave and curious. Then you have many more opportunities than you could ever have imagined.


Dear Mr. Gerst, we thank you for your time and wish you some more exciting moments here on campus!


This interview has been translated from German to English. You can read the original at the KIT website.