My fascination with Astronomy and space exploration in particular goes back to my earliest childhood. As a very young kid I would get up in the night and sit at the window for hours watching the moon and stars. When I was about seven/eight years old I was deeply influenced by Star Wars, UFO and Star Trek – but maybe not quite in the way you would think…
My parents fled Eastern Germany in 1984 and we lived for several years in a pretty poor neighborhood in Vienna. Just a few weeks after we arrived I found a toy catalog of Star Wars figurines and space ship models. At that time I had absolutely no idea that Star Wars was a movie, coming from communist Eastern Germany. I just looked at the magazine over and over again, for hours, marveling at the design of the space ships and the incredible creatures from other planets. I created my own “secret journals” in which I mused about space exploration, drew pictures of my own space ship designs and “secret math formulas” that would power them.
This was within the first few months that we had arrived in Vienna and as soon as school started I got introduced to the local public library – searching for books on space, astronomy and space travel I soon had gobbled up every single Astronomy book and science fiction the youth section had to offer. Luckily, they did not have that many, because after re-reading those few books a couple of times (I was literally not interested in anything else) I mustered all my courage and asked the librarian if – by any chance – I could see if the adult section had books on Astronomy. When I was told that there was no problem and I could borrow any book from the grown up section, I was overwhelmed with joy.
So here at the age of 8-9 I introduced myself to Carl Sagan, Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, The Foundation by Asimov, Dune. I read Charles Darwin’s on the origin of species, several books on Einstein’s theory of relativity. I would usually get a good mix of science fictions and Astronomy so as to counter the sadness of not being able to “actually be out there”. Once home, I’d plugin in Beethoven’s 9th symphony into my “walkman” and dive right into Einstein… I was a very strange kid but embraced and relished what set me apart. It felt like a secret universe that uplifted me from the pretty frugal life that my family endured as my parents carved out their new existence in “Western” Europe. However, I was not entirely living through my books – in fact, right next to our housing complex was an abandoned five acre community garden, carefully sealed off from the rest of the city by 2 meter high walls. Beyond those walls we would regularly get ourselves in a lot of danger rebuilding sheds, exploring underground shafts and doing a lot of exploratory pioneering.
In third grade elementary school I found a friend with similar interests in Astronomy – we turned memorizing statistical data of the solar system into our favorite past time game and even tried to build a rocket out of the trash we found in our parents basement.
Relevant to this space memoir was one particular day though, when my parents took me to an open day at a planetarium in Vienna. One of the lectures presented that day was on the Jovian moons. The lecturer was a young Astrophysics graduate from the university and I raised my hand a few times to set the record straight when I found his talk to be “inaccurate” After the event he talked to my parents and suggested that I should attend the public lectures that the Astrophysics department of the university of Vienna offered weekly at one of the oldest planetariums in Vienna, the “Urania”.
And so I did: Every week after school I would take the train through the city and in the evening listen to an introductory course on Astrophysics taking notes. I still remember the orbital mechanics lectures and explanations of the wave/particle duality of light. It was a fun time, and it must have been a hilarious picture – this nine/ten year old surrounded by (mostly) retired folks and hobby Astronomers.
While all of that was working out quite well for me, there was still something that started to bother me tremendously. The lack of progress in the space program. The older I got the more I realized that the space shuttle program was not going anywhere. Challenger was a huge set-back, one that I had feared the most. In my mind I wished to own my own spaceship traveling (at the very least) through the solar system, better still the galaxy. Earth was just too boring, too small – the cradle I was born in but not the rock I wanted to die on.
I had a pretty clear realistic picture for my future outlined though – I was going to work for NASA in Florida – either as Astronaut and / or as Astrophysicist. However I was bound to find an alternative way to get to the stars. Reading a lot of science fiction I was intrigued with the speculation that Aliens had already visited Earth (Daeniken/Butlar) and being so much more advanced than us, possibly using their minds to communicate with each other. So every night I started to do something that in hind-sight looked like some basic form of concentration meditation which found me “meditating” sending thoughts to those Aliens to stop by and pick me up… This went on for a quite a long time
They never came, btw, and the fascination with mental power and control of the mind became a great fascination in and by itself. After reading through a lot of Parapsychology literature I started to read and study Chinese and Indian Literature, being mainly interested in practical applications of their philosophy (i.e. intensifying my ability to call a space taxi – I was about 12 at that time). All of this led to me becoming more and more fascinated with the ideas of Buddhism and at the age of 16 I was ready to ordain and become a monk to develop my mind to the highest degree that Buddhist meditation promised was possible. Co-incidentally the space program in the late 90’s seemed pretty dead as well.
I graduated with the highest A-level average possible from an Austrian high-school specializing in science (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) in 1996. I think the good result was part of my initial desire to become a top scientist and later primed by years of meditation practice. Right after graduation I took the first plane available and left for civil war torn Sri Lanka in 1996 having singled out the “pearl of the Indian ocean” to offer me the closest and most original idea of the meditation techniques that the Buddha explained in his recorded discourses. What happened there between 96 and 99 could fill books so I’ll fast forward to late 1999 when I came back – disillusioned with institutional religion (surprise, surprise) but well equipped with years of intense meditation practice thanks to skilled meditation teachers I was lucky to meet. I decided to study Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence as it felt closest to my desire to understand how the mind and consciousness works and how it relates to the physical world and started working for a software company in Hamburg in 2003 before starting to work for a start-up in Florida in 2007.
I continued to follow pretty much everything that had to do with progress in science and technology with my main focus on astronomy, space exploration, physics and biology (->genetics!) and so when MarsOne’s email invitation to be part of the first colonization effort of Mars arrived in my inbox I was already prepared. A few years earlier I had read Dr. Zubrin’s excellent book “A case for Mars” and so I was well aware that it was something that could technologically be pulled off – but that funding was the hard part.
As I signed up and submitted my application I realized – contemplating on my whole path in life up to this point – that many of the steps I had taken were ideal preparations for the obstacles the first colonists would face.
The idea to be boxed into a small place for years with sensory deprivation of one or the other form was something that was at the core to the Buddhist monk’s life and mental preparation – and yes, even something to be found deep happiness in! In addition I realized that my personal decision to become a Vegetarian when I was 16 gave me incredible insight not just how to live on a plant diet but also how it effects my body long term – 22 years of research data :-).
The idea of dedicating your life for a higher goal and the progress of space exploration, pushing the boundaries of technology, engineering and a life among the stars was my dream as far as I can think back. In fact, my kind of paradise consists of a chess computer, science & math books and an empty corner on the floor to meditate. That’s all I need to be the happiest person in the world – when I am not around my kids
coming next: how I have been preparing myself (daily!) for this mission since I got the first email from MarsOne. I am also working on an article to highlight some of the benefits that I think meditation practice can add to the psychological grounding of a future (extremely isolated) Mars crew.