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Dutch Doctor Bound for Space Station
03.29.04
 
ESA Astronaut André Kuipers Image left: European Space Agency Astronaut André Kuipers.

The Expedition 9 crewmembers are slated to arrive at the International Space Station in April. Traveling with them aboard a Soyuz-TMA spacecraft will be Astronaut André Kuipers of the European Space Agency, or ESA.

Kuipers is a medical doctor from the Netherlands who has been associated with ESA since 1991. His research into human space adaptation led him to become an astronaut in 1999.

During his one-week stay aboard the Station, Kuipers will conduct research to learn more about how the body reacts and adapts to weightlessness. When the Expedition 8 crew departs the Station, Kuipers will leave with them, returning to Earth with the results of his experiments.

A Milestone for the Netherlands

Kuipers will be the sixth ESA astronaut to visit the International Space Station, but the first Dutch person on the Station. The first space-faring Dutch astronaut was Wubbo Ockels, who flew aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985. Kuipers will be the second.

His ambition to be an astronaut began early in life, but it wasn't until he became a doctor that he saw a way to combine his training and his interest in space exploration.

"I wanted to do something useful for mankind," Kuipers said in a recent interview. "I made more or less this combination between medicine and biochemistry and space flight ... Also, the philosophical idea of helping mankind a little bit farther into the universe was playing a role.

"When I saw the Shuttle going, I thought, 'OK, I have to be ready within, say, 13 years,' because the first Dutch astronaut, Wubbo Ockels, was something like 13 years older than I am ... So I started to get involved in aviation and space medicine, I started to work for the Dutch Air Force, and I got into contact with institutes in Holland who started to do research in microgravity."

Kuipers believes that his nation will watch the mission with great interest.

"It's a new ballgame for Holland -- a new generation," he said. "A lot of people don't know all the details of what happened so many years ago. It's new, it's intriguing, and most of all it's stimulating the students, kids in school and other people."

The Scientist Becomes the Subject

During his time aboard the Station, Kuipers will complete a science program known as DELTA – the Dutch Expedition for Life Science Technology and Atmospheric Research. He will be the subject in a series of biological experiments: drawing blood, checking his blood pressure and testing his body's sensory reactions to weightlessness.

He is accustomed to being the scientist, but during the mission he will also be the subject, a situation that Kuipers finds interesting.

"Now I'm in another role. I'm the one who has to give his blood. I'm the test subject and I don't control it anymore ... On the other hand, I think for medical research it's pleasant, because I know what is coming. I don't have any problems with this kind of research, of course."

One DELTA experiment involves the use of a vest fitted with vibrating elements and gyroscopes. Kuipers will wear it daily during his mission, testing to see if it helps his body to adapt to microgravity. If it works, the results of this experiment could have benefits for future astronauts and for people on Earth as well.

"This vest could help not only for orientation, but maybe to help prevent space adaptation syndrome, the space sickness a lot of astronauts experience in the beginning," Kuipers said. "It could also be useful for pilots or for firemen in a very smoky environment to know where the exit is or where is ground is."

Working Together

Kuipers sees the Space Station as a place where nations can work together, and he believes that international cooperation is the Station's most valuable contribution to humanity.

"Countries that not long ago were enemies ... work together now, very visually. They built something up very positive and they work together. It's America, it's Russia, Japan, France, Germany, all kind of countries that didn't like each other not so long ago.

"I think that is a very good sign for the planet. The world sees that this is possible -- these people are together, the astronauts and cosmonauts of these countries work together and do positive things. I think that's a very interesting signal to give to the planet."

+ Read the complete interview transcript
+ Expedition 9 Preflight Gallery