Italy’s Invincible AstroSamantha

Samantha Cristoforetti, known as AstroSamantha taking photos from the International Space Station. Credit: European Space Agency

Dear Blog Readers –

Italian Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, certainly one of the most extraordinary and awe-inspiring woman I have ever met, spoke to journalists from Rome’s Foreign Press Association this week about her experiences during nearly seven months in space from November 2014 to June 2015.

Forty-year-old Cristoforetti—known to many as Astro-Samantha–  gave birth to a baby girl last year and, although she did not want to talk about her private life, she said that “I would not have chosen to become a mother if it meant I could no longer be an astronaut.”  She said she has every intention of returning to space and “there are plenty of male astronauts who continue their space flights after having children.”

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti takes questions from journalists in Rome. June 21, 2018

Astro-Samantha- was born in Milan, Italy and as a child it was her dream to become an astronaut.  She studied all over the world earning degrees in various fields of science, technology and engineering in Italy, Germany, France and Russia before becoming one of the first female fighter pilots in Italy.  Her international studies were made easier by her fluency in Italian, English, German, French and Russian.

In 2009 Cristoforetti was chosen from thousands of candidates to become an astronaut for the European Space Agency, something she described as a “dream come true” giving her the “best job in the world.” She trained for two and a half years in different locations around the world from Houston, Texas to the Star City, Russia at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, to prepare to go into space.

Italian Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti’s official portrait. Credit: European Space Agency

On November 23, 2014 Cristoforetti climbed into a Soyuz capsule with Russian Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and an American Astronaut Terry Virst at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan ready to be catapulted into space.  She described the capsule to us as “a little piece of aluminum.” It took six hours (less than flying Alitalia from Rome to Boston) for them to dock their Soyuz at the International Space Station, a space craft she said is “as big as a football field.”

She was to spend 199 days – nearly seven months– there, becoming the first Italian woman in space and giving her the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, and longest spaceflight for a European astronaut. Her mission on board was called “Futura” and she conducted scientific experiments and studies in weightlessness.  While in space, her videos of day to day experiences like eating a snack and washing her hair became popular back in Italy.

It is hard to resist Astro-Samantha’s video of her preparing a meal of  turmeric chicken, champignon mushrooms, brown rice and peas in space.  As she spreads various on her tortilla “plate”, it slowly floats away past her head, only for her to reach up and grab it and spread something else on top.

Equally amusing is her hair washing video showing her short hair floating straight up above her head as she washes it using a water bottle and non-rinse soap.

See Links here:

Cooking in Space

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4exaXdPKS3Y

Bathroom in Space

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPUvzn3CTQc

Here are some of the questions and answers with the Foreign Press during her presentation Thursday. I did not record it, but took pretty comprehensive notes, so below is my paraphrasing of what she said.

What do you do on board?

There are a lot of scientific activities studying the effects of being in free fall around the world and the effects of the absence of weight.

There is also a lot of maintenance work.  The space station is a very complex structure and requires constant corrective maintenance. At least three times during my mission astronauts had to go out for space walks to fix things.  There are also robotic activity, you do things with robotic arms.

Finally, you are obliged to do a few hours of sport every day – running, weights, a cyclette without a seat – you don’t need a to sit down when there is no gravity.  You have to maintain for your muscles and while you are in space there is accelerated osteoporosis.

What is the next step in space?

We are still working in low earth orbit and soon there will be another space station in that area.  This is the huge desire of the Chinese – to create their own space station. We are in a period of great activity.  Besides the Chinese space station, there are other space stations being built for commercial uses.

When did you know you wanted to become an astronaut?

Like almost all astronauts, it was my dream to become an astronaut from when I was a small child.  Then the stars aligned, and my dream became a reality.  I did not realize that being an astronaut would fulfill so many of my interests – science, technology, multiculturalism.  You have to be open to other cultures to be part of a team from different countries in the International Space Station.

What did you like best about being in space?

I liked the manual and mechanical work.  Sometimes I would spend five hours just setting up an experiment.  There were also many hours of manual work.  I definitely was not in front of a computer all day.  There were also lots of housekeeping responsibilities.  You have to be very careful in the space station not to break anything.  Even though it might not be a deadly risk to break something, it is not something you want to do.

Were you ever afraid?

No.  Nothing ever happened to me that was particularly critical, so I was never afraid.  Everything was normal.  This was not the story for my colleague Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano who almost drowned – as strange as that may sound – during a spacewalk.

(N.B. Italian Astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned when water flooded into his space suit helmet during a spacewalk on July 16, 2013.  As he describes in a video released by the European Space Agency “It completely covered my eyes and my nose” and “for a couple of minutes there I experienced what it is like to be a goldfish in a fish bowl.”  Jokes aside, the planned six-hour spacewalk was quickly aborted and Parmitano brought back into the space station.)

