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Practising for Space

By Katrin Hörnlein

Italian Samantha Cristoforetti is soon to be an astronaut, and the only woman among those currently training at ESA in Cologne for their first space mission.

Practising for space© ESAESA astronaut in waiting: Samantha Cristoforetti has two degrees and speaks five languages.
The place where Samantha Cristoforetti is closer to her goal, space, than she has ever been before is the drab seminar room of the European Astronaut Center (EAC) in Cologne-Porz. Becoming an astronaut initially has very little to do with adventure. Basic training is mainly about one thing: studying. Cristoforetti has been experiencing this for half a year now. The 32-year-old Italian is one of six new astronauts at the European Space Agency (ESA). The job posting for space was unusual: ESA had not advertised for new astronauts for approximately 20 years. Over 8000 candidates applied, Cristoforetti was selected - as the only woman and together with five colleagues from Germany, France, Denmark, Great Britain and Italy. From the Italian mountain village where her parents run a hotel, she has almost made it into space.

»While my parents took care of the guests, I was always roaming around and exploring the landscape« - Cristoforetti has been dreaming of becoming an astronaut since she was a child. A teacher had aroused her curiosity about space. As a nine-year-old she copied the movements of the planets with her classmates; one was the sun, one the moon, one Earth, they revolved around each other. Cristoforetti also liked science fiction, especially Star Trek. »I still do«, she says, »but I don't have time for it any more.«

The workload in astronaut basic training is high. Normally the course takes 18 months; Cristoforetti and her colleagues are expected to complete it in three months less, by the end of the year. But after that they will continue to study: the selected team is trained for every mission - usually for another approximately two years. Astronauts have to acquire so much knowledge because in space they have only themselves to rely on. They have to be scientists, IT specialists, technicians, physicians and, in case of fire, even firemen.

Soon they will be simulating zero gravity in the diving pool

So far, the six aspiring astronauts have mainly learned lots and lots of theory. »History of space exploration, space law, electrical engineering, aerodynamics, communications engineering, materials science, geophysics, biology, anatomy, medicine« - Samantha Cristoforetti lists the subjects that have taken up her past six months. The teachers rehearse and optimise each training unit before delivering it to the future astronauts. Practical units have so far been rare; how to stitch wounds is something they have already learnt. Those parts of the training that have more of an adventurous ring to them will follow now: survival training in caves, training on a model of the ISS space laboratory Columbus, and zero-gravity exercises in the diving pool and on parabolic flights. Particularly these flights are a challenge. It's not uncommon for participants to experience gut-wrenching nausea during the steep ascents and descents. Cristoforetti however thinks it will be a lot of fun. She won't be taking to the air for the first time in her training: Cristoforetti is already a trained fighter pilot.

Reading her CV, it seems she could not have better tailored it to ESA's job description: in addition to a science, medical or engineering degree, the listed requirements included medical eligibility to fly, physical fitness and mental stability; language skills and flight experience were additionally desirable. Cristoforetti studied in Munich, Toulouse, Moscow and Naples, has degrees in engineering and aeronautical and aerospace studies - and after university she trained as a fighter pilot with the Italian air force. She speaks five languages, including Russian, which is required for ESA astronauts and which her five male colleagues are now laboriously catching up on. Preparation, dedication and diligence - these are her principles: while her colleagues are in Russia working on their language skills, she has taken a holiday - not to relax, but to observe the launch of a space shuttle in the USA. »I've never seen anything like that, that's why I'm going.«

Her mother is glad that her daughter is no longer a fighter pilot

It will be 2013 at the earliest, probably later, before Samantha Cristoforetti embarks on her first flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The only way ESA astronauts can get there is by hitching a lift; the Russians or Americans have to take them along in their Sojus spacecraft or Space Shuttles. But Cristoforetti isn't worried. »The ISS will exist for a long time«, she says, »we should all get up there once.« Never to be selected for a mission, on the other hand, is a notion that has no place in her mind: »I could be hit by a car tomorrow too. There's no point in thinking about it.« But there are still questions that she can't just push aside: What will it be like in space? An accident, machinery breaking down - these are not things Cristoforetti is afraid of. »There are engineers and specialists, and we are well trained and familiarised with the systems beforehand.« What she worries about is the unpredictable human factor. How a person will respond when subjected to zero gravity for months at close quarters with others can't be calculated, practiced and planned beforehand; that's something Cristoforetti cannot prepare for, as she normally would. She tells of astronauts who barely sleep because their head wobbles back and forth in zero gravity (the rest of the body is tethered to the wall by the sleeping bag). Others can't cope with the constant noise on the space station caused by all the running equipment. »That can be an incredible strain«, she says. »And then you can't just say: 'I'd like to go home now please!'«

Did her family not wish their daughter had chosen a less dangerous career? »I was a fighter pilot before. My mother is really glad I'm going to be an astronaut now«, says Cristoforetti and laughs. Whether she is in a relationship, what her partner thought of her plans, these are matters she doesn't want to discuss. Although she is now a public person who has to receive visitors at her training facility, she wants to keep control of her life. Maybe it's just difficult to explain to others why one would dedicate one's entire life to a single goal, make everything subordinate to one's dream job. »There are things you can't share with anyone except those who lead the same life«, says Cristoforetti. »Only someone who has flown one can understand how it feels to fly a fighter jet.«

She doesn't want to take on the role of the sensitive one in the team

The six colleagues share their dedication to the one goal. Everyone in the group is ambitious. »Everyone tries to demonstrate that he or she is particularly good at something«, says Cristoforetti. But they still have to learn to be a good team. Later in space they will not only have to work together, but also live together in a confined space and be able to rely on each other. Each member of the group plays a part, she says: the sensitive one who knows how the others are feeling, the clown who cheers everyone up with his or her jokes. »I wouldn't want to assess myself«, says Cristoforetti, »but I would say I'm the one who looks at the facts and then makes sensible and pragmatic decisions.« So the part of the sensitive one isn't taken by the only woman on the team - she doesn't have a special place anyway, she says. »If there's a problem, I don't think it's because I'm a woman. I think it's a Samantha problem.« But she does have a lot of experience in being the only woman. That was already the case at university and among the fighter pilots. »I wish women would worry less! They should just do what they find interesting.«

But what's behind her great dream of being an astronaut? What are we humans doing in space in the first place? Cristoforetti's eyes sparkle. »It's the next frontier. That's what humans are about, crossing frontiers«, she says, not pragmatically, not factually, but full of enthusiasm. »Here on Earth we have conquered almost everything. But if people want to live on the moon or on Mars in 200 years, someone has to create the basis for that today. Someone has to start!« Samantha Cristoforetti wants to be part of that start.

From DIE ZEIT :: 08.04.2010