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Dutch astronaut André Kuipers finally returned home to the Netherlands last Thursday, after an epic space journey lasting more than 7 months. The 53-year-old Dutchman was taking part in the prestigious space mission ‘PromiSSe’, and had been living and working in the Russian Soyuz-capsule since 21st December 2011. André Kuipers is not the first Dutchman to foster an interest in the world beyond the earth’s atmosphere and the Netherlands boasts a rich tradition in the field of both astronomy and space exploration.
In the sixteenth century a relatively unknown Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, invented the telescope. Since then, the Dutch have made a substantial contribution to the development and design of a variety of modern telescopes, that are still in widespread international use. Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels is perhaps better known for his ground breaking space journey, made almost thirty years ago. In 1978, the talented physicist, professor and pilot was selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to participate in Spacelab, a high profile space programme run in collaboration with NASA. In 1985, after two years of intensive astronaut training at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Texas, he joined a mission on the famous space shuttle Challenger. During this expedition he performed a variety of tests, using cutting edge equipment in the onboard ‘Spacelab’ laboratory. Ockels is officially the first Dutchman in space, but only because Zeeland astronaut Lodewijk van den Berg, who completed a space mission with the Challenger just a half year before, had been naturalised as an American citizen and no longer held a Dutch passport.
The Netherlands continues to be active in international space travel today, particularly in the field of science, where the country performs a key role in ESA. And at least 1000 Dutch professionals currently work full time on a range of space travel initiatives. The Netherlands invests around 100 million Euros on such projects every year and the Dutch commercial aerospace industry splashes out an additional 20 million Euros on the manufacture of solar panels, launchers and detonators etc. Meanwhile, Dutch youngsters who dream of exploring new frontiers, can enjoy a visit to the National Space Museum in the National Aviation Theme Park Aviodrome at Lelystad Airport. Here they can marvel at an array of space craft including the first Dutch satellite ANS, its successor called IRAS and a Gemini capsule.
The PromiSSe mission didn’t go entirely as planned and André Kuipers actually spent two months longer in space than intended, due to a malfunction of the spacecraft’s closing mechanism. We can’t help but wonder if he had an reserve hoard of typical Dutch products to keep him going, or if he had to survive without a supply of stroopwafels (syrup waffles), hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) and dropjes (Dutch liquorice) until he returned home to earth?!