Interview: Carmen Köhler, astro-adventurer and ambassador for AI and digitalization

The photo shows Carmen Köhler smiling into the camera.
© Carmen Köhler

In the interview for zdi heroines October we spoke to Carmen Köhler. Her CV is anything but boring: She is a trained hairdresser whose passion for mathematics led her to a doctorate in physics. Today she is researching Basque Center for Climate Change to the interrelationships between humans, society and natural systems, leads as Analog astronaut Research for future Mars missions and founded with the P3R GmbH a weather and earth observation data services company.

In the interview we talked to her about her path from the hair salon to STEM research, why courage does not mean the absence of fear and what challenges we will have to face in the future on Earth and Mars. You can also find the interview on our YouTube channel @zdi.NRW

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What exactly is an analog astronaut?

Gwendolyn Paul: Of course, the first thing I have to ask is: What exactly does an analog astronaut actually do?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: Analog astronauts are scientists who carry out Mars simulation missions on Earth in Mars-like regions. This means we are conducting research for later missions to the Moon or Mars. We also have a spacesuit simulator that weighs 50 kg. That's always a really big challenge for me, because you're wearing this suit for around four hours while you're carrying out different scientific experiments in this Mars-like environment.

Two astronauts in spacesuits in the desert.
©OeWF Florian Voggeneder

If you're passionate about something, then you're good at it

Gwendolyn Paul: I read that when you were at school, math and physics weren't for you at all and you didn't have the confidence to take on these subjects. How did you decide to study mathematics anyway?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: I've always really enjoyed mathematics. But I didn't dare to study math. I was shy and not that confident and thought: I'm not that smart. Aside from math, I've always been interested in makeup artistry and cutting hair since I was ten. That's why, after graduating from high school, I first trained as a hairdresser. As a hairdresser, one of my customers was an economics professor from Berlin. During small talk we came up with what I was reading. At that time I was reading a book about a mathematical proof, about Fermat's last theorem. That really impressed him and when I told him that I didn't think I could study mathematics, his answer was: "If you're passionate about something, then you're automatically good at it." That motivated me so much that I started studying math alongside my training and then did a doctorate in physics. Since I had dropped physics at school, I first had to catch up on physics for high school graduates in order to get my doctorate.

Gwendolyn Paul: Many girls and young women share the idea that math and physics are not for them. What do we need to change this idea in people's minds?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: Above all, support. I believe that if you support young people who are enthusiastic about something in their enthusiasm, a lot can be achieved. Because young people are curious per se! When we program with young girls and women with Open Roberta or the Roberta Initiative, their eyes light up, they are fully involved and program brilliantly. Personally, I often don't find the approaches of boys and girls to be that different. It depends on the personality. I think it's important to allow curiosity, support it and get started at a low threshold. Once everyone has had the opportunity to learn about programming first hand, they can no longer say later: “I can’t program,” because they have already done it.

Facilitate access to STEM

Gwendolyn Paul: Where are there opportunities for you to get started in MINT topics that are open to everyone?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: I see the Open Roberta Lab as a low-threshold entry opportunity. It is an open source environment on the Internet where you can program easily using drag and drop. Different robots and microcontrollers are accessible via simulation. You don't have to have a real robot at home, you can do everything online and anyone can do it.

We have also made various videos about this, for example “Code For Space”, where there is a female astronaut mission. The astronauts Insa Thiele-Eich and Susanna Randall also took part. In the videos we give an introduction to programming with Calliope. When we gave workshops on this program, there were often interactions with young women and girls who actually wanted to be something completely different, but who definitely wanted to be an astronaut after the workshop.

Gwendolyn Paul: So being able to touch it in practice, try it out – that’s the key?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: I guess so. Because that moment when you try something and then realize: “It’s working!” also shows you: “I can do it!”. And in that moment you overcame your fear and found the courage to just try something. But sometimes you have to be taken by the hand.

On a Mars simulation mission

Two astronauts stand next to an off-road vehicle in the desert.
© OeWF Florian Voggeneder

Gwendolyn Paul: What does training for an analog Mars mission involve and what skills are needed? Surely soft skills are also needed to undertake such a mission?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: Absolutely! I'll start with the skills. For me personally, two things are most important: Firstly, humor. Especially when you've worked a lot day in and day out and are tired, it's great to have a sense of humor. On the other hand, it is important to be able to deal with conflicts well. This means speaking up immediately if something has happened. Before it becomes a bigger problem. To immediately say: “I didn’t think that was so cool.” or “Can we maybe change that?” Can we do this differently next time?”. Addressing such things openly is important. For that you need this interpersonal relationship.

Gwendolyn Paul: This is really exciting because these are exactly the factors that get girls interested in certain MINT careers. When it becomes clear that it's not just about juggling numbers, it's about teamwork. It's about developing something together. It's about enduring and resolving conflicts. I find it exciting that you can also confirm these findings from your field.

