I am here today because I have had the privilege of participating in an extraordinary experience. It is something that I have dreamt about since I was a little child, of one day going to space. And about a year ago, that dream came true, and it has been better than I ever imagined in my wildest dreams! I would like to share with you this experience today: 200 days on the International Space Station (ISS) for the Futura mission.
This adventure started for me on 23 November 2014, the launch took place at Baikonur Kazakhstan–a place which has actually made cosmonaut history, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova and many others launched from this site. On the rocket, the space vehicle is right at the top, that’s where I was, everything else is just engine, propellant, fuel and oxidiser that is needed to develop all that energy which is needed to put us into space.
Although the ISS is only about 400km from the surface of the earth, it is hard to get there because you need to develop an incredible speed to stay in orbit–about 7kilometres per second. That is why you need something as complex and as magnificent as a rocket engine. I, as an engineer, marvel at these machines. I was part of an international crew of three people, Anton Shkaplerov from Russia, he was the Soyuz commander and on his second flight and Terry Virts from the United States, also on his second space flight, his first one was on the US shuttle. I was in fact the rookie on this flight as it was my first time in space. Incidentally, all three of us are fighter pilots, so we all came from the air forces of our respective countries; that is a little unusual for a space station crew, we usually have engineers and scientists; but in this case we had three pilots, a Russian, an Italian and an American going to space together–it sounds like a joke, but it is true!
We were situated in the tiny Soyuz space vehicle, it measures about 7 meters long, we three were tied in our seats in the centre part of this spaceship. It is also the only part that comes back with us to Earth after 200 days. After our launch, the rocket worked for only about 8 minutes to get us to space. During this time there were a lot of vibrations, lots of Gs, the pressure was so great I actually felt like I weighed 4 times my weight and then–magically–I was weightless. It is weird in the beginning, your brain plays tricks on you. For the first hour or so I had the distinct feeling that I was falling onto the control panel in front of me. My brain had to get used to the fact that there was no longer any weight.
The first thing that you need to do in space is to focus on procedures such as ensuring the capsule is working properly. I was responsible for the leak checks and making sure we were not venting atmosphere into space; if that happens it is a very bad day and you have to come home. Our spaceship worked flawlessly, we went around the earth four times and each orbit lasted about 90 minutes. So after 6 hours we arrived at our destination, the International Space Station!
Samantha Cristoforetti is an Italian astronaut. She was the first female European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut to complete a long-duration mission in space, spending six months on the International Space Station as part of the Futura Mission between November and June 2015. During this mission, she set new records for the longest single time in space for an ESA astronaut and female astronauts in general.
She is a Captain in the Italian Air Force, where she serves as a fighter pilot. She was one of the first women to apply to the Italian Air Force, when it opened applications to women. She has logged over 500 hours flying six types of military aircraft: SF-260, T-37, T-38, MB-339A, MB-339CD and AM-X.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical sciences from the University of Naples Federico II, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, specialising in aerospace propulsion from the Technische Universität Munich. She was awarded the Honour Sword for best academic achievement from the Italian Air Force Academy.
She has gained fame from her creative videos, photographs and messages which she has tweeted during her mission to the International Space Station. She has raised awareness about climate change and human health, as well as the importance for girls to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.
©OECD Observer November 2015