Interview with Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti

The astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti studied Aerospace Engineering at the Technische Universität München and was one of the first women to be trained as a combat pilot with the Italian Air Force. In November 2014, the time will finally have come: the TUM alumna will be part of the mission Futura 42 for the European Space Agency. She will be flying to the International Space Station for six months.

The 37-year-old Italian has been preparing for her space mission for the last six years.

Mission Futura 42 is part of the ISS Expedition 42. The number 42 also has something to do with one of your favorite books, right?

Exactly. The British author Douglas Adams wrote a series of radio programs, a kind of science fiction black comedy, which was the basis for his “trilogy in five parts”. The first of the books is The Hitchhiker‘s Guide to the Galaxy, in which 42 turns out to be the answer to the “fundamental question of life” – but nobody knows the actual question any more. (laughs)

Where is the ISS actually located?

Not so far away, really: at a height of about 400 kilometers, which is called low Earth orbit. The ISS is on an inclination of 51 degrees. If you imagine a map of the Earth, the ISS travels between 51 degrees north and 51 degrees south – and the line keeps moving a bit to the west, meaning that the space station regularly flies over places on the Earth that are located between 51 degrees north and 51 degrees south.

In August, Alexander Gerst tweeted a photograph of Sicily by night. In other words, Italy is on this path?

Yes, and Germany is too.

And what duties does mission Futura 42 include for you?

As flight engineer, I will be responsible for the launch of the rocket, for docking on to the space station and for the re-entry into the atmosphere on our return flight.

Who will carry out the experiments on the ISS?

Most of the tasks can be managed by all of us, since we are trained in the same way. This means that I will do scientific work and maintenance work on the space station, because it needs to be serviced too. Then there is the logistics: if a space freighter arrives, we must unload and load it again. The cleaning is normally scheduled for the weekends – and sometimes there are special tasks such as a spacewalk, or working with the robot arm.

What about space junk? Is the ISS able to dodge that or is it not a problem?

It is. The United States Strategic Command uses radar to monitor all objects in orbit beyond a certain size. Now and then, NASA will receive a call: “There is some possibility of a collision with the space station!” Then the administration will monitor the situation closely and carry out calculations. If the probability of a collision is larger than 1 in 10,000 – yes, we really play it safe – action will be taken. Not like in the movies, however, where someone maneuvers around an obstacle manually with a joystick. The engines will be turned on for a little while in order to change the speed and the flight path slightly.

As a member of the crew, are you also a human guinea pig?

So to speak. There are scientific protocols to document certain aspects concerning the human body in a state of weightlessness.

What will you enjoy most during your stay on the ISS?

Well, I guess everyone is enthusiastic about a spacewalk, which is obviously something very special. For me, there are no such plans at the moment. However, it is not impossible, because plans change all the time. A spacewalk is very dangerous, very difficult and very complex; not only for us astronauts, but also for all the ground personnel, who have to give it a lot of attention. Also, there are high costs. Thus, a spacewalk will only be carried out if it is absolutely necessary!

Foto: Eckert / TUM

Foto: Eckert / TUM

Maybe for a test, to see how the female body reacts?

Spacewalks are not about science, but about maintenance: if there is something that needs to be fixed or replaced by a more modern component.

How do you stay fit, physically?

I do specific strength training and endurance training. If I had a free choice, I would probably choose something like playing volleyball or yoga or something like that.

Do you also do mental training?

No, in this respect we just have to see how we cope. After all, mental stability is one of the basic selection criteria for astronauts. I think everyone relies on the assumption that the right people have been chosen for the job.

Are you someone who would ride a mountain bike downhill without using the brakes?

(laughs) No, I’m not! I’m not the one to take any unnecessary risks. I don’t do bungee jumping or stuff like that. If mountain biking was my sport and if speed were crucial, then perhaps I would. But just for myself, for the adrenaline? No, because nobody would benefit.

„I’m not the one to take any unnecessary risks“

Where do you gather strength from? How do you regenerate?