See the European Space Agency video here of Parmitano talking about that:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxFdfk35_K0

Italian Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti talks to journalists from the Foreign Press Association at Villa Almone, the residence of the German ambassador in Rome. June 21, 2018. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Did you ever feel lonely in space?

No.  We never felt lonely up there.  We were never too far away to make a phone call.  I think there are places on earth where one would feel more lonely, for example, on a base in Antartica or inside a submarine.  There are places on earth which are much more extreme in terms of conditions.

On planet earth we are very concerned about borders, frontiers, and national territory. Those things disappear when you are in space, no?

Well, yes, I would say there is a sort of double approach.  As an Italian, of course I feel more emotional when I am passing over Italy.  But there is an overall feeling of peace as you pass over the whole world.  Interestingly, after a while I was able to guess where we were passing over just by the light coming through the windows without even looking out.  The light over the desert is different from the light over the sea.

As far as nationalism is concerned, in the space station you are living together with people from other cultures.  It is a magnificent example of cooperation and in addition to the small team in space there are thousands of people of many nationalities working together on the ground all over the world.

Do you think there is life in space?

Over the course of seven months in space I had different thoughts about that.  Obviously, it is a curiosity that I have.   Actually, you can already say there is life in space because we humans are in space.   I suppose the first question to ask is if there is other life in our solar system.  The first candidate for that would be Mars and in the coming years, I would say in the next ten years we will definitely have a better idea if there is life on Mars.

There is Exomars…( The ExoMars Mission is a program to send a European rover to the surface of Mars in 2020) The rover will have the ability to drill into the surface of mars.  There is more chance of life below the surface.  The surface of Mars is an extreme hostile environment for life.  But yes, there must be intelligent life in the universe, there are so many stars out there.  I guess I would say Margherita Hack (Italian Astrophysicist who died in 2013) is right, there is intelligent life out there, but we will never meet it.

Tell us about your re-entry after 199 days in space.

It was very dynamic.  The Soyuz capsule detaches from the International Space Station.  It slows down by 7-8 kilometers per second as it slows down we were flattened by the pressure inside our capsule.  As it slowed down to 90 kilometers, the atmosphere became denser and the capsule had to release all this energy.  So, as you look outside you see flames and the windows become black, suddenly – around 50 kilometers per hour you are engulfed in flames.  Then at 10 kilometers per hour the parachute opens which is a violent movement.   Then you prepare for the impact, the seats are extended and then there are the rear-flares, which the Russians, I hope ironically, call the “soft-landing”.  We were lucky because we had perfect weather on the Kazakhstan steppe which is very wide and empty.

Samantha Cristoforetti just after landing back on planet earth after nearly seven months in space. June 11, 2015 Credit: European Space Agency

How has your life changed since you became a mother?

It is not radically different. I would not have chosen to become a mother if it meant I could no longer be an astronaut.  There are plenty of men astronauts who continue to go into space after having children.  But I do not like to talk about my private life.

What is the effect on your body of being in space?

You lose bone mass, your immune system changes.  You get a stuffy nose. Some people lose some vision, probably due to pressure on the eyes.  I never had nausea.  The harder part for the body is not going into space but the re-entry.  You have to get used to weight again after weightlessness.  Your heart beats very rapidly even when you are not doing any sport.  Your balance is off.  You have some small muscles that you have not used – in your back for example – that you need to start using again.

Italian Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti floating in her spacesuit in the International Space Station. Credit: European Space Agency

Interestingly, this brilliant woman who has orbited the world and hopes to walk in space said one of the projects that has been most difficult for her has been writing a book.  She has been working on it for three years now “writing is exhausting and requires inhuman effort.”

Another project – that was easier for her – was her participation in the IMAX film “Beautiful Planet.”  Here is the link to the trailer. Beautiful Planet

Throughout the Foreign Press Association event – which was held at the Germany Ambassador’s residence in Rome – I was impressed by Cristoforetti’s calm demeanor, light touch and sense of humor.  She responded articulately to questions showing her vast knowledge but making it understandable for all.

Samantha Cristoforetti speaks to the Foreign Press in Rome at Villa Almone, residence of the German ambassador to Italy. June 21, 2018 Photo by Trisha Thomas

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Trisha Thomas

Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

6 Comments

  1. Nicola
    2018/06/24

    Luca Parmitano… No Parmitana!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2018/06/24

      Whoops! Will correct that right away. Thanks Nicola!

      Reply
  2. Gwen Thomas
    2018/06/24

    Wonderful write up of a very impressive woman and scientist. Thanks for sharing!!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2018/06/25

      Thanks for reading it! Yes, she is a truly remarkable woman.

      Reply
  3. Joan Schmelzle
    2018/06/25

    Hi Trisha,
    Another fun and interesting read. Thanks, too, for the links. The videos added a lot to the story. She is truly remarkable. I hope she can fulfill her dreams.
    A presto
    Joan

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2018/06/28

      She was funny, humble and brilliant. She has already fulfilled her biggest dream, and I am guessing she will fulfill her dream of walking in space as well.

      Reply

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