Looking from heaven to earth

February 2022

The astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in conversation with Maria A Kafitz.

Samantha Cristoforetti

“I’m not currently on the planet. Back in May.” That was Samantha Cristoforetti’s out-of-office message when she spent two hundred days on the ISS, the International Space Station, in 2014. Excerpts from a conversation on earth before heading back into the vastness of space in 2022.

Maria A Kafitz | When did you first dream of flying into space?

Samantha Cristoforetti | I grew up in a very small village in Trentino. In such a village environment, parents are not afraid when the children run around outside all day. And that’s what we did – we were just outside all the time. I think this is where you first develop a sense of small adventures and great joy in them, but secondly – and this helps for life – self-confidence. I grew up with a feeling of self-confidence and also trust in humanity. And also with a closeness to nature and the starry sky. We didn’t have that much lighting at night, at some point the streetlights were out and you could see the stars. I loved that. But it also raised a lot of questions in me: how many are there? How far away are they? What is it like there? What is the meaning of all this here on earth?

MAK | According to Rüdiger Seine, head of astronaut training at the ESA, astronauts must above all be team players.

SC | Indeed, you don’t fly alone into space after all, you are always part of a crew. We are all aware of that, especially on long-term missions. If you’re on a mission for six months and something isn’t right in the cooperation with your colleagues, that is psychologically very stressful and at some point you simply can’t do any good work anymore. It could also be dangerous under certain circumstances if the communication isn’t right, if there is no harmony in the team.

MAK | What is it like to be able to move weightlessly?

SC | An actress who was preparing to play an astronaut wanted to develop a feeling for weightlessness. A colleague of mine gave her the following image to practise with: imagine you stretch a hair between your fingers and then you push yourself against the edge of a table with this hair, but so gently that the hair doesn’t break, so very, very lightly. This force is enough to give you enough momentum to move in another direction. It’s that easy, that effortless.

MAK | And what is it like to become heavy again after a feeling of complete lightness?

SC | It’s terrible! When I went into space, I found it a liberating feeling that you overcome your own heaviness. But when you come back, the exact opposite happens! There are no great difficulties living up there. The difficulties only arise when you come back. I’ve meanwhile experienced two pregnancies – it’s tougher, what that does to the body and how long it takes to get back into shape.

MAK | When you were a child, looking at the starry sky triggered questions in you. What did the view from space to earth do to you?

SC | At night you see the cities and lights, and that is of course human civilisation. But when you look out of the dome of the ISS during the day, you see the structures of the earth, the great mountain ranges, the deserts and, in the deserts, the places where meteorites have impacted. And you see the separations of the continents. These are things that are based on hundreds of millions of years. In comparison, human history is really very short. ... From up there, I somehow felt this visually. Suddenly I thought to myself: the ancient civilisations that always seemed far away to me, the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans, were suddenly very, very close. In terms of earth history, not so much time has actually passed for us humans. The ancient cultures were people like you and me. We could probably understand each other quite well, and they would probably find themselves reflected in my way of thinking, because many things can be traced back to them very directly. In kilometres and years, I was far away on the ISS, but the history of our civilisation was very close.

Edited extract from a tempo - Das Lebensmagazin 08/2021.

Samantha Cristoforetti’s book Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut, in which she recounts the experiences of her first mission on the ISS and her journey there, is published by Penguin.

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