On Earth, the situation is dire. Russia is bombing civilian and military targets in Ukraine. In space, however, cosmonauts are working side by side with astronauts from the European Union. This cooperation will continue when Samantha Cristoforetti takes off for the International Space Station (ISS) later this month.
Cristoforetti is an astronaut with the European Space Agency (ESA) and will be launched into space along with three other crew members as part of the Minerva mission at the end of April. In a press conference about the mission on Monday, she emphasized that the conflict on the ground had no bearing on how astronauts and cosmonauts worked together in space, 400 kilometers (248 miles) above Earth.
“This gives me the opportunity to reassure everyone that, on the space station, the current crew is working really well, and they keep on being not only colleagues but good friends on board. And I expect the same for our crew,” Cristoforetti said. “As I’ve said many times, you have to focus on what you have in common, not what divides you, when you have a mission to accomplish.”
Italy’s first female astronaut also pointed out the importance of the ISS as an example of peaceful international cooperation during troubled times.
“It’s a beacon of hope, it’s a beacon of peace, it’s a beacon of international understanding,” Cristoforetti said. “It has been so since the beginning, and I think it continues to be so today.”
Cristoforetti in a leadership position onboard the ISS
The astronauts on the Minerva mission are scheduled to be launched into space on April 21 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with a backup date of April 23 should conditions require. Cristoforetti’s crew consists of commander Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines and Jessica Watson, all NASA astronauts. The mission’s name refers to the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom, who was also a warrior and protector of the handicrafts and arts.
Cristoforetti was the one to choose the name, in honor of the craftsmanship of the women and men whose hard work makes spaceflight possible.
Once onboard the ISS, the Italian astronaut will be the lead of the US Orbital Segment, putting her in charge of all activities within the US, EU, Japanese and Canadian modules of the space station.
Work with a robot arm and other experiments
Minerva will be Cristoforetti’s second stint on the ISS, after a 2014-15 mission, and she is enthusiastic about her return.
“I look forward to having a second experience,” she said. “You’re not so overwhelmed with impressions and emotions and the whole experience anymore. You can slow it down in your mind and really enjoy it. I’m very much looking forward to experiencing this as an experienced flyer and not a rookie anymore.”
During her mission, she will carry out experiments and research in various fields, among them one on the effects of microgravity on ovarian cells, which in the future could help with medical treatments of illnesses related to the ovaries here on Earth.
During her last mission, Cristoforetti famously became the first astronaut to brew espresso in space. This time around, she is bringing olive oil to the ISS with her ― some for an experiment to see how the quality of the oil changes in space, and some simply to give her a “taste of home,” she said.
The astronaut, who holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, with specializations in aerospace propulsion and lightweight structures, will also work with the European Robotic Arm, which was sent to the ISS last summer.
The robotic arm can handle components up to 8,000 kilograms (17,637 pounds) with 5-millimeter (0.2-inch) precision, and can be operated from inside and outside the space station.
Longtime space resident
In her previous mission, Futura, Cristoforetti was at the space station from fall 2014 to spring 2015. She was in space for 200 days, which made her the female astronaut with the longest uninterrupted space mission for a while. She’s also the ESA astronaut with the second-longest uninterrupted period in space, behind her fellow Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano ― who beat her by just one day.