Dr. Carmen Köhler: Absolutely! I believe that teamwork and communication can be applied to any profession. Because only through communication can you really make a difference. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” is what I always like to say. As the boss of a company and also as a team manager of over 20 people, I simply notice: If you communicate with each other, if you work together as a team, then you can move things forward.

Gwendolyn Paul: Can you describe again what exactly you do when training for an analog mission? How can you imagine that?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: We have very different training courses. At the very beginning, in 2015, before the first Mars simulation mission that I was part of, we had six months of training. We were prepared for a wide variety of things. We learned the technology behind the spacesuit simulator and were also trained in the history of space travel. That was very extensive training for us analog astronauts.

And then there was the mission-specific training. That was in 2015 at the Kaunertal Glacier. In 2018 we were in Oman for a month, in 2022 we were in Israel. Next year, in March 2024, we will be in Armenia for a month. We then have 15 different experiments that we will carry out. And we are trained on these experiments during training.

What topics affect space travel?

Gwendolyn Paul: Is there a topic that will particularly concern space travel currently and in the near future and that you are also dealing with?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: There are different aspects that are important. Especially if we want to go to Mars or the moon. The human psyche is one such topic. If we go to Mars, it will take seven months. You are then together with the team in a limited space for seven months and you have to function psychologically. Accordingly, it is very important to know beforehand: what supports people. So we have experiments on this topic. For example, it is very good for the psyche if you have something green, something living that you can see growing. Accordingly, we also have experiments on greenhouses.

What is very important once we reach the planet is the interaction between humans and machines. We look at how we can use the machines in the best possible way to make our lives easier.

Gwendolyn Paul: Is there a topic in space travel that you have a particular personal interest in?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: There are two things that particularly interest me. On the one hand, there is the issue of sustainability. When we go into space, we find ourselves in an environment where we must practice sustainability. For example, when we are on the International Space Station and wash our hair - or rather wet our hair with drops of water - this water evaporates into the filters, is filtered and then made available again as drinking water. This also happens with other liquids that are filtered and made available for use again. There we learn how we can practice sustainability. And this also teaches us a lot for later Mars missions, where we have to look: How can we produce food, liquid, oxygen, etc. on our own?

The second topic that interests me a lot is the whole area around robotics and artificial intelligence. When we go to Mars, there is a time delay in communication. During our missions we simulate a time delay of ten minutes in each direction. Accordingly, you are much more autonomous, self-sufficient, you have to be able to control things without being able to hope for direct support from Earth.

Carmen Köhler stands in front of a building at night dressed in a space suit.
©OeWF Florian Voggeneder

Future vision: cities on Mars?

Gwendolyn Paul: Let's think far into the future: cities on Mars - is that conceivable?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: In my opinion this is absolutely conceivable! I believe that cities will be feasible, especially in lava channels. The collapsed lava channels can also be seen quite clearly on satellite images. You could build excellent habitats there because you would be protected from cosmic radiation and radiation from the sun. Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth. The Earth's atmosphere protects us from rays such as UV radiation, but this does not exist on Mars. There are also micro-meteorites that impact Mars and the lava channels could also provide protection from them.

Courage is when you do it anyway

Gwendolyn Paul: Finally, I would like to come back to the topic of girls and MINT. Is there a message you would like to give to women and girls?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: Just be brave and do it. I like doing things like paragliding and skydiving. I am often asked: “Aren’t you afraid?”, or people say to me: “It’s great that you’re not afraid!” Then I always say: No, I'm scared! But as soon as the motivation is higher than the fear, then you are brave enough to do it. So in my case, the motivation to jump out of a plane is higher than the fear I have about it.

It's important to remember: We're all just human and we're all afraid of something. If I speak openly to people before a jump and say myself: But if you then go into communication, talk to people, talk openly about how you are feeling, then they often say: “I've been there a hundred times jumped out of a plane, but today I'm so nervous!”. Then I realize that it's completely okay even if I'm nervous and afraid. Courage is when you do it anyway.

Gwendolyn Paul: I just had to think of that too! Can you give us a little preview of what we can expect at your Instagram takeover on October 12th on the zdi Instagram channel @mintblogger?

Dr. Carmen Köhler: At the takeover we see a little bit of what we've already talked about: the dress rehearsals one and two. Specific mission preparation for the next analog astronaut mission, the Mars simulation mission in Armenia, is now underway. And I would like to take you with me and show how we are preparing for this mission.

Gwendolyn Paul: We're really looking forward to it! I would like to thank you for the conversation and wish you much success for the analog Mars tours and we are looking forward to having you with us in the Heroine October!

Dr. Carmen Köhler: I'm happy too, thank you very much!

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