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12 August 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 3:32pm

“We must become multi-planetary”: Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on escaping Earth

The Italian astronaut on life in space, the importance of global cooperation, and why we must prepare for life on Mars.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 3 May 2015, Samantha Cristoforetti brewed the first espresso in space, drinking it from a zero-gravity cup. It was a historic moment, both for aerospace engineering and for an admiring Italian public, who had followed her journey ever since she was selected as an astronaut in 2009, at the age of 32.

Wearing a red Star Trek jacket, Cristoforetti posed with her coffee and tweeted: “To boldly brew…” – one of the many playful social media messages she sent to Earth. Another popular post, viewed over 1.4 million times, was her YouTube “toilet tour”, a three-minute video showing viewers how astronauts use the loo.

We spoke over video call from her office in Cologne, Germany, where she lives near the European Space Agency with her partner and astronaut instructor Lionel Ferra, and their three-year-old daughter.

Surrounded by files and ringbinders, Cristoforetti, 43, inhabits a more tellurian look these days: her distinctive shock of short black hair, which appeared almost static in zero-gravity, now neatly frames her face.

The space espresso was one of many firsts for the Italian Air Force pilot and engineer: she was Italy’s first woman in space, and made a record length flight for a female astronaut – 199 days in the International Space Station between November 2014 and June 2015.

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“I had the feeling I was perceived as just another novelty,” she said, recalling early media interest in 2010 as she began astronaut training alongside five male apprentices, including the UK’s Tim Peake. “Journalists would ask: ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’, or ‘how often do you get a facial?’”

Although she became a hero in Italy, Cristoforetti always preferred anonymity. “Maybe it comes from having grown up in a little village where everyone knew me as a child,” she said, describing her childhood in Malé, a small commune in the Alps.

Five years on from her space flight, Cristoforetti has written a book about her experience called Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut. She never kept a journal, but has pulled her story together from seven years’ worth of emails and other official documents. “I try to rely on memory as little as possible; it’s just not reliable.”

Having last written essays in school, Cristoforetti was better-trained for surviving two nights outdoors in the Russian winter (an emergency Earth landing drill), and piloting the 16-metre robotic arm of the International Space Station, than she was for writing a book. “Finding the words was torturous sometimes,” she said.

Her style is direct and unsentimental, even when she writes about seeing the alpine valleys of Trentino, in South Tyrol – her childhood home – for the first time from space, or catching the smell of fresh grass when she returned to Earth, landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

She has yet to fulfil her dream of doing a spacewalk: an opportunity denied her when the custom-made equipment she needed from the European Space Agency failed to arrive at the Space Station.

Awaiting her next mission, Cristoforetti now advises engineers on how crews live and work, to help prepare for Gateway – a new space station planned for lunar orbit in 2024.

“I am one of those who subscribes to the idealistic view of making this species multi-planetary,” she said, particularly for future catastrophes such as “an asteroid impact”. “Being able to live on Mars is not going to happen for generations to come, but if we don’t take baby steps, then we won’t get there.”

A self-described “sci-fi geek” who took a copy of Douglas Adams’ 1979 novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on her mission, Cristoforetti grew up with books and television programmes such as Star Trek. “They allowed me to go beyond the small village environment, at least with my mind.”

Growing up, during Italy’s long summer holidays, she and her younger brother would roam free around forests and rivers unsupervised. “You don’t perceive unconsciously the apprehension of adults accompanying you everywhere,” she reminisced. “So I could take off with a sense of openness and adventure.”

An Italian, English, German, French and Russian speaker, Cristoforetti cherished the multilingual environment of the Space Station, where she lived with two Americans and three Russians.

Aside from her pioneering coffee, she resisted too many national home comforts. “Most astronauts will try and bring the traditional dishes of their country, like other Italian astronauts have brought lasagne and tiramisu,” she said.

She preferred the Russian bread borodinsky, which cosmonauts take in bite-size packages, while the Nasa pantry stocks tortillas instead of bread to guard against floating crumbs.

What does she think of our world of nationalist governments and scepticism towards globalisation?

“We don’t all live in the same world, right?” Samantha Cristoforetti replied. “Some, like myself, end up for different reasons in a very multicultural environment and are comfortable with that, and the life path of many others, who are by no means worse people, leads them to refer to one language, one cultural background, one set of customs.”

“Maybe they feel threatened by a multicultural world,” she continued, “and that’s something that I certainly never realised before the events over the past four or five years.

“You realise it is just a piece of a puzzle you never saw, and then you see it, and we all reconstruct from there.”

Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut by Samantha Cristoforetti is out on 27 August 2020, published by Allen Lane.

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