Few places are safe from coronavirus. But Samantha Cristoforetti knows one: the International Space Station, where she spent 200 days in 2014-15, could be the perfect place to sit out a global pandemic. The crew on the ISS, orbiting 400km above the Earth, are “the safest people in the world,” the Italian astronaut says with a laugh. “They’re definitely out of reach.”
The place we’re meeting is not quite as Covid-proof — a restaurant in Cologne. We are on a crowded terrace overlooking the Rhine, watching barges and pleasure cruisers chug past, and joggers, skateboarders and cyclists jostle for space on the promenade. The mood is so carefree you would never know that Germany has just reported a troubling spike in coronavirus cases.
Still, the Limani, a popular Greek-style eatery in the Rheinauhafen, Cologne’s redeveloped port, is a logical choice for Cristoforetti. The 43-year-old has lived in this city, home to the European Astronaut Centre, for the past 11 years, and often lunches here on sunny days. When she arrives, though, I scarcely recognise her: in the wildly popular YouTube videos that show her washing, cutting her nails and making a snack in space, her hair sticks out in all directions like Struwwelpeter. Now it is cut short and pulled flat by gravity.
For Cristoforetti, Covid-19 is further proof of the fragility of the human
race. Looking down on Earth from the ISS she saw impact craters, lines of collision, and signs of erosion — processes dating back millions of years. Everything humans had produced, from pyramids to skyscrapers, seemed strikingly ephemeral in comparison.
“As a species, we’re so temporary, transient — we could be gone and the Earth would just keep on moving,” she says. “There’s nothing permanent or inevitable about us.”
Yet anyone wanting proof of what humans can achieve need look no further than Cristoforetti herself. Before becoming the first Italian woman in space, she was a captain in the Italian air force and a qualified fighter pilot. She speaks four foreign languages, including Russian, and is currently learning a fifth: Chinese. She also has a BA in aeronautical sciences and a masters in mechanical engineering: her thesis, written after 10 months in Moscow, was on solid rocket propellants.
Unsurprisingly, “AstroSamantha” is a huge star in her native Italy. But she chafes at the attention. Growing up in a little village in the Italian Alps, where everyone knew her, she always “wanted to be anonymous”, to “not be recognised”, she says. She achieved that as a young adult, when she ventured out into the wider world. “And now all of a sudden I lost it,” she says. “As soon as I land in Italy I know people are watching me.”
It’s different in Germany, though, where she’s barely known outside the rarefied world of space travel. Judging by how long it takes them to serve us, the Limani waiters clearly haven’t a clue who she is.
When we finally get our menus, Cristoforetti goes for the octopus salad and scallops with mango; I choose the pan-fried sea bream with spinach.
As the waiter brings us fizzy water, I ask Cristoforetti how it all began. She grew up in the little village of Malé in northern Italy, where her parents ran a hotel, and spent her childhood skiing in the mountains and exploring nearby forests, “dreaming of adventure”. She also became a Star Trek fan, and devoured the works of Jules Verne, Marco Polo and Emilio Salgari, an Italian writer of swashbuckling novels such as Pirates of Bermuda and The Black Corsair.
Agrippinawerft 6, 50678
Octopus salad €8.80
Seared scallops €12.80
Pan-fried sea bream €13.20
Bottle of fizzy water €6.50
Glass of water €2.40
Espresso macchiato €2.20
Total (inc tip) €53
As a young woman she took up karate and scuba-diving while her school friends were learning to drive. “I guess I could never really focus on one thing — I needed to do something physical and be active,” she says. Being so driven made her hard to get along with. “I was very demanding . . . and I didn’t sugarcoat anything,” she says. “People either loved me or hated me.”
This toughness clearly proved an asset when in 2009 she was chosen from 8,400 initial applicants to become a European Space Agency astronaut. There followed nearly five years of training, described in her book, Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut, which has just been published in English.