I try to sleep when I need to. That is my main source of energy, I think. When I’m tired, I try to get my eight hours of sleep – then I feel all right again.

Foto: Eckert / TUM

Foto: Eckert / TUM

In 2008, when you were chosen as a future astronaut from 8,400 candidates, were there other female competitors?

Yes, of course: the ratio was about the same as it is in the current team – one female astronaut to six male.

Why are there so few women in your field of work?

There aren’t really that few, if you look at the Western world. In Russia, the men are still strongly over-represented. Everything is a bit more traditional there. But in the USA, it’s different. Since the late 1970s, there have been more and more female astronauts. As they have all managed the tasks that had to be done, I’m not under pressure to prove anything. Everything has already been proven. (laughs)

“I’m not under pressure to prove anything. Everything has already been proven.”
Do you think your example could be an inspiration to girls to get involved in science?

Difficult to say, maybe to a few. Things like this tend to be hyped by the media a bit, I guess.

What memories do you have of your studies?

I have really, really good memories of my studies and my student life. I was in the student council for several years and lived in a student residence in Garching. Perhaps there are more residences in Garching now, but it was the only one back then: small and very cozy. So small, that we all knew each other. As a student at the Technische Universität München, I went abroad to Toulouse with the Erasmus program and wrote my thesis in Moscow.

What did you like about Munich?

The English Garden. And I lived near the Olympiazentrum for one semester. That was very nice.

Do you still have contacts from the time when you were a student?

Quite a few. Someone who was in the same residence as me, a physicist, now works at the DLR – 50 meters from here. We stayed in contact all that time and now we both work here. That’s funny.

What language do you speak at your workplace?

Here at the DLR, the working language is English. However, I currently use five languages every day, depending on who I’m talking to. It’s an international community.

Are political crises an issue in your working environment?

We tend to interact more on a personal level, as friends and colleagues who have been trained together, who live together and who pretty much know each other’s families. Our community has really grown together, so it is simply not an option to put the relationships at risk. It’s a bit like having different political views to many of your compatriots: that doesn’t necessarily lead to problems on a personal level either.

Do you keep a logbook?

Yes, I keep a logbook on the internet in English and there are people who have volunteered to translate my posts. There is an Italian and a French translation, and there also was a Spanish version for a while.

Are you planning to update your logbook regularly while you are on the ISS?

Definitely! Right now, I don’t have much time because the training tends to be a bit stressful in the months leading up to the start. On the space station, I guess it might be a little quieter than it is now. (laughs) The daily schedule will be more organized and, above all, I won’t have to be traveling all the time.

The training tends to be a bit stressful in the months leading up to the start

As you are from Italy, you probably have a close relationship with your family. How often do you call your parents?

Actually, I don’t really match the stereotype. My parents sometimes complain that I don’t call them often enough. I’ve always been rather out on a limb in that respect.

But you are going to call your parents from the ISS?

Of course! (laughs)

Being a member of an international community, you appreciate people in their diversity and will be supporting a project for disabled people during the Futura mission.

Yes, they are friends of mine. Sitting in a wheelchair did not stop them from becoming pilots. They are very good and do aerobatics shows as the “WeFly Team”. They are also involved in charitable projects such as offering ski courses for people with disabilities. I wanted to help their project to become better known – and I think it matches my mission in space quite well. Our common motto is “Dare to fly” and I will take their banner with me to the space station to spread their message.

An employee opens the door: ”If you want five minutes to take photos in the hall, we should go now!”

OK, last question: what advice would you like to give to TUM students?

A piece of advice… Well, that they should try to study with passion; that they shouldn’t just learn for the sake of learning, but that they have a goal – an idea of ​​what they would like to make of their lives. Actually, this is the best thing you can do for yourself: take some time to develop a vision to work towards.

Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?

I can’t say I do, but I can’t say I don’t either. It is possible, but I really don’t know for sure. (laughs)

Photos: Eckert/TUM