German Chancellor Merkel Speaks to Astronaut Aboard Space Station

Chancellor Angela Merkel quizzed German astronaut Thomas Reiter about his scientific experiments, sleeping habits and guitar-playing skills during a linkup Thursday with the international space station's crew.

Reiter, 48, arrived at the station July 6 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. He is to spend six months there — the first European Space Agency astronaut to do so.

Merkel, a former scientist who grew up in communist East Germany, greeted station commander Pavel Vinogradov in fluent Russian and then asked Reiter how his experiments were going.

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Reiter told her the crew — which also includes U.S. flight engineer Jeff Williams — so far has launched two experiments, one on human balance and the other aimed at researching respiratory problems.

"So everything's going great," a smiling Merkel said from ESA's operations center in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt. "Have you had any time yet to play the guitar a bit?"

"Unfortunately, there hasn't been much time yet," Reiter replied. "I've tuned up the [space station's] guitar — a string was broken and I replaced it. But we haven't had much time since the shuttle left; you have to get settled in a bit and be sure everything's running."

Merkel also was eager to know how Reiter, who already has spent 179 days aboard the Russian space station Mir, was sleeping.

"I slept wonderfully in zero gravity on my first mission 11 years ago, and that is continuing, thank God," he said.

"I think you're probably sleeping better than people are in Germany right now, because it's been unbelievably warm here for six weeks," said Merkel.

During his time aboard, Reiter plans to carry our 30 experiments in biology, human physiology, physics and technology.

A key element of his mission is to prepare for a full-scale European science laboratory, to be deployed to the station in 2007.