It’s an incredible odyssey, even before she reaches space, with extensive preparation in Houston, Tsukuba in Japan, Cologne and Russia’s legendary Star City, the little town north-east of Moscow where Russian cosmonauts train for their missions. There Cristoforetti is spun around in the world’s largest centrifuge, which distorts her eyeballs and stretches her lips back to her ears. She spends time in a vacuum chamber and practises spacewalks in an underwater replica of the space station. She trains for an emergency “ballistic” re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, for fires on board the ISS and depressurisation in the Russian Soyuz spaceship that will take her into orbit.
Nothing, she says, could have prepared her for life in orbit. Weightlessness feels like “an explosion of freedom”, while the act of passing from the cramped quarters of the Soyuz to the ISS, her new home for the next six months or so, is “like a second birth”.
I ask her if she had any adverse reaction to being in space. She replies that she was one of the lucky 50 per cent of astronauts who do not suffer from “space adaptation syndrome” — a kind of motion sickness — though “I carefully had my barf bag with me for the first four days”. With exquisite timing, the waiter brings our lunch and we tuck in.
Unlike some other crew members, she also found it easy to sleep in orbit. “Some people strap themselves in so . . . they’re, like, pressed against the wall, and it would feel like being on a mattress,” she says. “But I loved to just close my eyes and float.”
Life on the ISS isn’t just doing somersaults in mid-air and making funny videos. The crew had plenty of lab work to do, including experiments to study the effects of space on human physiology: one of them, called “drain brain”, looked at how microgravity affected the blood flow from Cristoforetti’s brain to her heart.
The daily routine also included hours of workouts using the “Advanced Resistive Exercise Device”, a Nasa contraption that allows you to lift weights in weightlessness. Squats and dead-lifts on the ARED helped prevent the muscular atrophy and loss of bone density that can afflict astronauts. It still didn’t stop Cristoforetti’s body changing a little in space: with no ground to walk on, her feet lost their calluses and were soon “as soft as a newborn’s”.
There were a couple of things she missed about life on Earth — particularly showers and “the feeling of having water flow” through her hair. I ask her what the toughest job in space was: changing the solid waste container in the ISS’s loo must be a contender, I say. But she insists that wasn’t too bad. “There are worse things, but I’m not going to tell you them — we’re eating.”
Indeed the ISS sounds a bit like a flat where your housemates sometimes forget to take out the rubbish — for weeks. One garbage bag inflated after its contents began decomposing, releasing what Cristoforetti describes as a “rather unpleasant pong” in the ISS’s cargo vehicle. The Russian crew who worked and slept in the adjacent module, ended up complaining, unsurprisingly. Good thing her colleagues were, on the whole, “very light-hearted people with a good sense of humour”, she says.
The Limani is meanwhile heating up — the summer air is trapped under its big orange canopy and the place feels like a greenhouse. I’m a little underwhelmed by my sea bream — it’s oily and unseasoned. I ask Cristoforetti how she’s finding her salad and scallops. “Great,” she says, a little unconvincingly.
This is, after all, an Italian who makes no bones about her love of fine food. On her birthday, her partner Lionel had a meal of monkfish in cream sauce, broccoli and almonds, and red rice with asparagus tips shipped to her on the ISS. It was, she says, “the best meal that anyone’s ever had in space”. There were other gastronomic firsts during her time on the space station — in May 2015 she drank the first coffee from the ISS’s new microgravity espresso machine, out of a specially designed zero-G cup: the narrow edge of the teardrop-shaped vessel wicks liquid up its wall and guides it to the drinker’s mouth.
Cristoforetti’s trip was heavy with symbolism. She trained in Russia at a time when Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine had plunged relations between Russia and the west into the deep freeze. But she insists none of that impinged on her friendship with the trainers in Star City, and with the cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, the commander of the Soyuz rocket which flew her into space.
“We were all there to get the mission done,” she says. “Everything else we dismissed as politics, and we kept it out of our conversations.”
