Odds are you can’t account for where you were on every one of the 200 days that elapsed from November 23, 2014 to June 11, 2015. But Samantha Cristoforetti can, since she spent them all aboard the International Space Station. Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, set what was then a record for single-mission duration by a woman in space—and that achievement was just one in a lifetime of them.
A former captain in the Italian Air Force, Cristoforetti won her fighter pilot’s wings in 2006, after earning a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering. She has been awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, speaks five languages—Italian, English, German, French and Russian—and is currently studying Chinese. Sometime in the spring of 2022, she will return to space for another long-duration stay, during part of which she will serve as space station commander. She is the author of Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut, now out in paperback.
You were selected as an astronaut in 2009, and yet when the good news came, you actually missed the call. How did that happen?
It was down to just 10 of us at the end and I was incredibly tense, waiting to know. The ESA [European Space Agency] had announced that on the 25th of May there was going to be this public announcement in France of who they had selected. But we were getting to like two days before the press conference and we still haven’t heard. And then finally it was like nine o’clock and I had given up for that day. And so I go and take a shower and I get out and I see I have a missed call—and the number is from France. So what do I do, call back? You don’t call people back like so late at night. And then an email came in and it was this very short email that says you know, if you’re available we would love for you to join us on Wednesday morning in Paris.
Your trip to space was with a multinational crew, including Russians, and you write about listening to the first Harry Potter book in Russian to improve your language skills. How does the space station crew communicate in so polyglot a place?
All crews find their balance based on the language skills of each member. There’s some who may be fluent in other languages and others who are not fluent and so they will default to their own language. I’m pretty fluent in both English and Russian and so there were definitely times when I I would be the bridge person. If there was something complicated to discuss, people would call me over and say okay, we want to make sure that we are understanding each other properly. But now the younger generation of cosmonauts, they tend to be quite fluent in English.
The U.S. and Russia have been such close collaborators aboard the space station, having both contributed multiple modules to its construction. But political tensions are growing between the two nations. Do you worry for the future of the U.S.-Russian partnership in space?
This is really just me personally talking but I think the station is quite a safe space, in the sense that the two pieces of the space station—the Russian and American—they’re so intertwined. There is no decoupling. It’s just really one big piece of hardware.
You write in your book about the fine art of delivering a toast in Russia. It’s a lot more involved than simply raising your glass and saying “Cheers.”
You have to have a story. It has to be acted out and you have to entertain and hopefully you maybe make people laugh or cry. You really have to build momentum. And then there is like this moment of release at the end and everybody’s like, hurrah, hurrah, hurrah, and based on the strength of that hurrah, you can tell whether it was a success.
You’ve written that you consider yourself sort of an heir to the legacy of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. But for a long time space was a men’s game exclusively. Are we finally reaching gender parity?
When it comes to NASA, you hear a lot that we haven’t reached gender balance and I guess in a way that is true, but at the same time, in just the last few rounds of astronaut selections, it’s close to 50-50. One problem is the media will start a piece about gender equality and space and they will start with the numbers: So many women have been to space compared to so many more men, but you’re putting together all of history and all those decades in which women were either not there or a very small minority. It’s a little bit unfair to hold us accountable for decades in the past.
We’ve seen the launch of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to suborbital space and we are seeing SpaceX moving ahead with launching private crews. Do you think there is a popular future for space tourism or will it always be a niche industry, catering to the very expensive interests of the very wealthy few?
I think, for a while you’re either going to have to be very wealthy or be sponsored by a very wealthy individual. Suborbital flight is a little bit more affordable, I guess, but the actual orbital spaceflight, I really don’t see how its cost could possibly come down to be affordable by the general middle class income.
You spent 200 days in space and you’ll be spending another six months there soon. Have you experienced the celebrated Overview Effect—the change that comes over people when they can see the world from above as a single, borderless whole with a thin skin of atmosphere that is all that protects us from the killing void of space?
I would like to clarify something about that because I think sometimes there is a little bit of a misunderstanding. I hear a lot statements like, oh, we should like send politicians to space and they will change their worldview, but I do not believe that something is going to dramatically change your view unless you’re predisposed to it. It can enhance your sensitivity to this idea of the planet as being one system, one spaceship with humanity being one crew. What I do not believe is that it’s going to be some kind of mystical experience. I just don’t believe that and I’ve not seen it happen to anybody.
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