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 | 27-05-2024

Change of perspective – 4 questions to:  

Tom Grom, ESA Instructor (ISS Crew and Ground Staff), COLUMBUS Simulation Director (LSE Space)


By Alexandra Namyslowski

"The Blue Marble"  – Photo taken by Apollo 17 on December 7th, 1972


Tom, we met in my car when I gave you a ride from Franconia to Munich via the ride-sharing platform BlaBlaCar. When you told me that you work at DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt), I couldn't contain my excitement. I was even more excited when you told me that you didn't have a "classic" science or engineering background at all, because I wanted to become an astronaut * – until I was 14 when I saw a documentary about the aptitude tests at the time, including stress tests in a centrifuge until consciousness. How did you come to DLR?

At that time, I was just incredibly lucky that some of the skills and knowledge I had gained in agencies and in various activities in the PR and cultural industries were needed exactly there. By “there” I mean the training for the European COLUMBUS project.  


You come from the advertising / communications industry. What did you take away from this industry and where did you change your perspective?

First, I had to prove myself through demanding on-the-job training, where I learned to monitor and control research satellites. From 2005 onwards, together with others, I developed and carried out training units for the ground staff of the COLUMBUS space laboratory for the DLR and the ESA (European Space Agency – the organization for cooperation in Europe in the field of space research and commercial use of space). In purely technical terms, it was actually a radical change of perspective. This is not about conveying art content or even manipulative “selling arguments”. Now I had to teach engineers “Space Operations” and train them to support the astronauts on the ISS from the control room as effectively as possible. This also includes, for example, being able to communicate error-free and effectively: with each other, with colleagues at NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration – and with the crew.


When you showed me this photo of Tracy Caldwell Dyson in my car, I had tears in my eyes because it touched me so much:  

Foto: NASA

I had to think about this sight and view well into the night. My father, a psychiatrist, said that I probably had a mini “overview effect”.

The overview effect describes the experience that astronauts have when they see the blue planet from space for the first time. It changes the perspective on the planet and humanity. Fundamental characteristics include a sense of awe, a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all life on Earth, and a new sense of responsibility for our environment. The term was coined in 1987 by Frank White's book of the same name.

I had a second one when you took me onto the spectator bridge at the DLR in Gilching and I was able to look down into the ISS control room. Being able to observe the astronauts during experiments and their movements (9 cameras on the left of the picture) as well as seeing their tight schedules on the screens (on the right of the picture) was fascinating. I thought looking down through the glass into the control room was the closest I would get to the astronauts.

But when you took me down to that same control room, I was speechless. Seeing these 11 people 400 kilometers above us and being able to theoretically communicate with them was incredible. How would you describe the overview effect in your words?  

I can only quote our German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst: “That’s simply fantastic! It is a magical, magnificent view of our earth." In fact, everyone who was able to enjoy this view says that this view is humbling and makes everyone aware of the uniqueness and fragility of our planet. Here Alexander Gerst shows the view from the so-called Cupola – the dome-shaped window module on the ISS. 

Former astronaut Leland Devon Melvin found similar words in the documentary series One Strange Rock: “It's so incredibly beautiful that you actually need new words to describe it.” Anyone who would like to see impressions of other astronauts, should watch the NASA documentary “Down to Earth: The Astronaut’s Perspective”. It's touching and breathtaking.


The ISS has a manned wingspan of 100 meters. Why does collaboration work so well up there at an altitude of 400 kilometers and why do we find it so difficult down here? Is it because of the common goal and since is it clear that people – especially in this smallest space – depend on each other?

Yes it is. The station is designed in such a way that various control centers from national space agencies have to work together. For example, imagine a smoldering fire caused by a short circuit. In a laboratory on Earth, the smoke would eventually rise to the ceiling and set off a smoke alarm. However, no smoke rises to the ceiling on the space station – there is weightlessness. There are a few tricks to ensure that a smoke detector on board works, but we shouldn't rely on them. Specialists in the control room therefore have everything in view at all times. You can usually tell straight away where exactly a problem occurred and quickly discuss a solution with the crew. Each person has their own area of ​​responsibility – which often intertwines. This applies to all levels. It's the same with astronauts. The conflicts on Earth simply don't happen up there.

Thanks Tom. It's nice to see that there is no room for ego when people are honestly committed to a cause. Thanks for the insights!

If you would like to enjoy a guided tour yourself, you can visit the DLR in the south and west of Germany: 

Oberpfaffenhofen (southwest of Munich)
Every Thursday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. there is a free opportunity to take a look behind the scenes at the German Space Operations Center. Experienced space experts offer the opportunity to tour the control rooms from the bridge and learn more about space technology, satellite missions, astronautical space travel and the International Space Station (ISS). For registration.

The DLR can be visited here free of charge from Tuesday to Friday. It's quite possible to meet ESA astronauts there during training. The tours last approximately 2.5 hours. If desired, the tour can also be conducted in English. However, you cannot participate individually, but only as a group with a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 28 people (unfortunately, young people under 16 are not permitted to participate – a visit of the DLR_School_Lab is recommended). After a brief overview, trained DLR guest guides will present the following institutes and facilities: DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine, DLR Institute of Solar Research, European Astronaut Center (EAC), User Center for Space Experiments (MUSC). For registration.


* There are different names for space travelers:  
Astronauts are star travelers – made up of the ancient Greek words for stars and sailors. Cosmonauts is derived from the ancient Greek cosmos for world order, space, while 宇航员 [宇航員] yǔhángyuán describes star travelers as sky travelers.