There was another less weighty symbolism to the mission. The expedition her crew joined was number 42 — the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything in Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Cristoforetti describes the coincidence as “awesome”. An avid Adams fan, she made sure the poster for Expedition 42 was modelled on the one for the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, while her last tweet from the ISS read “So long and thanks for all the fish” — a reference to the message left by the dolphins in Adams’ book when they abandoned a shortly-to-be-demolished planet Earth.
In her memoir, Cristoforetti beautifully describes the breathtaking views of the Earth seen from the ISS’s cupola — the Nile, “snaking towards the heart of Africa like a diamond necklace on a black dress”, the “sublime spectacle” of the Mediterranean when the moon is reflected in it. She reserves her most ecstatic descriptions for Italy. “if the Earth were an elegant lady in an evening gown, Italy would be her gaudiest jewel,” she writes.
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But it was the noctilucent clouds that made the deepest impression on her — wispy clouds that form high in the atmosphere and that the sun illuminates from below. “They look very delicate, very brittle, like lace,” she says. She had longed to see them, and then finally, on the very last day of her stay on the ISS, her dream came true. “That was a sign, like, okay, you really have to go home now,” she laughs.
Re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere was unforgettable. “You feel this jerk, and then after that you’re being shaken around because the capsule has to stabilise and that takes half a minute or so,” she says. The air around the crew is so hot it turns to plasma. “You see flames — you’re in a ball of fire.”
In the weeks after her return, she found herself missing space. “It was somewhat melancholic. I thought the space station’s still up there, life is going on, and I’m not part of it anymore.”
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Since then, her schedule has been relentless. She spent time in Aquarius, an undersea research station off the coast of Florida, where astronauts simulate living on a spacecraft and test spacewalk techniques. She led a team of students researching the technological challenges of future missions to the Moon (looking, for example, at “ways of growing food there, ways of surviving the eclipse”). She worked on Gateway, the small spaceship that will be in orbit around the Moon and provide a staging-post for deep space exploration. And in 2017 she took part in a sea survival exercise in the Yellow Sea — the first joint training drill between Chinese and non-Chinese astronauts in China.
I had hoped we could order dessert. But the Limani’s staff are studiously ignoring us. After some frantic gesturing, I order two espressos, and ask her about the latest developments in space: in May, two Nasa astronauts were flown to the ISS aboard a SpaceX rocket, the first time a private company had put humans in orbit. The two returned to Earth earlier this month, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cristoforetti approves of “this new space economy”. “The benefit is that you create an ecosystem of private actors and end up driving down costs,” she says. Public-private partnerships of this kind mean “that the price tag of, say, a mission to Mars comes down . . . It’s probably the only way it’s going to happen.” And Elon Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive? “On the one hand, like everybody, [I feel] great admiration [for him], because of all the amazing things he’s done,” she says. “On the other, based on what I see on Twitter, he is a very peculiar person.”
The next time she goes to the space station — probably in 2022 — she will be in a similar position to the heroine of Proxima, the recent movie about a female astronaut trying to balance preparations for a year-long stint on the ISS with looking after her eight-year-old daughter. Cristoforetti — who advised the film’s director, Alice Winocour — has a daughter who is three-and-a-half and already seems to have inherited her mother’s sense of adventure.
“She said, ‘when you go to space next time, will you bring me along?’” she says. “And I’m like, well, you’re too small. And she’s like, ‘ok, but when I grow up, then I can become an astronaut, and I can go to space too?’ And I say, sure you can!” She acknowledges that having a child will affect her perception of life in space. “I observed with my crewmates, the ones who had family and children, they were just not as light-hearted and carefree as I was. I could just jump into the adventure and not worry about a thing.”
In her book she writes that the human species must become “multi-planetary” if it’s to survive an asteroid collision, or some other unlikely, but not impossible, disaster. Is that ultimately what justifies space travel in her eyes? She stresses that the chance of such a collision is low, but “why shouldn’t we prepare?”
“It’s like one of those famous low-probability, high impact events that we like to ignore until they actually happen,” she says as we leave the Limani. “Kind of like pandemics.”
Guy Chazan is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief
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